Thursday, October 28

‘It’s Radical’: Ugandan City Built on Solar Power, Shea Butter and Popular Energy | Global development


The village of Okere Mom-Kok was in ruins at the end of more than a decade of war in northern Uganda.

Now, just outside Ojok Okello’s living room door, seniors at the early childhood center are noisily doing recess and a market is coming to life, as is the local craft brewery, while what has become Okere City begins a new day.

“I think what I’m doing here is radical,” says Okello, who is behind an ambitious project to transform the destroyed village of 4,000 people into a prosperous and sustainable city.

Okere City began in January 2019. Its 500 acres (200 hectares) feature a school, health clinic, village bank, and community room that also serves as a movie theater, church, and nightclub.

Electricity is available to all, generated from solar energy, a rarity in the region, and far from the many cholera outbreaks that were rampant years ago, there is now clean water from a well.

The school’s students pay half of their tuition in cash and the rest in corn, beans, sugar, and firewood. The clinic allows people to pay their bills in installments. The local security man wields a spear, an unusual sight in an area where many men loiter while women carry most of the paid and unpaid work.

City of Okere using solar energy to illuminate itself at night.  - Okere City, Northern Uganda
Solar power keeps the lights on for everyone in Okere City. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

Okello is financing the project out of his own pocket. Last year, it cost 200 million Ugandan shillings (about £ 39,000). The London School of Economics graduate and development expert had worked for various international charities and NGOs, but was disappointed to see the projects failing because, he says, communities were not involved in decisions about their own futures.

When he returned to Okere Mom-Kok a few years ago, hoping to meet his extended family in the village he had left as a baby when his father, a civil servant, was killed in the wars of the eighties, he decided to put it that he had learned in action. I wanted to create a project that was really led by the people who lived there.

Okere now generates income. Every project, from the school to the local bar, can be self-financing, something that has been possible because the project is not being built as a charity, but as a social enterprise, says Okello.

“I don’t want this project to be at the mercy of some whites,” he says. “I want us to have business conversations with partners. I want us to be responsible for shaping the destiny and future of the project ”.

Women in a small market in the town of Okere
The women do business in a small market in the town of Okere. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

Translated from the Lango, Okere Mom-Kok means “a baby should not cry” and the project logo has the face of a smiling baby. But Okello jokes that building the city has been far from a smile.

While comparisons could be made to Akon City, the futuristic smart city with its own currency built by R&B star Akon in Senegal, Okere is, in essence, the opposite, according to Amina Yasin, an urban planning expert who works in Vancouver. . , Canada.

“Akon City is going to be a walled city for the rich,” he says. “It sounds like a capitalist endeavor on the African continent. Unfortunately, it will primarily benefit non-indigenous Africans. “

Okere City will be a pioneer in green energy, but its unique selling point is its shea trees. Okello says the inspiration came to him through the hit Marvel movie Black Panther, as he sat under a shea tree outside his home one afternoon in early 2020.

“Look [the shea tree] and we realized that we have this important natural resource and we are not taking advantage of it, ”says Okello. “And I thought of Wakanda and Black Panther, they had vibranium, this shea tree could be our vibranium.”

Ojok Okello posing with a shea tree in the town of Okere
Ojok Okello sits under a shea tree in Okere City, which now markets its own shea butter. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

“So I said, ‘Damn it, I’m going to invest everything in my power to harness this resource, to protect [it]and use it to emancipate my community. “

In August, Okere shea butter hit the market. The whole city smells of shea butter, and Okello has advocated for the protection and regeneration of shea trees, classified as an endangered species.

Once a week, an investment club meets in the community room. When the sun begins to set over the city, the members gather in a circle. Most of the more than 100 members are women, mostly farmers, but some also have small businesses.

“I got a loan from the club to buy shea seeds, which I sold at a profit,” says member Acen Olga.

Jane Achene, President, Okere Credit Union
Jane Achene, president of the Okere credit union, holds a membership meeting. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

Members’ financial contributions are carefully recorded before being redistributed as loans to members in need. When borrowers repay the loan, the cycle continues.

This style of banking is particularly important because it is native to Africans, Yasin says.

“The way that indigenous mainland Africans have thought about money has always been outside the central banking system,” he says. “It’s about community and mutual care, patience and long-term investments.

“We have always known long before the western world and other developed nations, in quotes, without quotes, that money was old-fashioned and not a sustainable way of life.”

The Okere City kick-boxing team put on a show.
The Okere City kickboxing team put on a show. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

A few meters from the club, past the community clinic, the supermarket is full and laughter can be heard from the customers in the adjoining pub.

Before the supermarket opened, villagers had to walk five miles to get supplies.

“There are a lot of improvements,” says Wilfred Omodo, 25, who joined the Okere City kickboxing team, which was created in November. “We have more buildings now and even the people are increasing.”

Omodo began boxing while at a camp for people displaced by fighting in the region in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He is one of approximately 80 members of Okere’s boxing team, the majority of whom which was dedicated to the sport in self-defense during the conflict.

Among them is Nickson Akaca, 40, who coordinates the team. He is equally inspired by the progress of the project so far.

“This place was basically a desert; there was nothing here, ”he says. “And in a very short period of time, there have been many changes and advances. It gives us hope that maybe our passion for kickboxing won’t go to waste. “

But rural-to-urban development projects only work if they are created and include the communities they are working for, Yasin says.

“Okere City is intentionally developing with the community in mind,” he says. “Whereas what we often see in cities around the world doing something similar are people who are fleeing the bigger cities and settling in smaller communities than they are not.”

Okere City Community Members
Members of the Okere City community. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

Yasin says this leads to these cities becoming exclusive, like Auroville, India’s experimental utopian municipality.

“What will it look like when these utopian cities become closed cities?” Yasin asks. “There are no longer gated communities, no gated neighborhoods, but gated cities surrounded by smaller and poorer indigenous villages.”

As night falls, the final whistle of the football game that had been shown on the big screen in the Okere community room sounds and the room is transformed into a social club, with dancing and a small bar.

Tomorrow morning, the same room will serve as a church.


www.theguardian.com

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