An adult education class in Okere. Photo Credit: Zahara Abdul
Civilization and humanity advance only if people can access relevant skills and knowledge and utilize them for their greater good. This is because knowledge and skills improve employability and livelihood opportunities, reduce poverty, enhance productivity, and promote sustainability.
Unfortunately, rural dwellers remain lowly skilled and less knowledgeable because of multiple factors which are both structural and systemic. For instance, rural dwellers find it very difficult to access quality education and training due to their low incomes. Indeed, many rural dwellers do not even have basic numeracy and literacy skills. For instance, in Okere, up to 72% of the adult population cannot properly read and write.
In the event there are any skilling opportunities, most rural economies fail to absorb such skilled professionals. Resultantly, the majority migrate to urban areas to ply their skills. Unfortunately, many rural youths still face great disadvantages when trying to enter urban labor markets because of their low level of education and lack of relevant skills and work experience.
Therefore, advancing skills and knowledge to rural people and creating opportunities for utilizing such skills/knowledge should be a key development priority. Indeed, the ILO recognizes that to achieve this, coordinated efforts are needed to develop an integrated approach that improves access to relevant, good-quality education and training for all rural dwellers.
Being an enabler for skills acquisition and creating a thriving economic ecosystem for utilizing these skills is the anchor of Okere City’s integrated rural development model. Founded in 2019, Okere City is a radical rural development plan on a journey to build the first sustainable rural city in Africa. Of course, a sustainable city can only be built if knowledge and skills are accessed and appropriately utilized. We are championing skills development and investing in enterprise development to create transformative agrarian reforms and opportunities in several ways.
Firstly, we are investing in vocational skills training and starting-up enterprises where rural youth can practically be engaged in economic production. In 2020, we started up a carpentry training programme that enrolled 20 village youth to acquire practical skills in woodwork and joinery. Many of these youth are school dropouts with extremely limited livelihood alternatives. Idle and redundant, most of them had resorted to excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs – with all their associated ills. One year later, the majority of the youth (13 of them) are now employed as carpenters at Keo-Care, a sustainable construction company that uses bamboo and other locally sourced materials to build houses and make other products such as chairs, beds, tables, etc.
In 2021, we also invested in 10 rural women by enabling them to participate in a 6-months fashion and design training. After the training, all 10 women are now employed at RISE-UP Fashion Hub also located in Okere City. The fashion hub now produces school uniforms for local schools and also makes clothes that are sold to local community members.
Secondly, we are championing adult education to promote functional literacy in Okere. Illiteracy is one of the biggest hindrances to rural development. According to UBOS (2014), the illiteracy rate among those aged 10 years and above in Otuke District (where Okere is located) is among the highest in Uganda at 72%. Everywhere, illiteracy has always and is still the greatest Impediment towards the advancement of progressive societies. An illiterate person cannot make any significant leap forward nor can they thrive in today’s competitive world. True to this, most rural households continue to be enmeshed in a cyclical poverty trap because being illiterate significantly narrows their livelihood opportunities because they lack the requisite knowledge and skills.
The illiteracy challenge is even more glaring among the rural women in Okere. In a recent community survey, we found out that up to 95% of women in Okere village had not completed primary education. In a society where women who are a key pillar in development processes are illiterate, any significant positive change is a farfetched dream. It is upon this premise that the Adult Education to Reform Okere (AERO-KWAN) project was conceived. Aero-Kwan project provides an ambitious educational and learning physical platform for adult learners where lessons are conducted and facilitated by trained adult education experts. Currently, up to 120 rural women are enrolled as adult learners.
Thirdly, through the village bank project, Okere City trains rural people in enterprise development, and financial literacy. Okere Village Bank also facilitates savings and access through village saving and loan activities (VSLAs). Currently, 1,000 community members who are members of Okere Village Bank can access affordable credit to start up or expand their small businesses. The business development training also helps them to write business plans, professionally market their products/services and increase their sales and profitability.
Lastly, through Okere Shea Butter Cooperative Society, 120 community members are also trained in value-addition, marketing, and communication skills. Additionally, we also collaborate with the community to add value to shea nuts which grow naturally in the village. As part of the value-addition process, Okere Shea Co-op launched Okere Shea Butter - one of the most popular organic cosmetic products in Uganda. With a turnover of $35,000 in 2021, Okere Shea Co-op makes a net profit of 1,000 USD every month.
Moreover, the coop launched a successful environmental protection training and ecological campaign against the cutting down of Shea trees which in the IUCN red-list as one of the most endangered natural resources in Uganda. Once degraded due to ignorance by the local community for charcoal production, Shea nut trees are now a prized natural resource protected and conserved by local communities. This is mostly because of the new skills and knowledge imparted to the local community and the tireless and relentless sensitization campaigns we have conducted over the past two years.
As we invest in training and skilling our rural community, we continue learning some of the following key lessons;
i. Whilst agriculture is the main source of rural livelihoods, non-farm activities are increasingly becoming a key driver for rural transformation. According to the ILO, one in four rural workers is employed full-time in non-farm rural work.
ii. Access to training is a major constraint among rural people. For instance, nearly 98 percent of the rural labor force in Okere have no formal business or technical training.
iii. Rural girls and women are often the most disadvantaged meaning that deliberate attempts must be made to ensure that women and girls receive the requisite training they need to completely change the trajectory of their households.
iv. Training outside the formal training system is often the most important source of skills training in Africa.
v. It is important to assess labor market needs and economic opportunities, and link training to the skills requirements in the particular rural context.