Tucked away in Kagadi Town, Kibaale District, is the Uganda Rural Development & Training Program (URDT). I first heard of URDT through my mom after she was invited to a fund-raising event in Boston. I had checked out their website but Kagadi is a bit off the beaten path so I hadn’t gotten a chance to visit until late last week when I traveled from Hoima to Fort Portal – a casual trip of 200km and 5 hours. The website suggests they run a girl’s school, a radio station, a farm with progressive and even organic practices, a technical institute, a microcredit project, a land rights center, a recently established “rural university”, and more. From all this I was a little doubtful, it just sounds like t0o many initiatives for one NGO to do well, and arrived expecting to find a local NGO with a comprehensive if half-way plan for addressing all the various aspects of rural development issues.
I was blown away; my idea of a 30 minute walkabout turned into a 24 hour layover. Enoch, the Farm Manager, gave me what he called the “marathon tour.” Not only does URDT actually have each one of those programs but the staff and faculty that direct the various initiatives are exemplary leaders, are passionate about their professions and rural development, and truly buy into the URDT ideology. URDT is founded on the belief that rural development should focus on achieving goals rather than solving problems. Sounds simple but in reality that is the difference between single-entity project oriented development and a comprehensive systems-wide approach to transforming lives. The first says, people don’t have access to clean/enough water – let’s fix that problem and development will follow. It’s about removing constraints. The second says, this 13 year old girl comes from a very poor household and she wants to go to university and then go on to do [fill in the blank]. How can we make that dream a reality? The answer to that question lies in the multitude of complimentary programs and initiatives that URDT has put together both on their beautiful 80 acre campus and in collaboration with the families and communities from which their students come.
The Girls School is home to 30 students per class, grades P5 to S6 (essentially middle & high school), all of whom attend completely free of charge. Girls are selected based on their needs and the willingness of the family to buy into what they call the “Two Generation Model” where the girls come home during each break with a specific project or series of lessons to pass on to their families and communities. Anecdotally it appears to be working. The new African Rural University will open it’s doors this September to a class of 30 young women who want to become rural development professionals. It’s an attempt to keep talent in rural areas and prepare young women for jobs that exist in the context of rural development. The faculty has been involved in a five year curriculum development effort and are all excited to welcome the first official class of students. I sat down with the University Secretary Jacqueline Akello and essentially asked, how’d you guys do all of this?!
While a good portion of the funding comes from outside sources, URDT was founded by two visionary Ugandan men and an Italian woman and started with a small office in Kagadi town in 1987 and they’ve been taking one small step after another ever since. The Rural University is the capstone in their vision of creating a center that promotes rural development for girls, young women, local professionals and the community as a whole. Co-founder and CEO Mwalimu Musheshe is an Ashoka Fellow and recently was asked by the Government of Uganda to serve as the director of the National Agriculture Advisory Services (NAADS) in an effort to clean up one of the historically corrupt institutions of this country.
One story that hit home for me: every morning the entire campus comes together for a one hour “Foundation Course” led by one or two members of the faculty, staff or student body. Topics can cover just about anything related to URDT initiatives or rural development in general. That morning the course was covering the different appropriate technologies being studied and promoted by the URDT teams. It was an interesting summary of technologies, including modern bee-keeping techniques, rainwater harvesting, a bio-gas installation, homemade pesticides and a handpump mechanism for collecting water from underground tanks. At the end of the hour there was a Q&A session and one man stood up and said Thank you for this, but many of us are already aware of these technologies. Now we need to discuss how these technologies can be used for development, how we can integrate these technologies into the community. That is what is really important. It was an effort to push the conversation to the next level and to me it spoke of the passion and determination of these individuals to really promote rural development in a way that many groups only talk about. The question, I later learned, came from the man that directs the solar electrification courses at the technical institute. Yeah, they do that too.
Check out their website but I will say in their defense that they are well aware that the site is dated and could use some work. It sure beats a flashy website and a hollow NGO – and there are certainly plenty of those.