How Innovative Gardening Transformed Thousands of Lives in a Refugee Community
More than 1.5 million refugees have settled in Uganda in a desperate search for food, water, and peace. Most are women and most come from South Sudan, where conflict forced families to flee their homes and make a perilous journey over the southern border. When they finally reach Uganda, many are dehydrated, malnourished, and often ill. Others don’t survive the long journey.
With few belongings and little connections to their new country, refugees are in urgent need of support. With its own long history of conflict and displacement, Uganda is generous to today’s refugees. When refugees cross the border, they are processed at a reception center, and given instructions on where to resettle. The government also allocates each household a 30×30 or 50×50 square meter plot. But many people lack the skills and technology needed to succeed as small-scale farmers.
That’s why Action Against Hunger and its partners launched a project aimed at imparting essential farming knowledge to thousands of refugees. The project has reached nearly 24,000 people directly, and nearly 120,000 lives have also been improved by the project’s far-reaching ripple effects. At least half are refugees—many who never even dreamed of owning their very own plot of land. Today, they’re farmers.
In the small district of Adjumani, refugees make up about half of the population, with over 209,000 refugees seeking asylum as of March. Action Against Hunger worked alongside refugees to teach the Optimized Land Use Model, or OLUM, a technical strategy that optimizes small crop fields to reap the largest harvest. Farmers are given training, farming tools, seeds, and constant guidance to ensure they can get the most out of their land. They also learn innovative gardening techniques—such as multi-story cultivation or intercropping, mulching, composting, efficient water use, and planting a mix of fast-growing crop varieties.
“The OLUM approach fits into a small piece of land,” says Mary Acen, the OLUM Technical Lead for Action Against Hunger in Adjumani. “[We can achieve our goal] of producing nutritious food to supplement their diets, and also to supplement the food given by the World Food Program.”
Before joining the project, many refugees were dependent on humanitarian aid from the World Food Programme, and often could not feed their families without this added support. Over the last few years, the World Food Programme has cut back on rations in Uganda due to lack of funding. Still, with training from Action Against Hunger, Ugandan community members are learning complete self-sufficiency.
Ajuo Josephine, a South Sudanese refugee, resettled in Uganda in 2016. A single mother of ten, she struggled to feed her family for years. Now, Adjuo uses OLUM in her small land plot to harvest dozens of veggies, including cabbage, onions, tomatoes, and collard greens. With these abundant crops, Adjuo not only ensures that her family is well-fed and healthy—she’s also able to sustain a steady income.
“Besides getting enough vegetables for eating, I also sold a substantial part of the harvest,” she said. During the dry season, when crops were in high demand, Ajuo was able to sell even more. With this additional income, she was able to pay school fees for all of her children.
Ajuo also serves as a Nutrition Community Leader, which means she volunteers in her community to teach proper nutrition awareness. On her own, she has reached 200 households with messages on healthy nutrition.
“I needed to share the good information with my fellow refugees in order to stamp out cases of malnutrition in our community,” she said. She’s especially focused on teaching nutrition equally to both men and women throughout her village. “My efforts have not been in vain. Now, I even see men accompanying their wives for antenatal visits, which was not a reality before.”
A farmer holds cow pea (black eyed pea) leaves, which are locally known as “Osubi” in Lugbara language. It is one of the vegetables widely grown in the OLUM vegetable gardens. The leaves are eaten as a vegetable and the peas are eaten as a source of protein.
From struggling farmer to community leader
Charles Lungwa, another South Sudanese refugee, arrived in Uganda in 2016. His life has gone through a metamorphosis: from toiling to keep his family afloat to becoming an official Nutrition Community Leader.
“My family life before [Action Against Hunger’s] intervention was miserable,” he said. “I was living in a grass-thatched house and eating one meal a day. My children were not in school, and I could not afford basic household needs like soap or sugar.”
Like many other refugees, Charles was given a small plot of land in Uganda, but it wasn’t until he learned about OLUM that he was able to start earning money. He was given seeds and trained in crop agronomy and nutrition education. He received essential tools, from watering cans to rakes to a 120-watt horsepower solar irrigation kit. Action Against Hunger’s staff excavated a water pond nearby for irrigation. And before long, his farming business was taking off.
In only three years, Charles has transformed from “fully dependent” to “fully independent,” and he’s harvested plenty of crops to feed his family. He’s also earned over $2,800 from selling his harvest, and he’s now able to buy more tools that he needs to succeed. He’s purchased a motorcycle to transport produce, a solar system for lighting, four goats, a laptop, and even constructed a semi-permanent single room house.
“The training and material support from [the project] has transformed our lives,” he said. “We can now survive on our own.”
With Optimized Land Use Model (OLUM) gardening, farmers can maximize their land plots and produce more crops. Here, Mokili Innocent gathers eggplant.
Charles has big plans for the future. He rented three acres of extra land to increase his vegetable production, and he’s working hard every day to train his fellow villagers on how to join in on his success. As a Community Nutrition Leader, he is also now a local role model. He conducts regular demonstrations to teach 29 different farmers about OLUM.
Charles no longer needs to rely on outside support for basic needs. Still, he’s grateful for the guidance. “We agreed as a family to work hard and ensure that we produce vegetables for consumption and sale throughout the year,” he said. “Together, we can help eradicate poverty and malnutrition, as well as support the elderly.”
Throughout Adjumani, OLUM has revolutionized crop production in small spaces. The plots will now be sustainable for years to come. While climate change always poses a risk to the environment and food security, the community in Adjumani is self-sufficient and better prepared for the future. They no longer depend on support: they are resilient, independent, and equipped.
“The levels of malnutrition reported at the health facilities has gone down,” says Charles Wabwire, a project coordinator. “Mothers have learned how to prepare a balanced diet for the children and for the families. The amount of food that families produce in the host community has increased.”
After years of insecurity, households across Adjumani finally have access to enough food, and refugees and host members alike will continue working together for years to come.
Famers use OLUM gardening to reap the largest harvests. Ejoyi Morish, a commercial tomato farmer, gathers his tomatoes into a bucket.
About the Project
The European Union Emergency Trust Fund (EUTF) Response to Increased Demand in Government Service and Creation of Economic Opportunities in Uganda (RISE) Project, organized by a consortium of nonprofit organizations and spearheaded by Action Against Hunger, launched the Optimized Land Use Model (OLUM) program throughout several villages in Uganda. Action Against Hunger’s partners include the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Welthungerhilfe (WHH), PALM Corps, and local communities in the Arua, Adjumani, and Yumbe districts of West Nile, Northern Uganda. Since 2019, EUTF RISE has improved the lives of nearly 150,000 refugees and members of their host communities.