Uganda: Villages in Action Bringing Poor People’s Voices to the Forefront

At the Villages in Action conference
At the Villages in Action conference
On January 14, 2012, enterprising students, small business owners, rural farmers, and Uganda’s technology community – among other panelists and attendees – took part in an annual event called “Villages in Action” (VIA).

VIA was first held on November 27, 2010 in a small village called Kikuube, about five hours from Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Kikuube is like most rural villages in Uganda: a short, dusty strip of shop fronts located along a potholed dirt road. The village is not even marked on Uganda’s map.

The conference was initially designed to give voice to those directly concerned by the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) – the ‘poor’ in Kikuube. In September 2010, major international players met to review progress on these goals. Those targeted by these efforts were not invited.

“It seemed ironic to me that the very people who needed to be front and center in the MDG conversations weren’t at the podium,” said TMS Ruge, founder of the Villages in Action conference. “Instead the microphones were in the hands of global celebrities and the connected elite. I figured if they weren’t going to invite the poor to the podium, I should take the microphone to the people. That’s how VIA began.”

This first conference hosted a series of panels that addressed education, community health, agriculture and entrepreneurship, and technology in the village.

While the panel topics were nothing new for a ‘development’ conference, the panelists were not your usual invitees. They included primary school students, village brick makers, local farmers, and young “tinkerers” who had built their own home-made radio. Panelists spoke in Runyoro, the local dialect, with a simultaneous translation into English for visitors from outside the district and for the live web feed.

Participants in the first VIA highlight how the conference was able to bring the community together. Gabriel Kwezi, a small business owner in Kikuube, said that he was encouraged to continue doing business after having met other persons trying to do the same. Ibrahim, a farmer in Kikuube, said the conference helped him get to know more people in the community, exposed him to new technologies and gave him an opportunity to help others to understand the challenges he faces.

This year, the conference continued to stimulate conversations on key issues affecting Kikuube community members.

One central theme was rural electrification. Businesses located in Kikuube are unable to access the main electrical power grid and are forced to run their businesses using generators and solar-power. The lack of electricity is preventing the expansion of what would be profitable businesses. For example, without power, rural farmers cannot operate small machinery to value-add to their products. Instead, they have to rely on access to these services in Masindi, the closest main town, about an hour away.

Another key topic was the lack of capital available to small business owners in the village. As Ruge explains, “Many small business owners [in Kikuube] are unable to get the kind of capital they need because the banks won’t give lend beyond a certain amount. Basically, they will only micro-lend and they won’t give them a substantial investment.”

Kwezi owns a small shop in Kikuube where he sells soda, candy and basic foodstuff to villagers. Over a snack of syrupy-sweet Mirinda and ground nuts – two popular products he sells – Kwezi explains how he had successfully been operating the shop for over two decades. Using the profits, he was able to put his children through school. Yet, when he approached the bank for a loan to expand his product line, they said he was a risky investment. Instead of giving him the 3-5 million Ugandan shillings (about 1,200-2,000 USD) he requested, he was provided with a loan of 1 million shillings (about 400 USD).

In addition to these themes, the conference encouraged conversations on women in business and the importance of technology for youth in rural areas.

Investing in women has become a key concern of local and international development organizations. For example, women are considered key partners in ending the continent’s hunger crisis. In Kikuube alone, a number of shops are run by women who benefit from micro-loan programs and have even been able to expand sufficiently to install solar power panels to provide access to electricity, still a scarce utility. Ruge says this conversation helped community members understand and trace the progress of these female business owners. Additionally, a small “tweet-up” was organized with girls from Kikuube swapping stories with other young women around the world. This was done with the “GirlUp” campaign, an initiative of the UN Foundation.

Technology has also become a key focus of the development dialogue. David Smith and Lucy Lamble, write in The Guardian UK: “Perhaps the most tangible catalyst [of the emerging middle class in Africa] is technology. The mobile phone is fast becoming as much an African symbol as the leopard or baobab tree.” Killian Fox, also writing in The Guardian UK, says: “the power of telephony is forging a new enterprise culture, from banking to agriculture to health care” on the continent. The Economist, in a recent article entitled, “The Hopeful Continent: Africa Rising,” noted that “Africa’s enthusiasm for technology is boosting growth. It has more than 600m mobile-phone users—more than America or Europe. Since roads are generally dreadful, advances in communications, with mobile banking and telephonic agro-info, have been a huge boon. Around a tenth of Africa’s land mass is covered by mobile-internet services—a higher proportion than in India.”

Even in a rural village like Kikuube, youth have access to a cellphone. Ruge believes that this technology “is going to play a huge role in their future.” In particular, “youth are accessing information at a younger and younger age. If we look a little into the future, where all phones are basically smart phones, we want to look at what kinds of implications this will have at the village level.”

Ruge hopes that this second conference will have fostered even more local ownership.

“My hope is that this can become something the community looks forward to planning and holding every year,” he explained. “Even though my family is largely at the center of planning it, it is encouraging to see the entire community dig in and make it happen. It is a powerful thing amplifying someone’s voice and I think this community now sees that and they’d like to own it.”

Of course, grassroots empowerment in Kikuube is only a first step in ensuring that rural communities across Uganda have access to basic services.

Pamela Nyakato, who helps organize the VIA conferences, said that some of the politicians who attended the first meeting were challenged by the issues raised, particularly in the realm of education and health. Such a conference has the potential to foster local solidarity and strengthen ties in communities, while facilitating the process of holding the government accountable for its failure to meet the community’s basic needs. But fundamental changes are still drastically needed in the current governance system in Uganda. The recent Walk to Work campaign, although not necessarily successful, is one example of other types of popular conversations necessary to engender these changes.

From the perspective of a ‘development practitioner’, such a conference is indeed unique. Rare is the opportunity – perversely so – to sit and listen to a community converse about the challenges they are facing without external intervention. These ‘practitioners’ should be alarmed that VIA is considered unique: after all, who is better able to speak to the challenges of meeting the Millennium Development Goals than those facing barriers to accessing health, education and more on a daily basis?

Siena Anstis is a Swedish-Canadian second-year law student (BCL/LLB McGill University), freelance journalist and development communications consultant based in Montreal, Canada. She is currently a Legal Research Fellow with the Center for International Law and Sustainable Development, as well as Chair of the McGill Faculty of Law Human Rights Working Group. She recently completed a legal internship with the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights in Phnom Penh. Previously, she worked with Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach (BOSCO) in Northern Uganda and the Aga Khan Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya. Recipient of the 2009 Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) Journalism and Development Award, she has written about ICT4D, human rights and other social issues in Syria, Cambodia, Kenya, Uganda and Kosovo. She is also founder and advisor for Women of Kireka, a women’s cooperative in Kireka, Uganda and Project Diaspora team member.