|Getting a hug from Rose Angeyango, Head of Microfinance for IFAPI|
Canadian Co-operators stand by Ugandan partners in good times, bad
To escape the rebel soldiers, Ivan Asiimwe hid in a northern Uganda swamp, afraid to move for fear that he might be spotted and shot. The soldiers were one threat to his life. The others were the crocodiles and other wild animals that he shared the swamp with. Ivan stood trembling in its cold, muddy waters so long (two weeks) – even sleeping standing - that his black skin “turned white.”
Today, Ivan Asiimwe is Head of Internal Audit & Supervision of the Uganda Cooperative Alliance which joined forces with the Canadian Co-operative Association to develop and deliver the Integrated Finance and Agricultural Production Initiative (IFAPI). Phase I of the project was carried out between 2005 and 2008 while civil war was still being waged in Uganda.
Canada stood by
Rose Angeyango, Head of Microfinance for IFAPI said CCA was the only international partner that stood by UCA during this period of political turmoil. If not for CCA, UCA would not exist,” she told our group, her voice breaking with emotion “We were able to forge ahead and (CCA) is why we are here today.”
By not turning its back on UCA, and moving forward with IFAPI, thousands of Ugandans have benefitted from this unique initiative. IFAPI links all levels of the supply chain – production, marketing and finance – and connects farmer, marketing and savings and credit co-operatives to improve the lives the rural poor.
Our role was to gather and record the stories of members who have discovered the power of belonging to co-operatives Much like Ivan’s story, they told heartbreaking tales of death and disease, poverty and inhumanity. Julius Turyahebwa, project coordinator for IFAPI, said the war, which only ended in 2008, forced people off their land and into refugee camps, making them entirely dependent on hand-outs. “It was just life in the camps,” he explained. The violence also contributed to the spread of AIDs with soldiers raping women, even children, as a weapon of war. (A number of the women farmers and small business owner we met with were widows of disease victims. The co-ops they belonged to were helping them become self-reliant.)
Farmers had to abandon their properties, and even those that remained risked having their crops stolen by soldiers. Displaced farmers had no means to keep pace with advances in farming, and so, over the years, not only was arable land untilled, the knowledge gap widened. “In terms of capacity building they lost a lot. It was really a dire situation,” Ivan said.
As a farmer’s daughter I admit that I struggled sometimes to understand why Ugandan farmers are so far behind in terms of their tools and methods. Their equipment is rudimentary – most still used hand hoes – and only now are they employing what Westerners would consider basic farming practices like pruning to increase their productivity and production. However, as I learned from an earlier mission to Nicaragua, we cannot look at the pictures we see in developing nations through our North American lens. As I listened to Ivan and others, it was clear to me that Ugandans have suffered greatly from political strife. Indeed given their struggles, it was impressive to see how far they have come in such a short time.
The same can be said of the co-operative movement in Uganda. It too was devastated by war. Once a strong sector in the country’s economy, Uganda’s dictatorial governments all but wiped out the democratically-controlled network. “It was like committing suicide to talk about co-operatives,” Ivan explained. In fact, Uganda’s “whole social structure completely collapsed” under the regimes of rulers like the infamous Idi Amin. “War was so bad we could not mobilize co-ops,” UCA manager Patrick Okello said.
Now that Uganda is no longer “under the rule of guns” and people are relatively free, the co-operative is enjoying a resurgence. And that’s in no small part due to the collaborative efforts of UCA and CCA. In fact, its IFAPI co-operative business model has been so successful it is now being replicated in other African countries.
I could not think of any better way to spend the latter part of the International Year of the Co-operatives witnessing first hand how Canadian supported-co-ops and credit unions are helping lift people out of poverty and stand on their own two feet.