Every day as we travel to our field visits in villages surrounding Gulu, we find ourselves surrounded by a unique countryside. Wide planes of tall green grass with an occasional mango tree spread on either side of us. The landscape seems to be untouched by mass agriculture or industry, even though a land as fertile as Ugandan soil would be massively exploited in almost any other country in the world. From all our field visits from the past three weeks, it is very obvious that Uganda has an underused potential.
Since Uganda is still a post conflict region, people are only now coming back to their land and for many, small scale agriculture has become the prevalent source of income. In order for the communities to have the funds to invest into their fields, the VSLA (village savings and loan association) system has become widespread. As we walked through okra and maize fields, we have witnessed the product of members of a community working together and supporting each other to invest their limited funds through VSLA.
For the vast majority of people in the villages we have visited, borrowing from the bank is impossible for several reasons. Firstly, access to a branch of the bank is difficult. Banks mostly have their branches in larger towns or cities and for many communities lacking the means of transport getting to a bank is impossible. Secondly, any major loan to start a business requires collaterals. For most Ugandans living in small villages with most of their income coming from agriculture, it’s difficult to find collateral to back up a loan with, especially since land in Uganda is extremely cheap. Thirdly, loans in Uganda have very large interest rates. On a car ride back from a field visit Francis, one of the GWED-G staff, told us that the banks in Uganda lend money at an interest rate of 20%. The reasons for such a sky-high interest rate on loans include the rapid rate of depreciation of the local currency, the shilling, and the very high inflation rate. Uganda`s projected inflation rate for this year is 6.5%; for comparison, the US, along with most other Western countries, has an inflation rate of under 1%.
Economic development in Uganda is largely skewed to the Central and Western region with the rest of the country lagging behind. In the Northern region, where Gulu is located, the lack of development is largely due to the conflict that has tormented the region since the 1990s and has ended only relatively recently in 2007. Northern Uganda`s main source of income is agriculture, but land that is agriculturally used is only concentrated in small patches surrounding a village and even that is not a universal occurrence. In other words, Uganda is a place with massive amounts of untapped potential–be it in natural resources, agricultural possibilities or human capital.
Introducing mass agriculture to Uganda could greatly aid the growth of the country`s economy, especially since there are two long growing seasons per year and purchasing land is extremely cheap in Uganda. In an interview with Kidega Charles, a role model man from Alero subcounty, we found out that many Ugandans believe that owning a lot of land is wealth in itself. Unfortunately, the owner soon finds that if the land is not properly used to its maximum potential it will only cause him or her to lose money. As a result it often leaves the owner poorer than before the purchase. From listening to a youth group in Patiko subcounty, we found that the difficulties they face are mostly technical. Lack of tools to manage their land effectively, storage and transport are the most commonly mentioned issues. Transportation is a problem that has come up in almost every conversation we have had with youth groups so far. The roads are difficult to travel on and cars, boda-bodas or bikes are often short lived due to the unequal terrain.
If mass agriculture were introduced to Uganda, the roads would surely be one of the first investments to make production more effective. However, there would be a serious trade-off felt by the local people if the Ugandan land were to be used more effectively through large-scale agriculture. Extensive industry and agriculture would be an extremely dangerous business venture for Uganda to embrace today. Many locals, who earn their livelihoods by selling the produce from their gardens, would be pushed out of the market by the more competitive and cheaper prices that come with mass production.
Not only does Uganda have extensive opportunities in agriculture, but some of its other natural resources are also very impressive. Uganda uses some of its natural resources with low environmental impact extremely well. For instance, almost all of Uganda´s power comes from hydro power plants (the largest one is built on the Nile). Hydro power is the almost exclusive source of energy for the entire country. Additionally, a great proportion of the generated power is sold to neighboring countries, especially Kenya. But Uganda`s natural wealth can be problematic. Recently, oil reservoirs have been discovered in Uganda. According to Pamela, GWED-G`s executive director, this has been causing a lot of trouble in the government, which is not surprising since it is an unsustainable source of income with a large environmental impact.
The third grossly underused aspect of the Ugandan economy, and by far the most crucial one, is the human capital. Uganda has a massively growing population. The national average fertility rate is 5-6 children per woman, but in rural areas the number is significantly larger almost 7 children per woman. From what we have seen during the sensitization and family planning sessions, we have observed the high birth rate is cultural to a large extent. In many communities, the number of children is a sign of a man`s worth. Once a woman does not want to give birth to more children, serious issues arise and her husband often finds another wife. As a result, any sort of family planning methods have to be hidden away from the husbands, which leads to Depo shots, implants or IUDs being the preferred methods. Unfortunately, compared to other birth control methods, such as the pill or condoms, Depo shots and implants have more common side effects which might be discouraging for many women who would be interested in family planning. As a result any sort of attempts at limiting the population growth are faced with some very serious challenges.
However, the problem for the Ugandan economy is not in the population growth itself but rather the serious lack of finances that providing for 6 or even 10 children brings to a family. As a result, many parents are unable to pay the school fees for their children, which is an issue that we have heard mentioned as a struggle by almost every mother we have interviewed. A failure to educate these children is not only a drastic waste of potential but also a latent danger for the future: having massive amounts of unemployable people in a country can often lead to civil unrest.
Uganda is clearly facing a lot of struggles, but, more importantly, it is on a path to improvement. On the grassroots level, a change can be achieved but there is also a necessity for advocacy for growth on a higher level, considering holistically a county instead of a village and fitting Northern Uganda within the perspective of the entire country. For this reason, I greatly admire GWED-G`s recent expansion into other projects such as the male role model program. Just from observing Pam and her work, I have been extremely impressed by the amount of advocacy and cooperation that she engages in with the Ugandan government as well as NGOs. This leads me to believe that GWED-G`s work is helping stir Uganda to a better future.