Students trained to train refugees in agribusiness skills

Refugees have welcomed an international initiative at Gulu University, in northern Uganda, in which students are equipping them with skills in agribusiness and micro-enterprise development, helping them become financially independent.

The programme is a win-win solution to two common challenges in Africa: how to develop skills among students to prepare them to contribute to agriculture and food security and how to enable refugees, who are among the world’s most vulnerable and resource-starved communities, and local people to earn an income and help supply food to their peers.

Gulu is one of two African universities implementing the Mastercard Foundation-funded Transforming African Agricultural Universities project, whose goal is to make a meaningful contribution to Africa’s growth and development. The public university was established in 2001 in the city of Gulu, and now has more than 4,000 students.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The other university is Egerton University, in Nakuru, Kenya, an institution that excels in agriculture. The eight-year, US$27 million project, which runs from 2016 to 2024, will support the training of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and communities from post-conflict and conflict-affected areas across the continent.

So far, 45 students have benefited from study scholarships in the two universities.

At Gulu University, whose region is itself recovering from two decades of civil war, much of it sparked by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, the foundation has been supporting the training of students in programmes such as agribusiness development, food security and nutrition.

Students training refugees

The students in turn have used the skills and knowledge acquired from the university to train refugees (423 in the past year) in northern Uganda and more than 500 local Ugandans from host communities, in running micro and agribusiness enterprises that could help them earn an income and potentially transform their lives.

In the past year, postgraduate students from Gulu University, funded by the Mastercard Foundation, spent eight-week blocks with refugee communities in West Nile, in north-west Uganda, which hosts refugees from South Sudan, whose ongoing civil war continues to flare up and cost lives, preventing repatriation.

In these settlements, the students were allocated to work with different refugee groups to impart practical skills on starting and running small income-generating enterprises within their communities.

Through the programme, the refugees are instructed in developing various skill sets, including how to identify viable cost-effective income-generating activities, how to make business plans and how to use available resources in their settlements to bring their ideas to life.

The idea of focusing on skilling and building the capacity for refugees is based on experience gained through two innovative agricultural sciences training models that Gulu University has been implementing at its faculty of agriculture and environment.

These are a student-centred enterprise scheme and a student-centred outreach model, both key to expanding the university’s engagement with the non-refugee communities that it serves.

These models ensure that Gulu’s agricultural training reflects the needs of these communities, said Samuel Elolu, manager of the project at Gulu University.

“The focus is to ensure that universities can come up with different projects arising from community needs and with the input of the communities, be able to find sustainable solutions,” said Elolu.

Geared to the context

The refugees project has been designed based on these models, with the aim of ensuring that refugees can be economically productive while living in confined settlements.

Once refugees arrive in Uganda, they are often allocated small plots of land, just enough for them to construct a small hut and engage in small-scale farming.

“On such pieces of land, it is only possible to operate a micro-enterprise so we focused our training with them on small enterprises with high value – and which can bring in quick money,” said Dr Walter Odongo, a lecturer at Gulu University’s agriculture faculty and coordinator of its outreach programme.

He gave an example of mushroom farming – where refugees are trained in producing such crops “for business … and also how to package and market it”. Odongo said this approach has helped refugees understand how micro-enterprises can increase their food security and earn an income.

Paul Itto, 27, is one refugee who has benefited. Itto has lived as a refugee in Uganda for 22 years, having fled the then southern region of Sudan in 1997 during the then civil war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Khartoum government in the north of Sudan.

“I came here as a five-year-old. All my life I’ve lived as a refugee and there are no opportunities for jobs here. But now with the skills we have acquired, we have something to engage in,” said Itto, who lives in Maaji I Refugee Settlement, in Adjumani district, north-west Uganda. He grows mushrooms in polythene sacks.

Such initiatives are important for Uganda given that it hosts an estimated 1.1 million refugees from more than 10 countries. At least 900,000 of these are from South Sudan alone, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

As elsewhere in the world, refugees in Uganda face several challenges, including a lack of economic and job opportunities. Many have lived in camps for decades without access to formal education, which subsequently limits their access to employment.

Although Uganda’s policies on refugees are progressive, allowing them to work, set up businesses and move freely in the country, in reality, finding jobs is often an uphill task for refugees, including those with formal education.

Forced to sell food rations

Jennifer Oleya, 30, who lives in Agojo refugee settlement, also in the West Nile region, is another beneficiary. She came to Uganda in 2016 from South Sudan and since then, she says, her only source of money has been to sell part of her food ration. “The only way we have been able to get money is by selling the food we are given.”

But that has changed because the project has skilled her in cash crop production and marketing – again in mushrooms. “The technology is also simple; we don’t need land to grow the mushrooms,” she said, noting that she sells mushrooms to fellow refugees and Ugandan locals.

As for the postgraduate students involved in these programmes, their participation offers them an opportunity to apply in practice the knowledge they have gained at Gulu University.

Melas Adoko, 21, from Benin, is one – pursuing a postgraduate degree in food security and community nutrition. He is a Mastercard Foundation supported student who has worked with refugees to train them on business value addition.

“I come from a country where food insecurity is a challenge. As a child, I faced the same challenges, so going to the refugee settlements was for me one way of contributing to addressing the issue of food insecurity,” Adoko told University World News.

Together with his team, they worked in settlements in Arua, again in north-west Uganda, where they trained refugees on boosting money that can be made by processing widely available food crops such as cassava.

Learning from refugees

For 24-year-old Sarudzai Muzhange from Zimbabwe, the programme has also enabled her to enrich her own education by learning from the refugees.

“Most of the ideas about the kind of enterprises they wanted to start came from them. All we were doing was to guide them through the process – things like identifying the best enterprise for them, developing a business plan and how to make revenue from the enterprise,” said Muzhange, a postgraduate student in agri-enterprise development.

She hopes to take the skills she has learnt, both from the university and in working with refugees, back to Zimbabwe, where she plans to start her own food-based business.

Elolu said experiences such as these demonstrate how the initiative is a form of exchange programme between communities and the students.

“When we attach students to communities, there is cross learning. The students transfer knowledge to the communities, but they also get to learn about real life experiences. This is what we call experiential learning … and it is what the university is promoting,” he concluded.