I’m surprised by the striking difference between Kigali and Kampala. Kigali feels like your “play by the rules, mow the lawn every Saturday at 10:00” neighbor and Kampala is that “to heck with the rules, is the party still going?!” neighbor on the other side.
As I set out, I am eager to see if this spirit continues with the individual co-ops I visit.
I was greeted this morning by the beautiful, intelligent and very fun Sherina, the ADP contact in Kampala. After a lovely breakfast we headed out to the co-op a short distance outside of Kampala. The president of the co-op lives a couple of kilometers off the main highway, down a bumpy dirt road to a small grouping of homes. A few of the members are there to meet us quickly after we arrive. To my surprise, they speak excellent English.
Deborah, the president of the cooperative, left to gather a few more members while Sherina and I looked around a bit. We passed a young girl steaming a stack of banana leaves over an open fire and then headed to the mushroom farm to take a look. The individual mushroom gardens—think small cylindrical sacks—were in varying stages of growth all of which the members would explain to me later.
We headed back to meet more of the members, there are 20 in all with 4 men and the remainder women, but not all were present as some live a good walk away. There is a wide variety in age and all were eager to talk about their work.
Ben is the member that has received the most training so he discussed how the gardens are prepared, then grown and harvested. During the three-month lifetime of the garden there is a 7-day growing time and then two days to harvest and the process is repeated. The gardens require watering three times per day to keep moist but also must be kept dark, cool and pest-free. Over their lifetime up to 7 kilos of mushrooms can be harvested. A garden costs 2500 shillings to buy pre-made but they are investigating making their own which would cost 1000 shillings, considerably cutting their start-up costs.
Other members talked about their hopes for marketing the mushrooms and showed us prepackaged mushrooms found in the supermarkets as well as dried mushrooms, which they talked about later could be achieved through solar driers.
We then moved on to the secondary farm where they wish to expand with more members of the cooperative. There are several challenges in keeping the members gardens marked and separated as well as coming up with a caretaking schedule that would allow those members that live farther away to participate at an equal level.
We headed back to sit and talk under a tree outside Deborah’s home. The members were incredibly patient with me as I had technical difficulties with the camera that never totally resolved itself. There they talked about why the cooperative was important to them. One of the most striking statements was ‘we are not educated’. I mostly listened while they talked except at this point when I said a very much disagreed with that statement. Nothing could be further from the truth in my eyes. They are incredibly bright and certainly knowledgeable about their mushrooms down to one member talking about its nutritional value, and their dreams and plans are sophisticated and well researched.
The other opinion that brought much agreement from the group was basically about how this effort could empower them as women (Ben was the only male representative so he was a bit under-represented on this). No longer do they have to wait at home for their husband to buy things and just have babies, but now they can contribute. And my favorite ‘become a boss a little bit’.
And they continued to impress me with their long-term view of their impact in that it could eventually provide employment for the children as they finished their schooling and possibly could not find jobs elsewhere. Believe me, this is a well thought and, more importantly, deserving plan.
I’ve got a sceptics mind, and my natural inclination is to counter with all points of potential failure. But in the end I was left with the impression that with the right amount of assistance, there is no doubt that these women are prepared and able to overcome any obstacle.
What a privilege it was to meet them.