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Rebuilding hope, trust and communities in Uganda

Lydia Raw

When Sue Howes returned to Uganda 40 years after first volunteering there, she found a country still nursing wounds left by war, extremism and disease. Compelled to do something, Sue and her husband Greg founded a project that would help communities build themselves back up.

Monica Oroma, treasurer of the Lacan Kow Lewet youth co-operative group. VSO/Ginny Lattul

Monica Oroma, treasurer of the Lacan Kow Lewet youth co-operative group.

Returning to Uganda after 40 years

Sue Howes was an 18-year-old VSO volunteer in Uganda back in the late sixties. It was a time before Idi Amin, before the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, before the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, before civil war. More than 40 years later, she went back to the country with her husband, Greg Dyke, for the first time since 1968.

She was disappointed to find that so little seemed to have improved, and many people were still struggling. Back in 1968, Uganda had the same GDP as Singapore - now, there was no comparison between the two countries.

Starting something

After their trip, Sue and Greg were determined to do something practical to help in Uganda. They decided to work with VSO once again, and chose to support its planned work in the north of the country. The area had been wrecked over the previous 20 years by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, but was now safe for VSO volunteers to return to.

The pair laid down certain ground rules. They wanted to support a project that would be tackling, even on a small scale, the massive problem of youth unemployment in northern Uganda; a project that would hopefully change people’s lives by improving their skills; and a project robust enough to continue once they were no longer financially supporting it. They were anxious to ensure the improvements wouldn’t disappear when the funding stopped.

Most of all, Greg and Sue wanted to support a project they could feel and touch — a project they could be personally involved with.

VSO developed a project called Youth Empowerment & Local Governance (YELG), and over five years Greg and Sue contributed £400,000 to fund it, plus an additional £100,000 in Gift Aid from the UK Government.

Setting up the project

Initially, YELG involved setting up and supporting 42 youth employment groups in areas around Lira and Gulu in Northern Uganda. In all, the groups counted 685 young members, the majority of whom lived in very poor, rural areas.

Outdoor meeting - YELG project, Uganda. Lydia Raw

Young people have been empowered to expand their businesses into long term sustainable enterprises.

The majority of the rural population here had lived in Government camps for 20 years to escape the threat from the rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Having been born or grown up in the camps, away from their family lands, thousands of young people here had little access to education, and certainly no training in agriculture.

When the camps were forcibly closed, these young people were returned to their villages where they found their land – if they could establish which was their land – totally overgrown. It had been left uncultivated for the whole period of conflict, while they and their families were in the camps.

Many of the young people had lived in camps for most of their lives and were totally unprepared for the challenges they faced in returning home. A few in the groups had been stolen as children and forced to be child soldiers by the LRA. When they returned to their villages some met hostility from other villagers. 

Don't eat the ox

The aim of the YELG project was to bring together groups of youths to develop productive farming co-operatives. Here they could learn agricultural and entrepreneurial techniques, which they could then use in both the group activities and to cultivate their own land as individuals.

Initially, the groups chose which areas they wanted to concentrate on and YELG paid for their equipment and training. A wide range of businesses were selected, including pig and goat rearing, buying oxen to enable them to cultivate more land, beekeeping, bread-making, and milling flour. VSO volunteers supported the groups and, to start with, they concentrated on one particular area each. Then over the years, as they became successful, they expanded their activities.

After three years, the project was evaluated. Some groups had failed and disbanded — in one case the group had eaten the ox bought for ploughing their land and, as a result, "Don't Eat the Ox" became a familiar catchphrase in the YELG project. But of the 42 groups that started, 34 were still successfully operating after three years.

The Lacan Kow Lewet youth co-operative group drive their ox-drawn plough VSO/Ginny Lattul

The Lacan Kow Lewet youth co-operative group drive their ox-drawn plough. “Don’t Eat the Ox” became a familiar catchphrase in the YELG project.

VSO, supported by Greg and Sue, decided to extend the project and fund another phase. The aim was that by the end of this second phase, the groups still operating would be self-sustaining and would not require further funding.

They were encouraged to expand into other agricultural business areas, to get more training — particularly in marketing — and to become more entrepreneurial, both as groups and individuals. Crucially, they were offered grants to enable them to expand, but only if they could fund 60% of the cost of expansion themselves. Most were able to do that using the profits of their existing group activities.

Promising results

As YELG reached its end, it was clear that Greg and Sue's goal of sustainability beyond the lifespan of the project looked likely to be achieved. There were still 26 active groups with a total of 438 members, and some results that were very promising:

  • By the end of the project the average income of members of the groups was £24 a week compared with an average of between £4 and £8 a week for similarly-placed youths not in the YELG groups.
  • 100% of participants who completed a survey registered an increase in earnings, with group earnings increasing by 61%.
  • The total area of land being cultivated by members of the 26 groups had increased from 82 acres at the start of the project to 2,110 acres five years later.
  • The total number of different enterprises being run by group members had increased from 178 to 2,101 by the end of the period.
  • The total number of animals owned by group members had increased from 368 to 3,445 over the period - most of which were high value animals like goats, pigs, cattle and sheep.
  • Group members had switched their own crop production away from crops grown mainly for their own subsistence to more valuable crops which they could sell at the market.
Nancy Oromo, a member of the Lacan Kow Lewet youth co-operative group. VSO/Ginny Lattul

Nancy Oromo, a member of the Lacan Kow Lewet youth co-operative group.

Measuring success

Two years after the YELG project ended, 80% of the groups were still active. What’s more, both incomes and savings were reported to have continued to significantly increase for individual group members — 55% and 62% respectively.

The survival of these groups can be traced to strong leadership, democratic principles and the building of specialist skills. They also established effective group savings and investments, using group funds fairly and wisely — a key part of the original training.

The project also saw plenty of non-financial successes, with social and cultural improvements including to education and women's empowerment:

  • Women had done particularly well. Some of the groups were all-women, and overall, 56% of group members were female. Many female members learned to read and write thanks to group literacy schemes introduced at the same time by VSO. The women were incredibly proud of this achievement.
  • Some group members had become community leaders, being elected to local and regional authorities. Others, as they had grown more financially successful, had become respected leaders within their villages. One had set up a large and much-needed local school.
  • Most groups had set up savings and loan schemes, initially for themselves, but often widened to include others from their villages. Most of these schemes favoured making loans for school fees or urgent medical problems and people were required to pay back what they had borrowed plus a good rate of interest. Very few defaulted.
  • Some groups were introduced to other organisations which operated loan schemes to help people escape from poverty. For example, thanks to British charity 'Bicycles Against Poverty', many bought bikes to help make them mobile, repaying the cost in a year. Others borrowed money to bring solar power and mobile phones to their villages for the first time, again repaying the loans within a year.
Sam Obang, member of the Nen Anyim youth co-operative group inspects the beehives that his community has built. VSO/Ginny Lattul

Sam Obang, member of the Nen Anyim youth co-operative group inspects the beehives that his community has built.

A success story

So, what conclusions did Sue and Greg draw from the project?

"We see YELG as a success story and we are glad we got involved and created this project with VSO. We believe the vast majority — if not all — of the groups still operating after five years will continue and thrive.

"As one female member put it to us, ‘VSO didn’t just give us oxen or money, they taught us how to sustain our enterprises. We learned how to get something by working hard, not just sitting and waiting. When other organisations go away groups like this die. But this is something we have ownership of.’

Sue Howes with shop owner in shop. Lydia Raw

Sue with shopkeeper who has been able to expand his stock.

"The group members have learned how to create small enterprises, have learned what investment means, have learned how to be small scale entrepreneurs and have learned that their futures can be in their own hands. After twenty years living on handouts in a camp it was a remarkable change."

Seeing the changes for themselves

Greg and Sue continue:

"We visited Uganda and the YELG groups regularly over the five years. Initially we were seen as donors and were often asked to give more money by group members. But in the later years attitudes to us visibly changed. Rather than asking us for more money, group members were keen to show us what they had achieved and where they planned to expand next. In short, they wanted to tell us where and how they were going to invest the profits they were making.

"Mistakes were made during the early years. This was a new type of project for VSO and for us and we were all learning just as the groups were learning. Initially, we placed too much reliance on local authorities, who we left in charge of procurement. We abandoned that approach after two years.

"We also didn’t give the groups enough practical training early on and we had to learn that, once they had made profits, the groups would be better motivated if they had to invest some of their own profits in expansion. We learned, as business people put it, 'if businesses are to be successful the group members need to have skin in the game too!'

Sue and Greg with local family Lydia Raw

Sue and Greg with local family.

"With what we know now we believe we could have achieved similar results in a shorter period, say three years rather than five, which means we could now do it on less money — but it’s easy to know that in hindsight.

"Both of us see YELG as having been a successful project which really changed the lives of the members of the groups and their families. Most of all, as the groups became successful the confidence of the members soared, and that was particularly true of the women."

To find out more about supporting VSO, please contact Betsy Waalen and the VSO Philanthropy Team on 020 8780 7393 or email: