Otuke’s sustainable green enterprise built on dreams
SPECIAL FEATURE | RONALD MUSOKE | When Ojok Okello visited Okere Mom-Kok, his ancestral village in Otuke District three years ago, he hardly knew that would start one of the most ambitious social enterprise projects in Uganda. On a recent visit to Okere, The Independent’s Ronald Musoke saw first hand the village’s slow but steady transformation into a futuristic “green city.”
Okere Mom-Kok is a remote rural village in northern Uganda; 400km northeast of the capital city Kampala, where residents are starting to “enjoy life” – as they say. This is even more so on every last Saturday of the month; which is Okere’s “Community Day.”
Up to 3000 people descend on the “city” to “enjoy life.” They make merry; eating meats, binging on alcohol, and dancing to hypnotic traditional songs and the latest pop hits.
Although still sparsely populated, the city – as the emerging sprawl on about 500 acres of land in Okere Parish in Otuke district is called— is already powered by solar, it has a school, a health facility, a village bank, and a multipurpose community hall that acts as a cinema hall, church and night club.
Okere Parish was devastated by the Joseph Kony Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) armed insurgence which lasted for about two decades. And after the war ended around 2007, Okere became a grazing ground for cattle and some say it was haunted by spirits of the war dead. Residents of this sun-scorched rural community were hopeless and many still bear the scars of destitution. Today, however, theirs is a far cry from the tumultuous, dull and boring life it used to be.
And it is all because of a single visit in 2018 by one of Okere’s native sons, Ojok Okello.
Ojok is a graduate of rural development. He studied at both Makerere University in Kampala and the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK. He has since been working on transforming Okere into a sustainable green city where community members are at the centre of development.
Ojok was actually born in Kampala and so he was not bred there. When Ojok’s civil servant father Julio Peter Okello died, his mother Miriam Acan turned down the idea of being inherited as tradition demands. She fled the village and went to live as a young widow in neighbouring Lira town. Ojok was only six months old at the time.
She remarried, engaged in petty trade, and struggled to push Ojok, who was the third born, and his siblings through school. That is how Ojok ended up at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK.
“I did not care about my father’s side,” says Ojok, “It’s only when I became a man with a family that it occurred to me that I needed to find my ancestral home.”
How it all started
Ojok made the pilgrimage to Okere in October, 2018. His elder brother had already returned to Okere and had been pushing him to do the same. He says it was one of the biggest culture shocks of his life.
Even though he had worked for an international NGO in the rural districts of Lira, Pader and Kitgum, Okere turned out to be the most rural and remotest place he had ever been to.
On the night Ojok arrived at his elder brother’s home, it rained heavily.
“There wasn’t a proper bed and the house was leaking throughout the night so I sat up the whole night,” he says. Meanwhile, a flurry of questions raced through his mind.
“I am highly educated, gainfully employed and I am well-travelled. I have slept in some of the best hotels whenever I go abroad but here I was at my so-called home sleeping under a leaking grass-thatched hut.
“I couldn’t reconcile these two worlds,” he says.
Ojok told The Independent that was the night he made up his mind to do something to transform his ancestral home.
He started by building two small houses on part of the large acreage of land his father left behind.
But as he was supervising the building, he says, something bizarre struck him.
“Remember I had started by clearing the bush on the piece of land and I made a big compound. So, children were coming around to play in the compound.
“But this was school time; so, I took keen interest and I asked some of them why they were not at school”
There was no nursery school for the youngest ones. The older ones, who were supposed to be in P.1 or P.2, had a primary school –but it was at least 4km away.
Ojok also found the parents had no interest to take their children to school. So he started talking to some of them about starting a learning programme for Okere’s children.
“I volunteered one of my houses to be a classroom. I told them, I will also get a teacher for these children but you will have to look for food for the children, scholastic materials and whatever other support that you can offer,” he says.
A year later, in August 2019, Okere got its first early childhood development centre with eight pioneer children. Four months later, the number of children had grown to 120.
Meanwhile, every week, the parents found themselves coming over to the school to bring food, firewood, and even water since there was no borehole nearby.
The parents, members of the school’s Parents and Teachers Association, soon got talking about their problems; mainly financial. They agreed to start saving money together and lending amongst themselves. With Ojok’s help, they started a Village Saving and Loan Association – a “village bank.”
The village bank became so successful to the extent that in just five months, the parents had saved Shs3.5 million.
“It looks like a small amount of money but it was actually the biggest savings any group had ever saved in the whole village,” Ojok says.
“I think what pushed them is the vision and the possibility,” he says, “I used this opportunity to make them see the bigger picture,” he says, “I became a part of the VSLA. So, I think there was trust and the momentum built on.”
Ojok noticed that whenever the parents came for the VSLA meetings, they wanted to buy basic goods and stationery. Usually that meant waiting for the Sunday flea market in a village about 6km away. Ojok started a shop that stocked most of the items they wanted.
“This shop then became the hub,” says Ojok.
Soon the area evolved into a market space. General merchandise was traded and local women bought and sold farm produce.
“This is how this space started growing,” says Ojok, “I never envisioned this.”
Okere City is born
Soon, Ojok envisioned the idea of Okere City.
“I was like ‘why do I go to Lira or Kampala’? I visit these towns to have access to basic services; education, health and other amenities. So I was like, what if we created these amenities right here?”
“The children already come to the school; the parents come to the shop, so how about we just expand the scope and scale of these operations, what would be the outcome?”
“This is how the whole idea of Okere City came about. I never set out to start up a project in the village,” he told The Independent.
He says by end of 2019, the only money he had sunk into the project was the salary for the nursery school teacher.
“I wasn’t scared at all. I am a student of development. I studied business administration and management. I studied social entrepreneurship and business modelling innovation,” he says.
“So when these things started evolving and numbers kept expanding and people started appreciating; local women coming over to sell local brew and people coming to get drunk, I did not chastise or abuse them because I thought they were being too drunk or too lazy.”
Ojok told The Independent that it was during the COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020 that he decided to consolidate the idea of building a resilient community.
“I saw first hand how fragile everything around me was,” he says, “I saw fragilities in the so-called urban spaces. I couldn’t imagine that just in a short time, things had come to a standstill.”
He says seeing poor people in the capital, Kampala; struggle during the COVID-19 lockdown jolted him into questioning things. He realised that most of the challenges in large urban areas are structural policy problems that one cannot innovate around. But maybe Okere was small for him to be more impactful, he thought.
“Maybe Okere would understand me because may be we speak the same language, maybe we have been through the same challenges and maybe together we could imagine how we could go to a better future.”
In 2021, when the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted, Okere kicked back into life again.
Ojok told The Independent that he wants Okere City to be based around the Shea trees which grow naturally in the area. He says the idea occurred to him one hot afternoon as he lay under a giant Shea nut tree, looking at the clumps of round green and golden brown fruits above.
He started researching on the internet and saw that most of the information on Shea butter was from West Africa; Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal.
“But I was like, we have this tree but we hardly have any useful information,” he says, “The only Ugandan information out there was how people were chopping down the Shea tree.” More than 80% of the Shea nut tree had been cut but Ojok saw the possibilities.
“I know people in my community don’t use Shea butter as a cosmetic product, they only use it for food,” he says.
Even then, after a few conversations, he realised that the Shea nut tree had ceased being a central factor in people’s economic and socio-cultural lives.
“So, because the Shea nut tree was not connected to their economic reality, they were chopping the trees down. This is why you see poor people destroying a resource and you think they are stupid,” he says, “It was all about the economics of it.”
His vision was to get the community to come together into a cooperative to collect the nuts, store them, and sell them. By July 2020 they had registered as a cooperative society which now has 120 members registered after paying Shs 5, 000 each.
“If you wanted to buy shares in the cooperative, we said you have to bring about 50kg of Shea nuts and about 80 members brought the Shea nuts,” he says.
They used the nuts to start processing Shea butter.
“Setting up a Shea butter processing facility is quite expensive, so we collect the nuts and outsource production in Lira city. But, hopefully, we will invest in our own processing facility in Okere City.”
In just six months, between July and December 2020, they had made a net profit of about US$ 2000 and by the end of 2021 they had a net profit of about US$7,500, mainly by selling to people in the capital, Kampala.
“We are making people understand that the product they are playing with is worth US$1.2 billion in the global market and projected to be worth US$5 billion by 2025,” Ojok says.
He wants Okere City to position itself as a raw material provider for cosmetics companies around the world.
“Shea butter is gold indeed and the Shea nut tree could be like the vibranium (the fictitious precious mineral in the Black Panther movie) that powers the transformation of our village,” he says.
“We are going to invest a lot in sensitisation and awareness but also in re-wilding and planting more Shea trees because we cannot keep depending on bats doing the planting for us.
“This is the future that we are headed into so that when the time comes and we are prepared, this resource will turn into our vibranium, then we have plenty of it and we will never run dry.”
For now, however, the Shea butter business centre of Okere City acts as a dormitory for girls.
Ojok proudly shows off some of the projects starting to take shape around the city. Investments so far sunk into the project, thanks to his savings and charity, are worth about Shs 400 million.
When we visited, about 35 women, many of whom were above 60 years, were taking adult literacy classes in a grass-thatched building near the big greenish billboard that welcomes visitors to Okere. For about one month, we were told, the old women and a few young ones had been learning to count, write, and read at no cost.
Samson Samuel Munu, a lanky elderly man who has been teaching adults since 1997, is their tutor. Lessons switch between English and Leblango, a Luo dialect.
“What’s your name?” he asked one of the students during the late morning session.
“My name is Ajok Susan,” the student responded.
“Where do you come from?” Munu asked.
“I come from Omuko LC 1 village, Okere Parish.” The class clapped for their colleague.
Ojok says literacy and numeracy is important because Otuke is one of the most illiterate districts in Uganda. Seven in 10 people in this district did not go beyond P.7. It is worse for women at 92%.
“A month ago, they couldn’t write their names; now they do,” Ojok says.
Not far off, about 50 local council leaders are in the community hall, learning about governance.
“We shall enact by-laws at the local level so that the environment is protected,” said Goville Ogwang, the Parish Development Committee Chairperson for Okere Parish.
Ojok told The Independent Okere City is looking at accelerating climate action at the local level. “That is why they are learning about the newly enacted Climate Change Act, 2021, the National Forestry Act, the NEMA Act and all other laws concerning environmental management. It’s important because for many people, it (climate change) is just a word, for us it is an existential threat.”
At the Okere Village Bank, we are told there are about 15 groups within the village and each group has about 30 members who save together and lend and borrow among themselves.
“The bank is the investment arm of Okere City,” Ojok told The Independent, “The idea is to make this a formal fully fledged bank.”
The bank idea started with Shs 200,000 in 2019. Last year, the bank had books of about Shs30 million. It charges a low interest rate of about 12%, says Moses Aker, the loan officer. The highest amount lent to groups is Shs1 million. People borrow to invest in cattle farms and goat and pig rearing.
The community health clinic is one-room in which Bosco Okello, the in-charge, said he treats patients for minor ailments like malaria, urinary tract infections, typhoid and intestinal worms. It lacks a laboratory.
Bosco Okello said the need for services is quite high because the nearest health centres are about 7km away.
We completed the tour at Okere Community School. Christine Adong, the headmistress of the school (P.1-P.6) said so far she has 125 pupils and 10 teachers. There are both Day-scholars and those in boarding.
Ojok told The Independent that in five years’ time, Okere Community School shall be the best school in Lango sub-region.
“Everything people see in Okere is in its infancy,” he said. And that includes how much life Okere residents can enjoy.