Our attempt to see if we can make a difference….

I truly hope what follows is not some elongated version of “white guy goes to African nation in khakis, builds a school, takes photos with black babies and buggers off never to be seen again”.

Although our trip to Uganda has many of these attributes (!) our family is trying to stay highly engaged, remain committed for >10 years, apply intellect and money (a lot of it) and moreover measure our impact (good, bad or indifferent).

Recently my family decided to help fund an epicentre through The Hunger Project (https://www.thp.org/). It is our second as we funded one in Burkina Faso some years back (we invested just over $1m in the Burkina Faso epicentre). We chose THP because we like the THP approach of making sure the programmes are owned by the communities (not just white guys telling people what to do) and the project/programmes work towards self-sustainability over a 7–8 years period.

Why choose Uganda

It is probably useful to just list some statistics/brief notes to try to provide a picture (if you want a detailed comparison of Australia and Uganda go here https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Australia/Uganda)

  • Population of 40m
  • GDP of $20b vs $1.6trillion for Australia. Per capita GDP of $500 (Uganda) vs $67,000 for Australia.
  • Average monthly salary (for those employed) is around $200. However not a lot of people are employed.
  • 28% Adult Unemployment rate
  • 65% Youth (18–28) unemployment rate
  • 21% of people live on <$1 per day
  • Doctors per 1,000 people (Australia 2.6, Uganda 0.08). There is govt supplied meds for HIV detection, Malaria detection and treatment and nursing level services in many remote clinics but the level of care able to be provided is limited at best.
  • 40,000 University places of which only 10,000 supported by the government (vs around 800,000 Australians attending university — most if not all with government support through HECS).
  • No scaled VET sector equivalent (vocational training) and no formalised apprenticeship programmes either.
  • Infant mortality rate of 35 per 1,000 births (vs 2.5 for Australia).
  • Zero unemployment benefits and very limited social services at all (ie no safety net).
  • Government provided education starts at kindergarten and stops around year 9–10. Beyond that you need to attend a private school or get one of very few scholarships.
  • During the 1980’s and early 90’s the Uganda Civil War (termed the bush war) raged havoc across much of Uganda. Around 500,000 people were killed and millions were displaced from their homes. (more info here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ugandan_Bush_War).
  • While the war has gone the aftermath continues. People are only just moving back to their home villages and most families you meet had a close relative who died in the war..So the pain is still real.
  • Also…Uganda has around 1.5m refugees from Sudan and the DR Congo that they need to cope with (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refugees_of_Uganda)
  • It is worth noting that organisations like the UN, USAid and other NGOs operate in Uganda. Many of the projects funded by these organisations re adding value and critical to the country moving forward. However as many western nations (including Australia!) cut back their foreign aid (and concern for those outside our own borders) we can not sit back and assume Ugandan’s predicament (and that of many other countries) will be solved by others…As individuals who have capacity we should also play our role in trying to make the lives of others a little better.
  • Oh and Uganda effectively have a president for life. Yoweri Museveni has been in power for 32 years and just had term limits abolished. He fought against Idi Amin so maybe not a bad guy but without refresh in government you have to believe there is a ton of corruption and pocket filling going on.

So in summary Uganda is a large country with a very young population, low GDP (ie not a lot of wealth to use to get the place going), not a lot of natural resources to drive export revenue and little industrial scale agriculture…They are a long way from anything remotely resembling a great place to live for most of the population — who literally live from hand to mouth.

And yet.

Everyone we met on our trip was enthusiastic about the possibility of a better future..Every farmer we met (most of who are living on $2-$3 per day) were putting everything they had into their kids schooling..The level of commitment to their children and true sacrifice to invest in their kids and the hope of a better future for their kids was overwhelming.

It is hard to try to understand what has to be done at a macro level to “fix” the current trajectory for most Ugandans but what is clear is that (not surprisingly perhaps) Health and Education are at the core of any possible uplift in their fortunes.

At a micro level (village, parish, county) all the problems that are noted above exist with poverty being even more pronounced and lack of education and health services also more pronounced. Rather than just give up we decided to focus on, with THP, trying to change the fortunes and opportunities of one set of villages in the poorest part of Uganda.

So what is our plan?

To build an epicentre with THP.

So what is an epicentre? It is both an actual building and place from which services are delivered. Each one is a little different (depending on the needs of the community) but they all tend to offer;

  • A physical structure that houses a hall, health clinic (and associated treatment rooms, pharmacy etc), classrooms, space for a bank, water harvesting and water bore and a decent market garden.
  • Water Bore — part of the plan is to also look to put some water bores close to villages.
  • Bank that offers savings and loans. The typical bank has maybe 3,000 members where loans are made personally (average $30) and to businesses ($300). Defaults run at between 5% — 20% depending on the quality of the harvests. Interest rates are around 2% per mth (they need to be reasonably high to cover bad debts).
  • Health clinic offering first aid, neo natal and post natal check ups and care, midwifery services, immunisation, HIV and Malaria diagnosis, mother training and basic health care training.
  • A pre-school
  • Adult literacy classes
  • Farming skills training (sustainable farming, low water farming etc).

All of the above is developed by the community in partnership with THP and investors (people like us).

The idea is that by the time the epicentre is fully functioning every member in the surrounding villages (maximum 10km radius) will have accessible drinking water, their kids in preschool, access to health services, training on how to be better farmers, ability to borrow money to buy a pig etc etc and generally have lives that are demonstrably better than before the epicentre arrived…Interestingly you get all of this for around $US150 per villager.

That’s it. For a payment of around $US150 per villager surrounding the epicentre (paid in over maybe 5 years) you fundamentally and forever change the experience and trajectory of all the members of the community…and no more money is required.

I have found it very hard to find any programmes with anywhere near the impact and return on investment that THP offers with their epicentre approach.

Our epicentre at Oruka is in the Nwoya district in northern Uganda. It will be placed in the middle of a group of 14 villages (radius of 10km from the epicentre) that is home to around 12,000–14,000 people.

What follows is a mini travelogue from our 4 day stay in Uganda visiting 3 epicentres (at different stages of development), a number of families, district and community leaders and (sadly) one horrendous politician (and one good one!).

Grace (my eldest daughter), her friend from the US Linda and I went to spend 4 days with THP in Uganda trying to better understand the needs of the people in the communities and what THP is trying to do….

Day 1

We travelled 8hrs by road to the Gulu area of northern Uganda. This would be the hub for the nxt 2 days of activity. (oh and 5hrs travel time my arse Google Maps!).

We were led by Daisy who has a PhD in Economics and was a University academic before becoming THP Country Director 9 years ago. Here she is with Grace, Linda and one of our police officers.

Here are a couple of shots of typical shops along the way to Gulu.

Day 2

We drove a couple of hours to the Nwoya district to visit the district (county office) and then some families in the catchment area of our epicentre and then went to visit the site of the epicentre.

The county sub-chief (lowest level of government — next is parish and then the national government) was Harriet and she was super impressive. This is us with the local council. We met to better understand the issues in the area and the general makeup of current services available.

It is worth noting that the Nwoya District was emptied during the civil war and was only re-populated perhaps 20 years ago as part of the government plan to move people back to their villages.

Family 1

This family, typical of the area has 4 children (small actually for Uganda many have >8 kids) and their home is a mix of the round, thatched roof dwellings (example behind). One is for the parents bedroom, usually 1 or 2 for kids and then a kitchen..As the kids grow they get their own room for their partner and so you can have perhaps 10–15 “rooms” in an area all being part of an extended family.

Income is from sub-scale farming. They do not have any equipment (other than a shovel and a hoe). They also do not have easy access to any farming chemicals to help the crops survive disease. Each family has access to around 2–4 acres of land. The land has good soil but is covered in thick shrubs and it is very hard to clear areas for planting (using a shovel and a hoe!). Accordingly the amount of land under planting is small and therefor even in a good year the harvests are barely enough to feed the family and provide a tiny income.

Due to climate change (just to be clear this is what the farmers told us not us thrusting leftie ideas on them!) they have noticed irregular rainfall and as a consequence a drop in plant yields…So now the small plots under planting are unable to even sustain the family.

Getting water means trekking around 6km (12km round trip) to a water source. This takes around 90 minutes and, given they can only carry what they can put in a plastic container on their head, must be undertaken 4–6 times a day. So 6 to 8 hours of work is taken up every day just getting minimal water back to the home!

Also the nearest health clinic (by clinic I mean a 2 room facility manned by someone with perhaps 6 mths of training) is around 7kms away and can only be reached on foot..So if you need something dealt with urgently — good luck. If it is serious the nearest hospital was 40km away. Remembering that nobody owns a car, some own 1 clapped out motorbike (most don’t), some own old bicycles..Most just walk…everywhere.

And yet…as mentioned above every spare dollar they have is invested in their children’s education. Even though they all know that it is near impossible for a rural kid to complete the last years of high school (because it costs around $US100 — $US200 a semester — hard when you earn a couple of dollars a day) and even if you got to go to University or a trade college (near impossible due to a lack of supply) this also costs around $US100- $US200 a semester. So with these bleak future prospects the parents still go without to buy books etc for their kids to attend school from ages 6–14…True commitment.

Family 2

The next family had 4 boys and 2 girls. The girls were at school when we visited. Again they were a warm, caring and intensely proud family. The same issues confronted them (water, health, education)

They were so happy to have visitors and (as with the first family) so incredibly keen to have the epicentre built.

The day before we arrived (actually the night before!) the parent’s bedroom was trashed by the storm. The roof was ripped off and everything in the room either damaged or destroyed. The family did not tell us this until we asked what this pile of rubble was.

It was the parent’s bedroom.

On these trips you are not meant to hand out $ as this creates an expectation of handouts..The Hunger Project is all about skilling up people and changing their attitudes and then helping support them support themselves.

Grace, Linda and I had a mini conference and thought fuck it. We can’t leave this family in this situation. So we asked the THP peeps what it would cost to rebuild the room and it seemed like around $US150 would do it. So at the end of the trip we called the parents aside (into the kitchen) and (through the interpreter) told them how impressed we were with their focus on their kids education, that we were going to ensure the epicentre got up and here is some money to help rebuild the room (we gave them $US200). The father accepted the money and immediately, in front of us, handed it to his wife.

It is also worth noting that both these families donated land to the epicentre. The epicentre in Oruka is being built on 5 acres of land donated by a range of families in the community. For people with so little to give so much sends a strong signal with regard to how much they need the services of the epicentre.

Family 3

The last family we visited was by far the poorest (of a group of very poor families). They were in a similar situation but it seemed like they had way more kids and more of an extended family — all living off a small parcel of land. The group of houses/rooms housed actually 3 families and extended grand parents and kids…

Of the three families this group also seemed the most disheartened and broken by what life had thrown at them. Of course they also had issues with water, health, education but you got the sense that the burden of such a large family group with very very limited resources (and no government safety net) was too much.

This photo above is missing at least 2 husbands and one wife and a grand parent (or 2).

My plan is to revisit these three families in around 2 years time to see if their lives are any different (even though the epicentre will only be partially functioning by then).

After the family visits we went to the community gathering created to welcome us and thank us for the commitment to the epicentre. Representatives from 14 villages came (many walking >8km to be there). About 400 people showed up. Here are some snaps of the greeting. It was quite a humbling experience — 400 people coming to meet a bunch of white guys who promise to help in the future.

Day 3

We visited an epicentre at Kiboga that is self-reliant. Being self-reliant is that the centre now runs itself without any further philanthropic aid. They provide free services (mainly health and education) and training (farming, women re health and food/nutrient) and then have income earning activities (grain store, maize milling, micro finance back, rent facilities, shop, hostel, market garden etc etc). The whole thing is run (usually) by a committee of locals and they cover all aspects. The education is staffed by 3–5 teachers broken up into pre-school (as the govt provides no pre-school but does provide primary and secondary up to age 14) and adult literacy..The health clinic is staffed by around 5 women who provide the majority of services. Doctors visit very rarely. The national government provides some funding for nurses in the clinic and medications.

We then went to visit an amazing woman who is implementing all the THP (and EU to be fair) sustainable farming techniques. Some of these are;

  • planting different crops all year round so you have a mixed supply of fruit and vegetables all year
  • implementing water harvesting
  • using energy efficient cooking stands (there is a photo of one below) that provides for less heat loss, less wood use and less smoke.
  • implementing this cool stacked garden bed that allows for super efficient watering
  • Use of natural disease treatments

Here she is…

Day 4

We visited a woman, Rose, who is the poster child of THP. She retired from a low admin job at a university and came back to her village with zero income (only certain government employees get superannuation). She wanted to put her kids through school so she and her husband undertook training at the local Wakiso epicentre and then applied the learning all to allow them to create a sustainable living.

Over 5 years she borrowed money from the micro finance bank and bought some seeds and a pig. She then raised piglets and sold them while expanding her crops. In 5 years she went from a terrible old house and little income to;

  • a new house (there is a great photo of her old house to the left, her house in the middle and a new shop to the right).
  • Livestock including 10 pigs, 8 goats, ducks, chickens.
  • Crops including coffee beans, jack fruit, passionfruit, Cassava
  • Harvesting water
  • Installing a v cool bio gas facility
  • sustainable food supply and income for ever
  • oh and putting 3 of her kids through school and University!

We then visited a women’s group that has bought (again through micro finance) cows and seeds (all purchased with micro finance loans). The women use one of the woman’s houses as their base and as a group they tend to the crops using THP training) and the cows ( each cow produces 10 litres of milk a day at 30c per litre). The women share the work and the income and are now expanding their cow population and crop. It is important to highlight that the training offered to farmers is as important as the loans they can get access to..The mix of training and capital is the magic formula.

Here are some shots…ok it includes white people holding black babies!

We finished up our day with a visit to another epicentre. This one is struggling to get to self-reliance (partly due to the closeness to Kampala and the lack of ability to generate income earning activities — long story). What is amazing, however, is that they are not giving up. The committee and members are super focused on getting this epicentre to sustainability.

So what did we learn on this trip…..

  • We do live a very privileged life in Australia. Of course that is obvious but sometimes you need to see people who have no social net, no health care, limited education, limited income and opportunity just to remind yourself that you are part of the lucky gene pool (to use Warren Buffet’s great phrase).
  • Seeing the disparity of opportunity and living conditions reinforces the responsibility of those wealth off to try to help — and not just turn a blind eye to the suffering.
  • The Hunger Project approach while slow is effective. It builds resilient and more capable communities who not only learn more skills etc but do this themselves…They train as teachers and clinic assistants, they run the training programmes for farming, they build the actual epicentre, they staff the bank etc etc.
  • The Ugandan people deserve a chance and we think we can help make life a little better for maybe 12,000 or more people. We will stay connected to this project and the communities around Oruka and do what ever we can to move the dial — even a little.



Investor, philanthropist, trying hard to be a good human

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