‘It’s radical’: the Ugandan city built on solar, shea butter and people power | Global development

The village of Okere Mother-Kok was in ruins by the finish of greater than a decade of struggle in northern Uganda.

Now, simply exterior Ojok Okello’s living-room door, final-year pupils at the early childhood centre are noisily breaking for recess and a market is clattering into life, as is the native craft brewery, as what has develop into Okere City begins a brand new day.

“I feel what I’m doing right here is radical,” says Okello, who’s behind an formidable venture to remodel the destroyed village of 4,000 people right into a thriving and sustainable city.

Okere City started in January 2019. Its 200 hectares (500 acres) function a faculty, a well being clinic, a village financial institution and a neighborhood corridor that additionally serves as a cinema, a church and a nightclub.


Electrical energy is offered to all, generated from photo voltaic vitality – a rarity in the area – and removed from the many outbreaks of cholera which have been rampant years in the past, there’s now clear water from a borehole.

Pupils at the college pay half their charges in money, and the relaxation in maize, beans, sugar and firewood. The clinic lets people pay their payments in instalments. The native safety man wields a spear, an uncommon sight in an space the place many males idle round as girls shoulder most of the paid and unpaid work.

Okere city using solar to light at night . - Okere city, northern Uganda
Photo voltaic power retains the lights on for everybody in Okere City. {Photograph}: Katumba Badru Sultan/The Guardian

Okello is funding the venture from his personal pocket. Final yr, it value 200 million Ugandan shillings (about £39,000). The London College of Economics graduate and development knowledgeable had labored for a number of worldwide charities and NGOs however grew disillusioned seeing tasks fail as a result of, he says, communities weren’t concerned in selections about their very own future.

When he returned just a few years in the past to Okere Mother-Kok, hoping to fulfill prolonged household in the village he had left as a child when his civil servant father was killed in the bush wars of the Nineteen Eighties, he determined to place what he had discovered into motion. He wished to create a venture that was actually led by the people who lived there.

Okere now generates income. Each venture, from the college to the native bar, can fund itself, one thing that has been attainable as a result of the venture is being built not as a charity, however as a social enterprise, Okello says.

“I don’t need this venture to be at the mercy of some white people,” he says. “I would like us to have enterprise conversations with companions. I would like us to be chargeable for shaping the future and the way forward for the venture.”

Women at a small marketplace in Okere City
Girls conduct enterprise at a small market in Okere City. {Photograph}: Katumba Badru Sultan/The Guardian

Translated from Lango, Okere Mother-Kok means, “a child shouldn’t cry” and the emblem for the venture has a smiling child’s face. However Okello quips that constructing the city has been removed from all smiles.

Whereas comparisons could possibly be made to Akon City, the futuristic sensible city with its personal foreign money being built by R&B star Akon in Senegal, Okere is, in essence, the reverse, in keeping with Amina Yasin, an knowledgeable in city planning, who works in Vancouver, Canada.

“Akon City goes to be a walled city for the rich,” she says. “It appears like a capitalist endeavour on the African continent. It’s to learn largely non-indigenous Africans, sadly.”

Okere City will pioneer inexperienced vitality, however its distinctive promoting level is its shea timber. Okello says the inspiration got here to him through the Marvel blockbuster film Black Panther, as he sat below a shea tree exterior his home one afternoon in early 2020.

“I checked out [the shea tree] and realised that we’ve this necessary pure useful resource and we weren’t harnessing it,” Okello says. “And I considered Wakanda and Black Panther, that they had vibranium, this shea tree could possibly be our vibranium.”

Ojok Okello posing with a shea tree in Okere city
Ojok Okello sits below a shea tree in Okere City, which is now advertising and marketing its personal shea butter. {Photograph}: Katumba Badru Sultan/The Guardian

“So I’m like: ‘Rattling, I’m going to speculate every thing inside my means to faucet this useful resource, to guard [it], and to make use of it to emancipate my neighborhood.”


In August, Okere Shea Butter arrived on the market. The entire city smells of shea butter, and Okello has advocated for the safety and regeneration of shea timber, classed as an endangered species threatened by extinction.

As soon as every week an funding membership meets in the neighborhood corridor. As the solar begins to set over the city, the members assemble in a circle. The vast majority of the greater than 100 members are girls, largely farmers, however some additionally run small companies.

“I received a mortgage from the membership to purchase shea seeds, which I bought at a revenue,” says member Acen Olga.

Jane Achene, chair of the Okere savings and credit cooperative
Jane Achene, chair of the Okere financial savings and credit score cooperative, holds a members’ assembly. {Photograph}: Katumba Badru Sultan/The Guardian

Members’ monetary contributions are rigorously recorded earlier than being redistributed as loans to members who want them. When debtors repay the mortgage, the cycle continues.

This type of banking is especially necessary as a result of it’s unique to Africans, Yasin says.

“The best way through which indigenous continental Africans have considered cash has at all times been exterior of the central banking system,” she says. “It’s been about neighborhood and caring for one another, and endurance, and long-term investments.

“We’ve at all times recognized lots sooner than the western world and different, quote, unquote, developed nations, that cash was out of style and it was not a sustainable option to reside.”

Okere City’s kick-boxing team put on a show.
Okere City’s kickboxing staff put on a present. {Photograph}: Katumba Badru Sultan/The Guardian

Simply metres from the membership, previous the neighborhood clinic, the grocery store is buzzing, and laughter may be heard from prospects in the pub connected.

Earlier than the grocery store opened, villagers needed to stroll 5 miles (8km) for provides.

“There’s loads of enchancment,” says Wilfred Omodo, 25, who has joined Okere City kickboxing staff, which was arrange in November. “We have now extra buildings now and even the people are rising.”

Omodo began boxing whereas he was in a camp for people displaced by combating in the area in the late Nineteen Nineties and early 2000s. He’s one among about 80 members of Okere’s boxing staff, most of whom took up the sport for self-defence throughout the battle.

Amongst them is 40-year-old Nickson Akaca who coordinates the staff. He’s equally impressed by the progress of the venture to date.

“This place was principally a wilderness; there was nothing right here,” he says. “And inside a really quick time frame, there was loads of change and progress. It offers us hope that possibly our ardour to do kickboxing won’t simply go to waste.”

However rural to city development tasks solely work if they’re created by and embody the communities they’re working to serve, says Yasin.

“Okere City is being deliberately developed with the neighborhood in thoughts,” she says. “Whereas what we regularly see in cities throughout the world that do one thing comparable is people who’re type of working away from bigger cities and settling in smaller communities that they aren’t from.”

Members of the Okere City community
Members of the Okere City neighborhood. {Photograph}: Katumba Badru Sultan/The Guardian

Yasin says this results in these cities turning into exclusionary, like Auroville, India’s experimental utopian township.

“What does it appear like when these utopian cities develop into gated cities?” Yasin asks. “Not gated communities any extra, not gated neighbourhoods, however gated cities surrounded by smaller native, poorer, indigenous villages.”

As evening falls, the closing whistle blows at the soccer match that had been exhibiting on the massive display in Okere’s neighborhood corridor and the room is remodeled right into a social membership, with dancing and a small bar.

Tomorrow morning, the identical room will function a church.

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