Nine years ago, 78 percent of northern Uganda’s Gulu District were living in abject poverty, internally displaced and dependent on supplies from the World Food Programme (WFP) to even survive.
Today, 12 communities in Gulu are selling their excess produce back to the WFP, the very organization they were, until a few years ago, entirely reliant upon.
This is their story.
“They literally started from nothing,” says Alex Vickers, BMS worker in Gulu. “The government gave them a hoe and a bag of seed and sent them on their way. That was it. How far they’ve travelled in a few years from that point is astonishing.”
Forced to leave their land and live in internally displaced persons’ camps while their country was ravaged by conflict, most of these farmers spent 18 years with nothing of their own. No way to support their family. No way out.
“It’s a dignity issue,” says Vickers. “People find it hard enough in this country to go down to a food bank and get some groceries. This was everything. And if you went outside the camp, you could be shot.”
The transformation of the families (approximately 5,000 individuals) involved in the project, run by Vickers and his team in partnership with the Gulu New Life Baptist Association and the Ugandan Christian Lawyer’s Fraternity, is incredible.
They are empowered, growing enough food to eat and extra to sell, and working together, in groups of around 40, to bulk sell their crops at a good price.
They are building their own futures.
“You’re going from being entirely disempowered, to a position where you’re back on your land, doing things for yourself,” says Vickers. “You’ve got the same hopes and dreams for your kids that everybody has. Your dreams are in your hands.”
Teaching biblical farming principles and equipping farmers to legally secure their land so that they can work it well without fearing it will be taken from them has enabled many of the farmers involved to double their harvest, at least.
And collectively selling to organizations like the WFP, instead of to middlemen who pay the absolute minimum, means they are also doubling the amount they earn from everything they sell. The result: a four-fold increase in income.
The local church is integral to the whole project, and as church pastors take a lead, teaching their neighbors the techniques, discipleship seems to flow naturally. Seven of the farmers involved have become Christians.
“These guys just talk about their faith all the time,” says Vickers. “They share their problems and offer to pray for each other. That’s how people are becoming Christians – because they see practical love, practical generosity.”
There have been setbacks, and not everyone has taken to the techniques as well as others or been as open to taking risks, but the overall outcome has been positive.
The next step is to ensure that bad weather doesn’t put these farmers and their families back where they started.
“If you’re reliant on crop growth and you have a bad season because of the weather, there’s nothing you can do. If your crops fail, you’ve got nothing. The risk of hunger is literally one season away,” says Vickers.
The team is trying to build a source of money that gets people through those bad years by establishing livestock. They’re currently bringing pigs into each community, which will hopefully mean that when a bad year comes, families will have piglets to sell to get them through.
“The farmers would say, hand on heart, ‘we’re doing better,'” says Vickers. They don’t want to go back to their old life of fear, hunger, hopelessness.”