Creating a sustainable future

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Iowa State program is improving the lives of rural Ugandans, one person at a time

Since 2004, Iowa State’s Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods has made an impact on nearly 60,000 people in Uganda’s Kamuli District – one of the poorest regions of that East African country – by improving access to clean water, nutrition and health for mothers and infants, school gardens, livestock and entrepreneurial activities, and crop and livestock extension programs.

Last summer, VISIONS editor Carole Gieseke and photographer Jim Heemstra spent six days in Kamuli District, visiting schools, farms, homes, and nutrition centers. Their timing allowed them to shadow Iowa State service-learning students and attend local-level planning meetings. Here’s just a glimpse of this truly remarkable program.

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BETH BALWANA’S YOUNG SON, SIMON, was failing to thrive. At a year old, he was thin, malnourished, ill.

The future for this small boy living in Uganda’s rural Kamuli District was uncertain. And then Beth learned about an organization that changed his life – and hers.

The ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods had  established eight Nutrition Education Centers (NECs) at homes throughout the district. A friend told Beth the NECs would provide services that could help Simon and the rest of her children: nutrition education, healthy food preparation, and other tools that could improve the family’s health and sanitation.

After 6 months, Simon’s health improved. Today, he is a healthy, happy, active boy. During our visit to the family’s home, Simon climbed on the photographer, gleefully touching the cameras and running barefoot through the yard.

Beth and her husband, also named Simon, have much to be grateful for. Trainers at the NEC not only provided cups of thick, nutritious porridge to feed to their malnourished son, they also provided the seed needed to grow the ingredients for the porridge. Beth returned to the center each week for training and was accepted into a livestock extension program to learn to raise chickens. The resulting poultry project has added much-needed protein to her family’s diet, and income from the sale of eggs and birds has allowed them to pay school fees and repay the poultry loan.

Through a translator, Beth told us she is grateful for the support from the ISU-Uganda Program. “There is a change in our livelihood,” she said. “We were not well. ISU-UP gave us trainings and knowledge. Our children are healthy.”

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Establishing a sustainable presence
The Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL) has been working together with the people of the Kamuli District since 2004. The center and its partners have addressed hunger and poverty through agriculture, nutrition, and youth education. As a result, the lives of thousands of families have been improved.

The project began in 2000 when Gerald (’62 agricultural business) and Karen (’08 honorary) Kolschowsky encouraged Iowa State to get involved in grassroots antipoverty and sustainable agriculture programs in the developing world. The couple funded start-up activities that included visits by College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty and staff to countries in Africa and South America, with the goal of developing a system for improving food security for the local people that could be readily replicated elsewhere.

The country of Uganda and its impoverished Kamuli District was chosen because of its potential for great impact and its relative lack of attention from Western aid workers. Uganda exhibited significant signs of poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition. Its overall human development was among the lowest in the world.

First initiatives in the fledgling program included Ugandan farmer case studies, food security in communities affected by HIV/AIDS, animal breeding and production, and a Ugandan school garden program. Through the years, the Kolschowskys’ program funding has allowed Iowa State flexibility in ways the project could advance, and it has since expanded to include a service-learning program for Iowa State students (along with students from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda), community boreholes to provide a fresh and convenient water source, school lunch programs, expanded nutrition education, and youth entrepreneurship.

In October 2011 Iowa State began to explore the idea of registering as an independent non-governmental organization (NGO) in Uganda in order to reduce bureaucratic complexity. The NGO, officially named the Iowa State University-Uganda Program (ISU-UP), was approved in November 2013. The program is staff ed year-round by Ugandan professionals and administered by Iowa State faculty and staff .

Healthy and proud
Like Beth Balwana, smallholder farmer Madinah Nabirye began her connection with ISU-UP when a prenatal nurse at the local health center suggested that she would benefit from the services of a nearby NEC. A nutrition trainer there told her that, as she was in the early stages of pregnancy, she was “in the right position to take porridge,” and she continued to consume high-calorie porridge throughout her pregnancy and as she breastfed her newborn. When the baby turned 6 months old, he also began taking the nutritious porridge and is currently a healthy, curious 2-year-old.

Madinah showed us her farm, a garden filled with cassava plants, maize, orange-flesh sweet potatoes, and other diverse crops. She received seed from the NEC to grow ingredients for the porridge.

As we walked down the red dirt path separating her family’s land from the neighboring farm, Madinah exuberantly shouted greetings to people on the road – friends and neighbors traveling by foot and by bicycle. The translator – ISU-UP staffer Moureen Mbeiza – told us Madinah is happy to show us her farm. She is proud that people came all the way from Iowa to visit her.

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Life-changing experiences
Not long aft er the launch of their sustainable livelihoods project in Uganda, Iowa State leaders and their Makerere University counterparts folded an undergraduate service-learning component into the program goals. In 2005 when the service-learning program was developed, higher education experts observed that many study-abroad opportunities for U.S. students focused on Western Europe or other developed countries; however, an estimated 95 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in less developed areas in the next 50 years. Especially for students in agriculture and global resource systems majors, an opportunity for a hands-on experience in a developing country would be invaluable.

“The Makerere/ISU student collaboration is very intentional,” explained Tom Brumm, the Mary and Charles Sukup Global Professor in Food Security in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering. Brumm, who serves as associate director of the CSRL, is a faculty leader for Iowa State’s student service learning program in Uganda, and he’s been traveling with students to the Kamuli District for the past eight years.

In addition to learning about the human and agricultural challenges in sub-Saharan Africa, for six weeks each summer students from the two universities work together, live together, travel together, and learn about each other’s cultures. Together, the students teach school children in classrooms and work with them in school gardens. They form bi-national teams and work together on a variety of projects.

The following fall semester, ISU students spend time on presentations and reflection.

Brumm said, “The first session when we get back, when classes start in the fall, we do a ‘go-round’ and ask the students two questions: ‘What do you do differently than you did before you went on this trip?’ And ‘What do you notice about American society that you didn’t notice before?’

“I cry, listening to these young people talk about how their perspective has changed, what is now important or not important, how they’re acting differently and trying to live their lives differently because of this experience,” Brumm continued. “It is so profound. And it happens every year. If I didn’t have any other reason to be involved in this program, that would be enough.”

The ISU service learners we met in Uganda last summer were hard-working, articulate, and grateful to be part of the program.

“A lot of times people go to countries that are underdeveloped and do what they call ‘voluntourism,’ where they volunteer to help out with certain things but they don’t really know the culture. They don’t know the importance of why they’re there,” observed Allie Wilson, a senior in animal science and global resource systems. “It’s easy to find a program that’ll take you to Africa, but it’s difficult to find a program that introduces you to the people living there and lets you live with them and learn with them.”

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School gardens cultivate food, knowledge
The symbiotic relationship between the school garden program and the school lunch program is a joy to behold.

As ISU and Makerere service learners are heaping dirt mounds with African hoes and planting orange-flesh sweet potatoes in the mid-day sun, primary school pupils are harvesting amaranth from a nearby field. The amaranth leaves will be cleaned, boiled in an enormous
pot over a wood fire, and served to students for lunch this day, along with orange-flesh sweet potatoes from an earlier harvest.

Later this afternoon, when classes dismiss for the day, many of the pupils will join the service learners in the field.

“I think the school gardens are amazing,” said Shana Hilgerson, an ISU junior in animal science, “because when we get the pupils out there to be involved, they’re running back and forth hauling water and they’re smiling and they’re happy and they’re just so excited to be out there working with us.”

And they’re learning, too: They’re learning about agriculture, and they’re taking that knowledge home to their parents to apply to their own small farms.

For some, the lunch they’re served at school – with many ingredients coming from the school’s own gardens – is the biggest, or perhaps only, meal of the day. So the nutritional quality and caloric content has to be high. Program guidelines ensure it will be. And, to come full circle in the process, school children participate in the harvesting of the vegetables, the preparation of the food to be cooked, and the cleanup of the dishes.

Boreholes (deep wells) are located near schools and throughout the district, thanks to funds donated by Iowa Staters to the CSRL. Boreholes provide a safer, more convenient alternative to fetching water from the river. Water is used for cooking, drinking, and hand-washing. The boreholes also ensure that the school gardens will survive in times of drought.

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The students are gone, but life goes on
When the university service learners go back to their own homes, schools, and jobs at summer’s end, the projects they have directed and observed during the summer months are still going on, thanks to the work of the year-round ISU-UP staff.

Nearly a dozen staff members, with skills ranging from community nutrition to agronomy to security, maintain each of the programs and reach out to the people of the Kamuli District much like ISU’s county extension specialists in Iowa.

Yvette Nikuze is a livestock extension specialist for ISU-UP, where she works to integrate livestock production, health, and market access for smallholder farmers. Yvette has a bachelor’s degree in animal health and production from Busoga University and worked with another agricultural NGO before joining the ISU-UP staff.

She introduced us to Rebecca Kyewankamalileku, another mother who initially connected with ISU-UP through the nutritional services she acquired for one of her children at a NEC. She subsequently began a poultry project that has improved her family’s health and finances.

“We didn’t used to eat eggs,” Rebecca said through our interpreter. Rebecca and her husband have nine children, with another on the way. The family’s small chicken facility was spotless and filled with healthy, noisy hens.

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Working together
Two of the key practices of the ISU-UP are its focus on partnerships and its sensitivity to understanding local culture and issues.

“We meet regularly with the leaders, residents, and beneficiaries of the programs in Kamuli – at all levels and in all programs,” said Gail Nonnecke, Morrill Professor, Global Professor in Global Resource Systems, and an associate director for the CSRL. “The overall goal is to make sure that the programs have valuable input from the participants. This participatory approach has been an excellent method to determine the needs, what works, and if there are any challenges.”

Having NGO status provides flexibility in adapting to local situations and responding to local needs, says Denise Bjelland, managing director for the CSRL.

“The NGO allows us to enjoy good rapport with people so that we can render assistance to those who are most in need and tailor assistance to their needs. It gives us the ability to communicate at all levels, from the neighborhood leaders to the top levels of government. It also facilitates the recruitment of experts and highly motivated staff .”

Registering as an NGO has provided greater ease in conducting business in Uganda – think banks, auditing firms, accountants, architects, and attorneys.

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Empowering women and youth through entrepreneurship
Lydia Abwin has her future mapped out: attend professional school, grow vegetables, rear chickens and pigs, start a beekeeping business, make and sell high-quality handcrafted items for extra money. Nowhere in her future plans does she mention getting married or starting a family. Lydia is an independent 18-year-old woman living in Kamuli District.

Her entrepreneurial spirit may have come, at least in part, from her participation in the Entrepreneurial Club at Namasagali College, another program of the ISU-UP. Some of the money she has raised from her activities has already allowed her to continue her schooling.

The Entrepreneurial Club trains secondary school students with life skills they’ll need after they graduate: skills such as money management, gardening and larger-scale agricultural pursuits, producing and marketing craft products, creating business plans, beekeeping, and more. In the group’s garden, located adjacent to the Nile, students are growing eggplant, tomatoes, grain amaranth, and other high-value crops. Right now, 45 pupils are members of the club, and it is growing in popularity. With the money they earn, some pupils are able to buy shoes and school materials.

One of the club’s graduates, David Waiswa, received training on raising poultry from the youth entrepreneurship program. From his sales, he was able to purchase a “lawn mower” – what we would call a weed-whacker – with which he can make additional money by helping other farmers manage their weeds.

“I managed to buy this machine and run my activities all with one flock of birds,” David told us. “I will get a second flock of birds soon.”

Entrepreneurial activities are also encouraged through the Nutrition Education Centers. Every Wednesday at the Naluwoli Field House, women gather to make crafts with brightly colored beads, patterned cloth, and natural raffia. The crafts program aims to provide life skills for mothers who arrived at the NECs seeking nutritional advice, and the outcome is additional money for the family’s budget. The crafts are sold at a local market in Kamuli.

“The mothers feel they own this – it’s theirs,” says Laura Byaruhanga, a community nutrition specialist with ISU-UP. Each woman contributes a fee for materials and receives a percentage of the profits.

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Saving lives
If there’s one program that is the heart and soul of the CSRL, it’s the Nutrition Education Centers. Eight centers scattered throughout Kamuli District have offered life-saving nutrition education to hundreds of mothers and infants.

“When you see the babies come in half dead and they come back to life, you’d never believe they’re the same child,” said Dorothy Masinde, senior lecturer in Global Resource Systems, associate director of nutrition education for the CSRL. “You can’t believe babies can be so malnourished. When we opened the first NEC, we had more than 100 people.”

The porridge served at the NECs is nothing less than a miracle cure. And the ingredients are sustainable. Masinde explained that the NECs don’t off er a ready-to-use powder but instead emphasize that the ingredients can be grown at home.

“We teach that the solution to your children’s problem is in your garden,” she said.

For Beth Balwana, Madinah Nabirye, Rebecca Kyewankamalileku, and so many other women in Kamuli District, the NECs were not just a solution for their children’s nutritional health but became a jumping-off place to learn about livestock projects, family planning, entrepreneurial activities, and more. The NECs are a community gathering spot where all families are welcome to train and learn.

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‘This is why we’re here’
A new residential training center is currently under construction in Kamuli District, representing a strategic decision to make a longterm investment in the area. In addition to providing an important new venue for Iowa State and Makerere student and staff activities, the facility will also serve as a community training and demonstration center, allowing the program to better serve its stakeholders in Uganda.

“[The new construction] signals to Ugandan citizens that we intend to be a long-term partner in development, and it will enable us to attract the very best people to our program from Uganda and Iowa,” Bjelland said.

On our last night in Kamuli District last summer, we sat outside with a group of Iowa State students and talked about their experiences in the service-learning program. As our discussion meandered from the surprisingly difficult field work to cultural differences to breeds of Ugandan cattle to the ease of making friends with Makerere students, one name kept coming up: Simon.

Some of the students met Simon, the young boy who had been severely malnourished as a 1-year-old, at the beginning of their stay in Kamuli District.

“When we met Simon, it was the first time everything really clicked for me,” Hannah Schlueter, senior in global resource systems, said. “It was like, this is why we’re here. This little boy. His family. The fact that we were able to help him and do all this. It’s incredible.

“On days when you’re working in the field and you think, ‘I could have studied abroad anywhere else and I chose here’ – and then you go and see these little kids and you see the smiles on their faces and the food in their hands, you know that we played a part in that and I think that’s just really special.”

KI0A3003 copyBONUS: View more beautiful photos from Jim’s and Carole’s travel to the Kamuli District at

This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.

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