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Women for Expo 2015 – Interview with Kevin Akoyi: Changes will come from private sector 1

Leuven – The African continent has been burdened for too long by its past and both Europe and Africa need to embrace “the world of today and the changes that have occurred.” In this interview with, conducted in the context of WE – Women for Expo, a PHD Student at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven who for 20 years has worked for several organisations supporting viable livelihoods for smallholder farmers both in Uganda and wider Africa, discusses democracy, aid effectiveness and the role of private sector in Africa as well as “the importance of empowering African women”.

Akoyi has also contributed analytically to various institutional and policy reforms in and outside Uganda through civil society and multi-stakeholder networks, providing input to the national participatory process to design and implement a participatory poverty review and also developing the Ugandan Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP), the Plan for Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA), the Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative (SAPRI) and the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

Could you describe some reforms you were involved in which have improved the smallholder farmers’ standards of living, especially women farmers?

Shortly after completing my Bachelors, I worked for a small NGO in Kenya called SISDO which was giving credit to women to produce high-value, horticultural crops. The women on this project were getting loans, not handouts and were using irrigation water communally to produce crops like French beans and strawberries. Repayment rates were at 98% and the women enjoyed greater success than their husbands! The men largely depended on coffee, a typical man’s crop, and during the 1990s coffee prices slumped.

Although I was very proud of my work on this project, I warned my boss that the moment the women begin to earn more than the coffee; the men would kick the women out since the land belonged to them. I thus suggested the idea of using the money that the women were earning to invest in something else and for us to use horticultural development as a stepping-stone.

In 2000 I went back to the villages where I had worked and I found that of the women who had used horticulture as a stepping-stone, some had invested in animal breeding while others had invested in local property. They were incredibly happy with how things had gone, yet the women who remained with horticulture were either forced to share or give it over entirely to the men. This experience was a big eye-opener for me about the importance of empowering African women and making sure that the men buy in to the process as well or it will simply not work.

Another such reform is the review of the land laws in Uganda in 1998. Before this, the British land laws were still in place which only included freehold, leasehold and mailo land tenures. Following our reform, a fourth type of land tenure was added known as the Communal Land Ownership System where the land is held in trust for members of the family. On the certification title, all members of the family are listed, including the women. This type of land cannot be sold unless all living members of the certificate agree. The land titling process was also localised which meant that farmers far away from the capital no longer had to travel to the capital as the process would be carried out locally.

2015 is the 10th anniversary of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, which laid out the goals of carrying out wide-ranging reforms in how aid is delivered. How do you assess the impact of the Paris Declaration for the benefits of African rural areas?

The principles of the Paris Declaration are: ownership, harmonization, alignment, result and mutual accountability. These are all very positive and governments should indeed be responsible for how aid is delivered. However, the results of the Paris Declaration are mixed. Before Paris, governments were mainly receiving bi-lateral aid and in my view, most of this type of aid goes to waste. A substantial amount of money was also going to NGOs and although not every NGO is perfect, many do a good job.

Following the Paris Declaration, many countries, particularly in Uganda, have “budget support” which stipulates that all aid must come in to “budget support”, the central treasury, and the central government will thus decide how the money is used based on their priorities. Positively, this makes governments understand that it is their responsibility to have a development strategy and to implement it. In countries with functioning democratic systems and where the priorities of the different sectors of the population are taken into account, the Paris Declaration is a force for good as it governments should be the ones who take ultimate responsibility sand provide leadership.

However, in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, including Uganda, there is a facade of democracy in place. There are elections every five years in Uganda, yet the president never changes! In these countries, the Paris Declaration has given the governments the power to block and squeeze out the NGOs. So the Paris Declaration, although it has good intentions, has allowed the governments to become more authoritarian and to close out the civil society groups who are becoming even more threatened now as European and American NGOs are coming into Africa and of course, the governments will not criticise them.

How can this democratic deficit in Africa be improved upon?

The international community needs to engage with both people living in Africa as well as the diaspora. People view globalisation very differently depending whether they still live in Africa or have left it. When donors are looking to donate to a country, they should seek the views of people and not merely rely on indicators such as whether there are regular elections. For countries such as Rwanda or the DRC, such indicators are meaningless. They should instead invest in a process that brings minds and people together. If we take the case of my country, Uganda, we have regular elections yet a military leader, who is also an international businessman, is in power. I think this is wrong. However, if you sourced just the views of the people who still live in Uganda when creating a development strategy, this problem would not come up as the people on the ground are threatened by the military power in place.

What are the key factors that allow African countries to develop and reduce poverty?

The most important of course is democracy, but we need to achieve it differently and analyse democracy in different ways. For example, if I start a business in the production of maize in Uganda, there is no possible way that as an individual, I will compete with highly-placed people in government who are controlling the maize trade. We need a democracy that allows people to speak out and that makes governments accountable. Governments can never be held accountable to their citizens when these governments themselves are privatised!

How do you view the effect of the African and European civil society groups with which you have worked on the role of the private sector in rural African development?

When I first arrived in Belgium in 2007, I worked for Vredeseilanden and was tasked with managing a change in the organisation from providing organisational development and support, to delivering business-orientated and focused support for small-holder farms. I told my colleagues that the world has changed in such a way those certain private-sector companies have a bigger budget than the GDP of my country and with a bigger budget, they also have more power! So we need to engage and develop with the private sector.

Before this sector became so important, NGOs were used to getting money, implementing programs with the small-holder farmers and asking the government to make policy changes. Now however, the biggest and most effective aspects of the policy changes will come from the private sector. If we go to a company and say how they operate their corporate social and sourcing strategies is wrong, this will have no effect as the private-sector is not accountable to the people. While with Vredeseilanden, we approached Colruyt (a Belgian supermarket) and by working and engaging with them, we put them in contact with local small-holder farmers which allowed Colruyt to improve their competiveness and also benefited the farmers too. You must work with the private-sector as they have a lot of power, as well as value.

Of course, working with the market does not mean that small-holder farmers should be abandoned to face the market alone. In this partnership with Colruyt, we could engage them in working with the local companies and talking with the small-farmer groups about quality, technology and water needed for production. The relationship between the farmers and the companies is a business one, yet NGOs are not businesses. They are there to provide support, facilitate, advice and train people.

Do you have any particularly striking memories of rural Uganda?

I have powerful memories of social control, which involved very clear definitions of what is right and what is wrong and were very important in instilling values to children. No one would allow these boundaries to be crossed. Somethings today in rural Africa truly shock me as the social control has been weakened and even destroyed in some cases. Begging was strictly forbidden and I grew up with the idea that money has to be earned, it is not given out for free and you cannot ask people for it. The clearest sign of how these values have broken down is that when I did development work in Africa, some of my extended-family members would ask me for money and this truly shocked me. One of the most positive aspects of my work in NGOs was placing great importance on lending programs and having no more handouts. With the exception of emergency disasters, aid should be used to help people improve their own situations.

Is there a Ugandan dish that has a particularly important meaning to you?

Yes, it is a dish called Kwon kal, rech i maido and boo. It’s Millet bread, smoked fish in nuts and cow pea leaves in nuts. This is a really fantastic dish and I even import the flower in from Uganda to make it!

The theme chosen for Expo Milano 2015 is ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. In what way can this Universal Exposition be used to empower African women in rural areas and promote their role in agricultural development and sustainability?

I think the Expo should showcase activities that empower women on all levels. People always link empowering women to rural areas, but empowerment involves work on all levels.

By Kevin Hind –

Picture credit: ARD

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  1. Kain Mvanda says:

    This is very inspiring interview. changes comes from private sector. market based solutions are more sustainable than hand-outs. They call for more economic sound investments and perfect business management.

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