Promoting collective action to empower refugees and farmers in Uganda

Kirsty Scott

31 January 2024

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

I knew I would work in an NGO or in an organisation that is providing aid. That’s what I love. All these years later, I’ve been with an NGO, both national and international. Nothing has changed. I love doing it.

Joseph Mwaka

In 2023, the International Rescue Committee’s Emergency Watchlist ranked South Sudan among the top 10 countries most at risk. Following the civil war which ended in 2016, there is an ongoing internal conflict. The country also faces significant climate shocks in the form of severe flooding, which impacts food security, health, and the economy.

The situation has led to conflict-affected and climate refugees fleeing South Sudan to neighbouring Uganda to seek humanitarian support.

Commonwealth Alumnus Joseph Mwaka has worked at Samaritan’s Purse International Relief (SPIR) in Uganda for the last five years, leading and delivering humanitarian relief programmes. His role is focused on designing and overseeing projects and delivery teams, as well as working with donors and ensuring projects are delivered in line with SPIR’s strategy and national laws. He works in collaboration with the United Nations, NGOs, local government, and community and church groups.

Joseph is currently leading a team to implement an integrated resilience project which encompasses water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), food security and livelihoods, and nutrition and health. The project seeks to enable refugees from South Sudan who are affected by climate change induced flooding and natural disasters to thrive despite the challenges they face.

Improving refugee resilience

Protecting natural resources forms an important part of the food security and livelihoods aspect of the project. Environmental degradation is a key concern in areas where refugee camps are located because it affects both the natural environment and the sustainability of livelihoods.

Joseph highlights that 90% of the refugees living in camps in the West Nile district cook on open fires and source firewood from nearby woodland. The increased demand for firewood risks deforestation, damage to the natural ecosystem, and soil erosion. Cooking with firewood also poses a health risk as it increases exposure to indoor air pollution and smoke inhalation leading to respiratory illness.

The integrated resilience programme seeks to create awareness of the benefits of utilising efficient and climate-friendly energy sources, whilst reducing the environmental impact of the refugee camp and improving the health of refugees. Joseph and his team are working with firms to provide better quality and efficient products for cooking, including improved cooking stoves, charcoal briquetting, and deploying appropriate financial assistance and loans to enable families to access these products.

Empowering smallholder farmers

Prior to his role at SPIR, Joseph worked at the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) on a project to promote soya bean, sorghum, and maize value chains in Uganda. The aim of the project was to improve the agribusiness sector and increase income and investment pathways for smallholder farmers.

Oilseeds such as these are in high demand due to their nutritional value and multipurpose use as food for both humans and livestock. However, smallholder farmers face several challenges in producing such crops for market, including unpredictable climatic events, poor road infrastructure, limited post-harvest facilities, lack of access to high quality seeds, and insufficient knowledge of the market.

To address these issues and improve both livelihoods and food security, Joseph and his team created six Farmer Institutions (FIs). The FIs brought together local smallholder farmers in a collective, increasing their power to engage and negotiate with millers and transporters on the sale of grain and commercialisation of their businesses.

By facilitating this contact, Joseph and his team improved the farmers’ incomes because they were able to sell grain in higher volumes as a collective. Working in a collective through the FI also provided farmers with an income during lean times when crops failed because of pests or unforeseen weather events. In addition, the project has promoted the development of bulking centres to improve the post-harvest management of seed crops and protect future crop yields and sales.

The financial risks

As with any commercialisation process, access to finance is key to its success and sustainability. Joseph explains that typically farmers struggle to access loans owing to the risks associated with producing consistent crop yields, which are compounded by erratic weather events. As many smallholder farmers work on communal land, rather than land that they own, they are unable to leverage the land as an asset against which to secure finance.

In response to this, Joseph and his team helped facilitate access to affordable finances, working with national micro-finance support centres to provide technical assistance. Through the FIs, it was easier for the farmers to apply for loans and funding because the collective was better able to manage the risk of crop failures and repayment issues.

Similarly, owing to the risks of crop production, the farmers also struggled to access insurance. With the increasing impact of climate change on weather and the devastating consequences of severe flooding, insurance has become increasingly important to protect farmer livelihoods.

As part of the programme, Joseph piloted the adoption of crop insurance schemes with five FIs. As a result, over 30% of famers under these FIs have taken out crop insurance policies to reduce the impact of crop loss due to unpredictable weather. Joseph observes that there is interest at the government level to develop this type of insurance.

“The Fertilizer Development Center have started working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries to put crop insurance policy in the agricultural sector… [The pilot project] opened up the government’s eye to this.”

Alongside these successes, Joseph also used the programme as an opportunity to promote clean cooking fuels and raise awareness of the negative impact of using and sourcing charcoal and firewood.

One of the most important outcomes of this project for Joseph was building closer ties with people near his home.

“What made me enjoy it was the opportunity to work very close to my village where I come from and to support them directly with the training. It drew me closer to home and to feel part of them.”

Learning to lead

Working at the IFDC has allowed Joseph to apply the knowledge and skills from his undergraduate studies in agriculture to support the development of a key sector in Uganda. This in turn inspired him to undertake a Master’s in Development Management to improve his leadership skills and learn more about the development sector beyond agribusiness.

“My programme opened me. It gave me opportunity to open up, not only to stick to agriculture-related issues. Now I look at development in its whole, what makes development, it’s not only food production, but other elements, as well.”

Joseph also credits his studies for his skills in developing proposals, and planning, managing, and evaluating development projects, which are critical to his current role at SPI. Reflecting on career so far, Joseph is confident in his leadership qualities and his ability to inspire and motivate peers, colleagues, and the teams he manages.

“My studies have given me the knowledge and skills to be able to develop proposals, plan, manage and evaluate development projects, something that I have been doing for the last 5 years. It has helped open doors for better job opportunities and it has helped me improve my writing skills. I also able to demonstrate good leadership and influence others to perform well in the organisation.”

Joseph Mwaka is a 2009 Commonwealth Distance Learning Scholar from Uganda. He completed an MSc in Development Management at The Open University.