Geographies in Depth

How Uganda's refugee farmers are sowing seeds of change

Ugandan women water seedlings at a small farm outside Lira town March 8, 2009. The world marks International Women's Day on Sunday. REUTERS/Hudson Apunyo (UGANDA AGRICULTURE)

Refugees are encouraged to build their own houses and use their gardens to grow food to supplement their rations. Image: REUTERS/Hudson Apunyo

Claire Cozens
Editor, Thomas Reuters Foundation
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  • Uganda has about 1.4 million refugees, according to the UNHCR, the third highest number in the world after Turkey and Pakistan.
  • It has been widely praised for its open-door policy to refugees.
  • In Bidi Bidi, refugees are given plots of land to farm by local farmers.

One of the few possessions refugee Emily Bronte carried with him when he fled war in South Sudan for Uganda was a battered copy of an aid agency booklet on how to run a farming cooperative.

The booklet, with its cartoon donkeys illustrating negotiation techniques and instructions to pray after every cooperative meeting, might not seem like the first thing you would grab if you were running for your life.

Yet its contents have helped the 46-year-old, who got his unusual name at the suggestion of an Italian missionary, to feed and educate his children, and given him hope for a future in which they do not rely solely on handouts.

Bronte is one of a number of refugee farmers in Bidi Bidi, a vast settlement in northern Uganda that covers an area more than twice the size of Paris, in a rare example of cooperation between refugees and their hosts.

Groups of refugees have formed cooperatives with local farmers who are unable to cultivate all their land and would rather see it farmed than lie fallow.

"I talked to the landlord and he gave me one acre ... He said he wanted the land to go to good use," Bronte told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Bidi Bidi, home to about 230,000 South Sudanese refugees.

The landowners lend the refugees plots of land that they farm, either solely or in groups. Some charge rent, but most take only a share of the harvest - a generosity attributed to the fact that many have themselves been refugees.

"I didn't pay," said Bronte outside his mud-brick home, as small children played at his feet while older ones helped fetch firewood for cooking.

"He (the landlord) didn't even ask for money from me. He said that during the Ugandan war, they (Ugandans) ran to South Sudan and that in the place where he settled, the people helped him."

Emily Bronte's wife cooks over a fire at the family's home in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. Yumbe district, Uganda.
A woman cooking over a fire at her home in Uganda Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Claire Cozens


Uganda has been widely praised for its open-door policy towards refugees.

The country has about 1.4 million refugees, estimates the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), the third highest number in the world after Turkey and Pakistan.

The government allocates new arrivals a plot of land big enough to build a mud-brick house and plant a small vegetable garden, gives them freedom of movement – they live in settlements, not camps - and the right to work.

But like many host countries, it is struggling.

The South Sudanese who make up the bulk of the refugees in Uganda look unlikely to return any time soon, with a peace deal signed more than a year ago yet to be implemented.

Global aid budgets are being squeezed with the UNHCR warning this month that the "gap between needs and available funding continues to grow" and the United States, which once accepted large numbers of refugees for resettlement, now takes far fewer.

Although Uganda's refugees live relatively harmoniously with the host population, there are tensions over resources such as firewood.

Last week the UNHCR said two refugees and two Ugandans had been killed in clashes in Nyumanzi, a settlement near Bidi Bidi. It was not clear what sparked the violence.

Uganda's minister for disaster relief and preparedness, Musa Ecweru, said his country needed more funds to help refugees develop new skills and farm better.

But he said the world had a responsibility to create the conditions that would allow refugees to return home, calling the surge in numbers a "collective failure".

"It is the only durable solution," said Ecweru in an interview in Kampala. "For as long as they are persecuted, I will welcome them. But that does not suggest that I am capable of protecting them."

Ministers from around the world will gather at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva this week to address these challenges after a decade in which the UNHCR says the number of refugees worldwide has doubled to well over 25 million.

Among their goals is to increase the self-reliance of refugees, making them less dependent on U.N. aid and better able to sustain themselves.

In Uganda, a developing country where land is still relatively plentiful, refugees are already encouraged to build their own houses and use their gardens to grow food to supplement their U.N. rations.

Many have set up small businesses, but the remoteness of their settlements means work opportunities are limited. Although allowed to move freely, they need to stay close to the settlements to access food and medical assistance.

Victor Odero, regional advocacy director for the global aid agency International Rescue Committee (IRC), said there needs to be a shift in focus from standalone interventions in a crisis to economic empowerment of refugees.

"Humanitarian aid is short term and largely underfunded. Those long-term development goals are the first to be cut when budgets are reduced," he said, calling for a "total paradigm shift" in refugee aid.

Children sit outside Emily Bronte's home in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. Yumbe district, Uganda.
Children sitting outside a home in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement Image: homson Reuters Foundation/Claire Cozens


The IRC provides new farmers in Bidi Bidi with seeds, and funds the hire of a tractor to plough newly acquired land.

Among those who have received such help is Samuel Sokire, 61, who has had to flee his home in South Sudan for Uganda three times, most recently during a flare-up of violence in late 2016.

By January 2017, he had built a house in Bidi Bidi. But he wanted more.

"When people were still building, I was already begging a place to cultivate. That was in January and by the time the rains came (in March), I got more land. Life became good," said Sokire, who also borrowed land through a farming cooperative.

"The U.N. only gives 2.4kg of beans per person per month. It's not enough."

Sokire had two big advantages - his knowledge of Swahili, spoken by many older Ugandans in the area, and the grinding machine he had carried from South Sudan and could lend or hire out to neighbours.

The land he farms belongs to local landowner Ojobile Kennedy, who had his own reason for wanting to share his land with refugees - their presence has scared off the wild animals that used to destroy his crops.

"Before, the monkeys and warthogs would destroy everything, even if I spent half the night banging jerry cans to scare them off," said the 42-year-old, gesticulating to demonstrate.

"We let them (refugees) clear the land, let them do their own thing. We are happy about the refugees."

Children carry firewood in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. Yumbe district, Uganda.
Children collecting firewood for their settlement Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Claire Cozens


Not everyone in the group is thriving though.

Single mother Buludina Sumure's asthma means she cannot walk far, limiting her access to farmland.

This year she paid to rent a small plot near her house, but it became waterlogged in the rainy season, and the sesame and maize seeds she had planted failed.

Asked if she hoped to find a better plot next planting season, Sumure raised her hands in resignation. "I don't know how the land will be," she said. "This land is not ours".

Even those refugees who are managing to make a go of farming know their situation is precarious.

Bronte has a good relationship with his landlord, who does not charge rent. But he fears that could change if the U.N. were to stop providing food to the refugees because they would struggle to give away a share of their harvest.

"Although you know your friend, you don't know what he is thinking," said Bronte, who supports his sister, nieces and nephews as well as his own wife and children.

"Being with a family, you have to think, tomorrow what is coming?"

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