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Immersion in Northern Uganda - Lessons on agriculture, cooperatives, and smallholder farmers

Agriculture, cooperatives, and farmers’ everyday life are what our team from IDBM got to experience first hand in Sub-Saharan Africa, in our case, Uganda. The project was about supporting the West Acholi Cooperative Union (WACU), a local cooperative union in Northern Uganda, to activate dormant farmer cooperatives. There were many stories and struggles that we discovered during the process, but we faced one problem statement – “How do we incentivize more farmers to actively participate in the collaborative setting?”

Left picture, farmland in the Gulu region. Right picture, a dusty red soil road in Gulu.

Left photo: Mirte van der Nat. Right photo: Fredrik Lindstedt


Getting ready

This project uses problem based learning meaning that it is student led. We, the students, have all the flexibility in shaping the project including how we prepared for the field visit. Before traveling to Gulu, we had a chance to meet our international team through Zoom. We were given a brief introduction to the challenge, and we began doing background research on the problem. We did a literature review on farmers and cooperatives in Sub-Saharan Africa and Uganda and also interviewed our client to gather as much information as we could. Occasionally, we also did some research on the culture, food, language, clothing style (anti-Tsetse fly style), must-go places, and everything that would make our trip amazing! In other words, we were well-prepared for the project and very excited for the adventure!

A remote meeting with the international team before the field visit to Uganda.

Screenshot: Mirte van der Nat

Field research

In the first couple of days in Gulu, we had workshops and guest lectures about the local culture and research practices. And finally, after months of preparation, it was time to visit the cooperatives and meet the farmers we had read so much about. We divided into three teams, squeezed ourselves into small vans and headed to our destination. We visited a total of 10 cooperatives in three days across three different districts in which WACU is active: Gulu, Nwoya and Amuru.

Districts of Acholi Sub-Region. Photo: Claire Shaw

We were warmly welcomed by the cooperative leaders that often spoke English and we gathered under a big tree or in a small church. This took some time and quickly we learned that we must be flexible and patient. To conduct the focus group research we needed a translator. Fortunately many of the students from Gulu and the staff from WACU were fluent in Acholi, the local language. To gain a variety of perspectives, we split the cooperative members into different focus groups, so leaders, female and youth members could all speak freely. The farmers were very willing to share their stories, challenges and beliefs, and we learned a lot about day-to-day life as a farmer and cooperatives as well as the local culture and values. With focus groups of 30 to 100 farmers, our discussions took the whole morning. Sometimes we needed to follow the shade of the tree as the sun traveled overhead to stay comfortable. Most days it was 35°C or higher.

‘I really enjoyed the experience. It was more intensive and challenging than expected but still motivating’ - Giulia, student from partner university.

One of the focus groups at one of the primary cooperatives. Photo: Claire Shaw

Lessons learned

We learned many stories from the farmers, and the amount of challenges that we can work on are plentiful. Now the biggest hurdle will be to synthesize these different stories into tangible action and create a prototype that can best address the needs of the farmers and the cooperative union. All in all, the experience of going to Africa, conducting research, deep diving into the local culture and context, and meeting new people was an irreplaceable adventure. Hopefully, we will be able to visit Gulu again in the future to see whether this project was able to contribute positively to the region.

Apwoyo! Thank you!

A picture of students team and mentors in front of the rice mill at WACU.


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