Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Returnees Reviving Local Economy

Many former refugees, dependent on food handouts for years, are working the land again with some success.
By Patrick Okino
Erisa Ekong, from Atabu village in Dokolo district, suffered as much as anyone in the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA.

The rebels killed her husband, stole her cows and goats and all of her food and household goods, yet she feels she must now look to the future. “That time has passed and I want to start a new life,” she said.

After several years spent living in one of northern Uganda’s 200 internal refugee camps near Lira, Ekong returned to her family lands in 2006 and began to cultivate them.

In the fertile soil, she grew a local grain called sim-sim, beans, peanuts, sorghum, millet, cassava and rice. She kept what she needed, and sold the rest of the valuable crops, before using the profits to replenish the livestock she lost long ago.

“I purchased 12 goats, two [cows], five pigs and still have in stock adequate food stuffs to sustain me for a year,” Ekong told IWPR, as she returned from the fields.

Ekong is just one of the many returnees who have successfully made the transition from a refugee camp life – dependent on support humanitarian aid from the United Nations and other international agencies – to self sufficiency through farming.

As life slowly returns to normal across northern Uganda after two decades of brutal war that left nearly 100,000 dead and displaced about two million, many villagers have eagerly returned to cultivating the land and raising animals – a development that is rapidly rebuilding the region’s ravaged economy.

Like many across the region, Ekong exudes a deep sense of optimism about the future. Local people are confident they will be able to shake off the abject poverty that resulted from two decades of war – one of the continent’s longest-running insurgencies.

This confidence persists in spite of the lack of progress with the government’s redevelopment plans for the region, which have yielded little.

Many people there are instead taking matters into their own hands.

“We don't want to continue sitting and waiting for the government or [some] humanitarian agency to tell us what to do, since peace has returned,” said Nekemia Obia, a resident of Bata trading centre, 20 kilometres east of Lira.

“We have enough fertile lands for crop production,” said Obia. “It's unfair to keep on demanding aid from the government and international humanitarian agencies.”

Out of 500 kilogrammes of sim-sim that he harvested last year, Obia managed to make a profit of about 1,400 US dollars – enough for him to withdraw his children from public school and send them to a better, more costly school in Lira.

“Our lives have changed totally,” he said with pride. “We pray that the peace we have should be sustained so that we catch up with other parts of the country in terms of development.”

Humanitarian agencies are supporting this effort by advising people on how to increase agricultural sales and income through improved agricultural production.

Other initiatives are appearing to provide farmers with financial backing. For example, micro-finance company Uganda Microfinance Limited opened a branch office in Lira in July, to supply savings and loan products to people on low incomes.

“We want to ensure that the land in the north is properly utilised by helping people acquire tractors, ox ploughs, oxen, seeds and money for business,” said Uganda Microfinance Limited employee Wilson Twamuhabwe.

“The institution has a customer base of 167,000 people across the country and a loan portfolio of valued at about 30 million dollars. We want more people in this region to come on board because they suffered for so long.”

However, despite the progress, there have been some setbacks.

The region, which was hit by devastating floods in late 2007, has now suffered a dry spell that has damaged crops.

“We tried our best to plant adequate food this season, but it’s been damaged as a result of the drought which has [continued for] two months,” said Vincent Awio, a resident of Adyang village.

“There is a serious [fear] that the area will be hit by food shortage [or] famine as a result of this unexpected situation.”

In response to this, much of the north is now focused on growing a cash crop which thrives in drier conditions – cotton. The Ugandan government’s Cotton Development Organisation, CDO, has distributed 660 metric tonnes of seeds across the north this summer.

“Our focus this year is to increase the cotton production from the 9,000 bales, which we managed last year, to 50,000, and to help farmers increase their income,” said CDO official Ben Byamukama.

“That is why we are distributing the seeds to the farmers rather than waiting for a market-based demand.”

Yet some farmers across the north are disappointed with the government’s cotton seed distribution – which is less than the 790 tonnes they received last year and will mean less production, they say.

“Cotton has been our major source of income right from the British time, but we are unhappy with the way the government is handling the distribution of seeds,” said James Okello, a veteran cotton farmer.

In addition to cotton seed distribution, the government has also allocated some 60 million dollars to the National Agriculture Advisory Services, NAADS – which helps Ugandan farmers to produce enough food for themselves with some left to sell. The programme includes the distribution of farming tools, as well as dissemination of information on modern farming technology and livestock rearing.

Other support has come from the European Union which has provided some 1.5 million dollars to be spent on creating food security and supplementing income generating activities in four areas in the Lira region. The money was channeled through the government’s Northern Uganda Rehabilitation Programme, NUREP.

“Under this project we are looking at how to enhance food security and help school dropouts acquire vocational skills,” said Robinah Akullo of the Concerned Parent Association, CPA – an NGO that received some of the funding.

Francis Omaramoi, a local leader in Omoro, said that to rebuild the agricultural economy in the north, there is a need for tools – such as hoes, as well as seeds – for those who have already settled back in their villages. He added that it is also important that extra help is given to vulnerable groups, such as orphans, parentless families, widows and widowers, as well as the elderly and disabled.

While there is much work to do, many farmers are in the north are enjoying their success.

Apart from subsistence farming, agricultural production disappeared across most of northern Uganda during the rebel conflict of 1986 to 2006.

Now farmers such as Nelson Opio, who resettled in his home two years ago after living in a refugee camp for many years, are quickly realising the benefits of farming for a profit.

"It's advantageous to us because the more we produce, the more we shall earn,” said Opio with a smile.

Patrick Okino is an IWPR-trained journalist in Uganda.