A Visit with Organic Cotton Farmers in Northern Uganda

Editor’s Note: This blog was originally posted on Tamsin Chislett’s blog on Thursday, May 18.

Acumen Fund’s East Africa Fellows visited some of our organic cotton farmers yesterday. It took a while to get to the village, not least because a truck driver had broken down on a narrow road ahead of us, locked up his truck, and disappeared with the keys.

We were forced to turn round and take a ‘shortcut’ on a village road through the bush, mowing down a few small bushes on the way in our big rickety bus. When we eventually got there, the farmers gave us a very warm welcome, dancing along the path to the bus to greet us. (A few were very enthusiastic – as a general rule, the later we are to meet farmers, the more of them will have started on the waraji (gin) sachets…). The children danced, sang and drummed, a brilliant performance which if I remember rightly from last time I saw it means something like, ‘Thank you to the government for all you have done….but please can you stop messing around and do lots more essential things’. (That may have been a non-literal translation).

Stella translated while the East Africa Fellows introduced themselves, and farmers stepped forward to describe their work with the ginnery. I was worried to begin with as the first few farmers all said the same thing – “The organic programme has helped me pay for my children’s school fees” – which is hardly enlightening, and sounds like we’ve rolled these farmers out to give the company an ego boost. But I needn’t have worried: eventually a young man stood up with a piece of paper and listed 10 questions he had for the visitors. It became clear there was a bit of confusion – the questions were really for the cotton ginnery – but I had to smile when he read out a long list of demands and queries on all the topics that were really bothering the farmers. It’s difficult to write this without sounding patronising, but the fact that a young farmer stands up in front of 100 other farmers & 25 visitors and reads out a pre-organised list of demands is actually brilliant. I’d take that over a pre-rehearsed ‘the ginnery is great’ comment any day, because open and honest back and forth discussion with farmers is much more valuable, and this way we at the ginnery can try to get to the bottom of what the farmers really need instead of imposing what we think they need. It also of course reminded me that there’s lots of work to do – and that things that I de-prioritise back at the ginnery because there’s lots going on, are actually day-to-day concerns for farmers. It was definitely motivating to hear the issues straight from farmers’ themselves. The session closed with another dance and the Fellows joined in, which, judging from the farmers’ smiles & laughter, almost made up for our late-ness.

Lastly, two photos that I love… The first one, of children watching the dance through an ipad screen: And the second, of the dance following us out all the way to the bus:


Tamsin Chislett is an Acumen Fund Global Fellow working in Gulu, Uganda with Gulu Agricultural Development Company, a for-profit cotton ginnery in Northern Uganda that is providing former refugees with critical support to regain their livelihoods. Tamsin is from the United Kingdom and worked at Bain & Company as a management consultant, and she has previously worked with TechnoServe in Zimbabwe as a volunteer consultant.


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