Ojok Okello is a man on a mission. After years of studying and working in development circles, he returned home in 2017 to a village in Northern Uganda, which had been dilapidated and devastated by years of a conflict orchestrated by cattle rustlers and rebels; a conflict that had claimed his father’s life.
Determined to empower and change the fortunes of his community members, Okello is transforming the village into a thriving town through a sustainable city model.
Okere City, established about one year ago, is home to 4,500 members and has a school, a healthcare center, a village bank, a flourishing market, a community-owned product now in the market, a groceries supermarket, clean water points and electricity generated from solar energy.
The project that has taken a self-sustaining model, with the local community members running the various enterprises in it and earning from them, is looking to scale to a fully-fledged city.
Okello Spoke to FairPlanet about the project’s mission and journey and his ultimate plan to inspire more such projects across developing nations as a way to champion sustainable cities of the future.
FairPlanet: Tell us about where the inspiration to start Okere City came from, the journey so far and the current status of the project.
Ojok Okello: After years of studying at Makerere University in Uganda and London School of Economics and working in various international development organisations, I had this burning desire of going back to my place of birth in Northern Uganda.
When I did in 2017, the situation was still deplorable. Everything was wrong. From lack of clean drinking water, poor sanitation, lack of health facilities and children not able to access education.
The initial house that I had constructed to settle in would attract children to play in the compound and that is how I first conceived the idea of establishing a nursery school in that house. From an initial 8 children, the classroom had 100 children within a few months.
As interest among children to access education picked up, the parents noticed that something good was happening and they also got interested. They expressed interest in learning, since most of them had not accessed education due to disruptions from the conflict. That is how we also started adult education.
Eventually, by coming together, parents started a village savings scheme where they could [lend] each other, which birthed the village banking scheme.
We later started a village groceries supermarket which became a hub. Villagers would bring their farm produce, including beans and cassava, to sell in the hub, and then use the proceeds to buy basic household goods that they did not have from the grocery supermarket. This hub metamorphosed into a big market, with Saturdays being the official market days, bringing up to 1,000 people to trade with each other. This has been one of the landmark initiatives in the project and has inspired us in our pursuit to create a sustainable city, because the opportunities the hub has created has attracted people from far and wide.
Okere City embraces the 4,500 community members of Okere village and sits on 200 hectares of land. The idea of our project is not premised on charity or foreign help. We want to build businesses that are resilient and sustainable. We now have a primary school, a medical facility and we are working with farmers to grow maize on a commercial basis and we hope to establish a maize milling plant in order to produce milled maize to sell to all regions in Uganda.
The region where the project is located is the Shea belt of Uganda. We mobilised women to start collecting Shea nuts [and]partnered with a factory where we take the nuts that are then produced into shea butter. In July last year, we launched the Okere Shea butter in the market and by December we had made $2,000 in profits.
What would you say makes the Okere city model unique?
Our project is community-driven and centered. Everything is done by the people, from deciding the model of the school, to selecting the colour of the school uniform. Our project does not rely on foreign aid or donations, and the community members who run it earn from it.
How sustainable is that?
As I mentioned earlier, we have not been keen to have external support in terms of charity.
The support we are looking at is maybe credit facilities or partnership with financial institutions because of the ambitious projects we have that require massive capital injection – for example building classrooms, agriculture storage facilities and the infrastructure around the city like roads.
If it weren’t for these massive projects, we wouldn’t need any foreign support. The projects we have put up are meant to generate income, however small. That income plays a significant role in sustaining the city.
There have been concerns that some donor-funded projects are usually short-lived and struggle to meet the purpose and target they set out to. As a development expert, why do you think that is the case and what advice would you give on sustainability of projects?
Development workers and initiators of international aid projects must know from the beginning what it is they want with a project by doing a thorough diagnosis of the problem. In certain and numerous instances, development projects are out of tune with the needs of the beneficiaries because the beneficiaries were never involved in the first place and these projects have been imposed on them.
For Okere City, the success of the project has been anchored in the involvement and engagement of the local community right from the design of the project.
What is the potential of replicating the Okere city model in other developing countries and what should be done to ensure they are successful?
One of our key objectives at Okere City is to ensure that the whole of Africa learns from our work. Most people ask me about scaling rather than replicating. I am not going to start an Okere city in South Africa, Nigeria or Egypt. The idea is to document the Okere City story and lessons so that anyone who is motivated can learn from the project and set a basis for developing it in their region. There are two recipes to guarantee success of this kind of project: one is that there has to be a vision bearer who is willing to chaperone the project and see it to its success; secondly, and most importantly, is investing in the community and ensuring that they are the key stakeholders of the project. They should own it.
What do you consider as the major milestones of the project?
In one year, since starting Okere City, we have managed to create real impact in a village that was ravaged and devastated by the impacts of the conflict.
At least 25 people access affordable medical care in the health facility, whether it is testing for Malaria, HIV/AIDS or getting counselling services.
We have managed to provide education to about 120 children and their parents, something they have demonstrated they desperately needed.
We have been able to provide high yielding seeds, farm inputs and agricultural extension services to more than 300 farmers.
Some impacts cannot be quantified today or tomorrow or with numbers. Children learning something new every day, or a Shea tree being protected and not being felled because the community members are sensitised about the benefits of the trees, these are the things that matter to me.
What are the biggest challenges the project has faced?
Because of the highly intensive capital nature of our projects, we need money to improve our infrastructure. We need revenue and, at the moment, our revenue streams are lean to invest in such heavy projects. We are one year old and have made quite a lot of progress so we remain optimistic of a bright future.
It was tough in the beginning selling the idea of the project to the community members, but with what we have managed to achieve in twelve months and the impact the project has had in their lives, they have owned it.
How has COVID-19 affected the project and how have you remained resilient?
We had to close the nursery school following the government directive when the pandemic struck.
We also scaled down on operations of the market day to limit human interaction.
But that aside, COVID-19 has been a blessing in disguise. The most important project we did, the grocery supermarket, was implemented during the COVID-19-induced lockdown. We started it because all the markets that farmers used to access were closed and they had nowhere to access basic commodities. The grocery facility opened new business opportunities for community members.
What is the next big thing from Okere City?
Most of our projects are in their initial stage – the health center and the school. The next stage is to expand their scope and scale to ensure that they improve on their delivery and to increase the number of community members who benefit from them.
We also want to invest in infrastructure, a good road network and improved solar lighting in order to give the project a futuristic and city status.
Image: @Badru Katumba
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