Just a few years ago, the small northern Ugandan village of Okere Mom-Kok was still struggling with the effects of the Ugandan Civil War and had been left underdeveloped.
Today, however, the area—with a population of about 4,000—is home to an early child care center, a school, a craft brewery, a village bank, a health center, and a community hall that serves as a cinema, church, and nightclub. In addition, there is now clean water and many common areas are powered by solar electricity.
It’s a turnaround that many would not have predicted. However, resident community developer Ojok Okello saw the potential for what his village could become, if only he could get the community involved.
“When I returned to my village, I lived like a pauper,” said Okello, who was born in Okere but left as a baby only to return in 2013 to reconnect with family. “I didn't have good toilet facilities. I didn't have access to a shower if I needed to have a shower. I couldn't buy painkillers if I had a headache. We are not meant to stay in these desperate, poor conditions forever. We have resources that we can use to make us better people.”
So, in 2019, Okello launched and provided the initial funding for the Okere Community Development Project (Okere City), which aims to create “economically thriving and self-reliant rural households” in Okere. It is a project based on social enterprise, not on charity.
Bringing the Community on Board
For Okere City to be successful, Okello—a development expert who has worked for several international charities and non-governmental organizations—knew it was essential for the community to be involved. Development programs have failed in the past, he says, because they didn’t include the people and address their unique needs and challenges.
It was difficult, however, for many residents to envision this new future.
“Some people cannot think about 10 years later when right now they are struggling to get food for their children,” said Okello. “In the beginning, the biggest challenge was making the community believe that we could actually emancipate ourselves. This was something that had never been attempted, nor anything they could relate with.”
To convince people this effort was more than just a dream, Okello likened their efforts to the origins of other thriving cities.“I had to make them think that whether it's London or New York, it didn't fall from the sky,” he said. “It just started from somewhere and it grew. They became hubs that provided opportunities.”
In the end, most villagers decided to participate because they wanted to give their children opportunities and send them to school.
“They did not get the opportunity to go to school because part of the country was engulfed in a civil war for decades,” said Okello.
Because of this, the first project in Okere City was the creation of an early childhood development program, where initially 50 children were taught in one classroom. The school was a success and led many parents to request the creation of adult education programs so they could learn a little English and discuss the day’s school lessons with their children.
A village bank was also established, making it possible for residents to perform mobile money transactions without having to travel to the next trading center or wait a week for delivery. A voluntary loan and savings association was set up, enabling people to borrow money for projects to help improve their livelihoods.
To help Okere City remain sustainable, the village turned to an underused natural resource: shea trees.
Before the project, Okere villagers were cutting down the shea trees to make charcoal to trade. They were not aware that the nuts on the tree could be used to create products, such as shea butter, that could be sold around the world.
A campaign against the destruction of shea trees was launched, and villagers were educated on how to use the nuts to make shea butter.
To help convince the villagers the shea butter business was lucrative, Okello bought the product from supermarkets in Kampala and showed them the price tags to demonstrate what they could potentially earn.
“They couldn't believe it, that what we have here is highly marketable elsewhere,” he said. “That's how we were able to start a cooperative society, and then about six months ago we launched our product line into the market.”
The Future of Okere City
The Okere City project is just two years old, but Okello says it has already made an impact.
“Right now, what we can see is that children who were not in school are now in school learning,” he said. “What we can see is that people have an alternative space where they can engage in trade and commerce. There is hope, belief and conviction that it is possible,” he said.
He also believes the lessons learned as part of the Okere City project are something that other communities can use as part of their own development.
“In the years to come, the world should be able to learn from our experience, and to use the resources that they have to provide holistic and connected services for their community,” he said.