United Families Make Fruitful Fields:
How AVSI makes refugees “protagonists” of their own development in Uganda
There is good soil in western Uganda. Very good. Unlike the well-known savannah grasslands of other parts of the continent, western Uganda is home to dense, lush forests. Eucalyptus trees, with their long slender trunks, rise 50 feet above the ground, forming a picturesque canopy that frames spacious fields of tea, beans, maize, and potatoes, and groves of banana and mango trees. The weather is good, too. Temperatures range from 70 to 85 degrees, and the rainy season provides enough nutrients for year-round planting.
Such conditions are a farmer’s dream, but even with such fruitful soil, a new farmer faces an uphill battle to reach productivity, health, and sustainability. This journey is made even harder when one is a refugee.
Uganda is home to hundreds of thousands of Congolese refugees. Some of them have been there for decades. Many Congolese children are born refugees and may never see their “home” country.
They come to Uganda because the country has a very open refugee policy. Refugee families are given a piece of land and a house and the right to work and remain in Uganda for as long as they want.
While these fundamental rights provide a good foundation for a family to succeed in Uganda, there are no guarantees, especially since many Congolese families carry trauma. Psychological and emotional trauma, low education and skill levels, and gender-based violence all hold families back and can keep them stuck in cycles of poverty and dependence.
AVSI recognized that refugee families have a lot of intersecting needs and that their situation cannot be improved with a single activity. We sought an answer in the form of the Graduation approach, which we began applying with Congolese refugees in 2015. That work has grown over the years, culminating in the USAID-funded Graduating to Resilience project, which will finish next year.
The Graduation approach was pioneered by BRAC and the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in the early 2000s and has evolved and improved in the years since as other NGOs and governments have implemented it. Essentially, the Graduation approach is a sequenced and time-bound intervention that helps people living in extreme poverty build resilience and engage in sustainable livelihoods. It is a multidimensional approach that addresses several sources of vulnerability with the following components: coaching, linkages and referrals, savings and financial inclusion, consumption support, livelihood skills training, and asset transfer.
While each component is essential to the approach, livelihood skills training is the most practical and engaging activity for families who want to take advantage of the good soil around them. At Farmer Field Business Schools, participants learn all the techniques they need to prepare their land, plant, protect, and harvest their crop(s).
On a recent visit to the Kyaka II refugee settlement, I got to sit in on a Farmer Field Business School session where the trainers taught the group how to make their own fertilizer and pesticides from organic materials. The trainers, many of whom are also refugees, do a great job meeting the group members at their level and ensuring the lesson is understood. It’s very interactive and sharing is encouraged.
Of course, the participants learn all about farming techniques and best practices, but these group workshops also change people’s mindsets about themselves and others. During the meeting I attended, I asked the participants to share the most important thing they learned from the training process. A man stood up and said, “Through the group coaching and training, I have learned that women and men are equal and that women can provide a lot of value to the farm and the household… they are capable of doing lots of things.” This shocked me. The question was completely open-ended, and he was not prompted to discuss gender dynamics. He could have talked about farming techniques and business strategy, but he chose to talk about how his mindset towards women has changed.
Another man responded, “My wife and I used to fight and argue a lot, but through this program, we have learned how to communicate better, and now I feel like we are a team.”
At AVSI, we say we want to make people “protagonists” of their own development. Here, I saw a real example. These people, with all of their intersecting vulnerabilities, anxieties, scars, and poverties, found a place where they could come together and be seen. This relationship, offered in a peaceful place, unlocked their learning potential. They were empowered to reconsider their preconceptions, not stop at reconsidering, but to apply their learning to their own families and relationships.
They say a field is nothing without a farmer to till it, and I submit that a farmer is nothing without his family supporting him. AVSI’s graduation approach aims to make fruitful families even more than fruitful fields. If the family is together, the field will bear fruit. After all, the soil is good.