Pader, Uganda: In 2002, as the LRA insurgency raged on in Northern Uganda, 6 women decided to come together to form a self-help group, as a way of coping with the dire conditions at the time. The women – Abalo Okello Leonora, Florence Komakech, Suzan Anyango Owile, Rose Latoo Lamwaka, Margret Lalam, and Eromina Odong, then involved in shear-nut harvesting, formed among themselves the Shear Butter and Agro-processing Women’s Group, determined to add value to their trade.
Shear butter is rich in vitamin A, E, and F, and can be of medicinal value to people suffering from ulcers. It can also be used as cooking oil and smearing jelly for both children and adults. It is these products that the 6 women hoped to produce, and tap into the local demand for Moya, a delicacy in Acholi.
There was one problem though: They were still enclosed in the Internally Displaced People’s Camps (IDPs), and could not go to the bushes on their own to access shear-nut trees. “We had to rely on the UPDF for security as we went out to access the shear-nut trees,” one of the women told me.
The group survived the LRA insurgency and has now grown to incorporate 1000 women as members. The group chairperson, Ms. Abalo Okello attributes the success of the group to the necessity of its mission. “We formed the group to support each other to be able to provide for our families. And since many women had become breadwinners of their families after the death of their husbands in the war, this group was helping them to cope,” she said.
In 2017, the group was boosted with Shs. 9.7 million under the Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme (UWEP) and Abalo says it was a game-changer: “At the time UWEP came in, we were struggling to keep the initiative going but as we talk now, we have been able to have better machines. Although they(machines) are still manual, they’ve given us a big push,’’ she says.
The seeds fall by themselves to the ground and are collected in baskets and taken for processing. The Women then use the manual machines to get the oils out of the shear-nuts. On a monthly basis, they make between 10-20 jerry cans of well-processed Shear Oils.
The containers of shear oils are then packed and sold to the local market, especially the smearing oil. The prices range from Shs. 2,000- Shs.15, 000 per container, while a 20 litter jerry can go for Shs.400, 000. In a month, Abalo says, the group can sell between 5-6 jerry cans of the shear oils.
One of the beneficiaries, Ajulian Ayaa, says that a more productive group has led to the stabilization of homes, because women are also able to bring something to the table: “For many women, their lives have changed, and in homes, you find that violence is no more because what a man in the house cannot provide, a woman can have it in place,” she says.
Ayaa says they have now become agents of development in the district, reaching out to other women to embrace government programs aimed at uplifting women financially.
The group has so far been able to pay back Shs.1.7million of their loan, and hope to have completed its full repayment by the end of this year to be able to qualify for another loan.
Now, Abalo says, the group intends to register as a cooperative, to be able to have their products consumed outside Uganda too. In the meantime, they plan to open outlets in each district to expand their market.
The Focal Person UWEP Pader District, David Oketch, says that although the women are progressively becoming self-reliant, the group still needs the support in terms of getting better machines to extract oil out of the shear-nuts. “What they have(machines) are manual and as they get older, some member cannot manage to operate them for long,” he said.
He also pointed out the insufficient exposure of the group, arguing that they could learn more from interaction with other business enterprises elsewhere.
The women also have trouble accessing markets. Transporting raw materials to the processing plant and finished products to the market is difficult, especially when they get orders from other parts of the country.
The biggest worry for them though is the challenge of deforestation. As Pader and the neighboring districts’ urban centers expand, the locals are encroaching on existing vegetation, cutting down trees, and the shear-nut trees have been no exception.
In response, Abalo says, the women are coming up with an initiative to protect these trees. “These trees are very important not just for our business, but also for our health. since the products are also medicinal,’’ she added.