Uganda has experienced steady economic growth compared to many other African nations.
But the country is experiencing something of a twofold, evolving food security crisis. A remarkable partnership between one Ugandan community and a young American nurse is helping to overcome local food security problems.
Like many people around the world, Ugandans are finding it increasingly difficult to afford a balanced diet. On the supply side, farmers in the north have seen harvests affected by the drought that has decimated the Horn of Africa, while crops in the east have been destroyed by torrential rains.
There also is strong regional demand for those crops that Uganda does bring to market, both from newly-independent South Sudan, and from Kenya as it attempts to feed the 500,000 Somalis living in refugee camps on its northern border.
Women rise to challenge
Frederick Kawooya of the anti-poverty agency Action Aid International says the result is inflation in food prices that has exceeded 20 percent this year alone. The agency estimates that 8 million Ugandans are now not able to afford a balanced diet.
“The solution is not rocket science. We need to empower women because women in Uganda, and I think in Africa in general, are the custodians of food. Empowering a woman is empowering a household, is empowering a nation,” said Kawooya.
That is the theory. But pick up a Ugandan newspaper on any given day, and chances are you will come across a story about the marginalization of women in Ugandan society - whether domestic violence, or a mother struggling to support children in a household where the father spends the food budget on alcohol.
In Naminya village, however, in eastern Uganda, local women are involved in a pioneering project where they help control food production, as well as its distribution, and the use of the profits from their labor.
At 10:00 a.m., under a blazing sun, five women are digging into the rich, heavy earth with spades and pickaxes. It is backbreaking work. As they toil, the women keep watch over their babies and toddlers, sitting and playing on the mounds of fresh earth the women have already excavated.
The group is putting the finishing touches to a pond, one of four they have dug over the last year as part of a community fish-farming business.
Esther Basita, a mother of five, will help manage the pond and the precious stocks of tilapia and catfish it soon will contain.
“With the price of food so high, we want to be able to feed our families. From the fish ponds, we make money and get food. I manage the profit myself. I use it to pay for other foods, school fees and also solving things like family health problems," explained Basita. "We women are working equally with the men on this aquaculture business. We are just as strong, and nothing will defeat us!”
The aquaculture venture is the inspiration of an American nurse Brooke Stern, 25, from Suffern, New York. Stern visited the area after graduating from college three years ago and realized that with time, effort and seed money, she could make a significant contribution to the local community.
Fundraising with the support of family and friends back home, Stern set up an NGO (non-governmental organization) - Supporting Opportunities for Ugandans to Learn, or SOUL.
SOUL venture cuts wide swath
In two years, on the most modest of budgets, SOUL has developed an entire range of grassroots initiatives spanning health, food security, education and women’s empowerment.
We meet at the SOUL Shack - SOUL’s tiny headquarters and home to the SOUL Community Pre-School, where 80 vibrant kids are preparing for the day’s classes.
“We thought it was really important for the women to be involved - it is proved that 90 percent of a woman’s profit does go back to her children - so we work with them and teach them and motivate them in the importance of it being their project. We try to step out after our financial aid and let them lead the way,” explained Stern.
Digging complete, the community next stocks the pond with 1,000 fingerlings. In six months, with the right care and attention, these baby fish will grow large enough to provide food for the 750-member community, with the surplus going to market.
“We’re expecting two harvests a year; about 25,000 fish per harvest, one harvest to average around $12,000 [profit]. So it’s providing employment, education, profit and income, as well as food security for the local community,” said Stern.
Peterson Kyebenza, a cooperative member, said the local men have quickly seen the benefits of empowering their wives, mothers and sisters.
“We were poor. Ladies and men, working together, they earn more profit. Definitely, it has changed our lives,” said Kyebenza.
Working in partnership, the men and women of Naminya, and a young American nurse, have shown that Uganda’s food security problems can indeed be tackled.
As for their next project? After installing solar lighting at the local midwife’s house, Stern said she and the villagers may open Uganda’s first sustainable fish and chips shop in the nearby tourist town of Jinja.