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


The village of Okere Mom-Kok lay in ruins at the end of more than a decade of war in the north Uganda.

Now, right outside Ojok Okello’s living room door, the final year students of the early childhood center loudly prepare for recess and a market comes alive, just like the local craft brewery, as what has become Okere City is starting a new day.

“I think what I’m doing here is radical,” says Okello, who is behind an ambitious project to transform the destroyed village of 4,000 people into a prosperous and sustainable city.

Okere City began in January 2019. Its 200 hectares (500 acres) include a school, health clinic, village bank, and community hall that also doubles as a cinema, church, and nightclub.

Electricity is available to everyone, produced from solar energy – a rarity in the region – and far from the many cholera epidemics that plagued years ago, there is now clean water from A drilling.

Solar power keeps the lights on for everyone in Okere City. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

Students at the school pay half of their fees in cash and the rest in corn, beans, sugar and firewood. The clinic allows people to pay their bills in installments. The local security man wields a spear, an unusual sight in an area where many men idle while women do most of the paid and unpaid work.

Okello is funding the project out of his own pocket. Last year it cost 200 million Ugandan shillings (around £ 39,000). The London School of Economics graduate and development expert had worked for several charities and international NGOs, but became disillusioned with seeing projects fail because, he said, communities were not involved in decisions about their own. own future.

Women at a small market in Okere City
Women do business in a small market in the town of Okere. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

When he returned to Okere Mom-Kok a few years ago, hoping to meet his extended family in the village he left when he was a baby when his civil servant father was killed in the bush wars of the 1980s, he decided to put what he had learned into action. He wanted to create a project that was truly driven by the people who lived there.

Okere is now generating income. Every project, from school to local bar, can be self-financing, which has been possible because the project is not built as a charity, but as a social enterprise, Okello says.

“I don’t want this project to be at the mercy of some white people,” he says. “I want us to have business conversations with partners. I want us to be responsible for shaping the fate and future of the project.

Translated from Lango, Okere Mom-Kok means “a baby shouldn’t cry” and the project logo has a smiling baby’s face. But Okello jokes that the construction of the city was far from all smiles.

Although comparisons can be made with Akon Town, the futuristic smart city with its own currency built by Senegalese R&B star Akon, Okere is, in essence, the opposite, according to Amina Yasin, an urban planning expert who works in Vancouver, Canada.

“Akon City is going to be a walled city for the rich,” she said. “It looks like a capitalist enterprise on the African continent. Unfortunately, this will mainly benefit non-native Africans. “

Okere City will pioneer green energy, but its unique selling point is its shea trees. Okello says the inspiration came to him through the Blockbuster Marvel Black Panther Movie, as he sat under a shea tree outside his house one afternoon in early 2020.

“I watched [the shea tree] and we realized that we had this important natural resource and we weren’t exploiting it, ”Okello says. “And I thought of Wakanda and Black Panther, they had vibranium, that shea might be our vibranium.”

“So I say to myself: ‘Shit, I’m going to invest everything in my means to exploit this resource, to protect [it], and use it to empower my community.

Ojok Okello sits under a shea tree in Okere City, which now markets its own shea butter
Ojok Okello sits under a shea tree in Okere City, which now markets its own shea butter. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

In August, Okere shea butter hit the market. The whole town smells of shea butter, and Okello has advocated for the protection and regeneration of shea trees, listed as endangered species.

Once a week, an investment club meets in the community hall. As the sun begins to set over the city, the members gather in a circle. The majority of the more than 100 members are women, mostly farmers, but some also run small businesses.

“I got a loan from the club to buy shea seeds, which I sold at a profit,” says member Acen Olga.

Members’ financial contributions are carefully recorded before being redistributed in the form of loans to members who need them. When borrowers pay off the loan, the cycle continues.

This banking style is particularly important because it is original for Africans, says Yasin.

Jane Achene, President of the Okere Savings and Credit Union
Jane Achene, President of the Okere Credit and Savings Co-operative, holds a membership meeting. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

“The way indigenous mainland Africans thought about money has always been outside the central banking system,” she says. “It was about community and caring for each other, patience and long-term investments.

“We always knew much earlier than the western world and other developed countries, in quotes, that money was old fashioned and that it was not a sustainable way of life.”

A few meters from the club, past the community clinic, the supermarket is buzzing and laughs can be heard from customers in the adjoining pub.

Before the supermarket opened, the villagers had to travel 8 km to get supplies.

“There are a lot of improvements,” said Wilfred Omodo, 25, who joined the Okere City kickboxing team, which was formed in November. “We have more buildings now and even the number of people is increasing. “

The Okere City kickboxing team put on a show.
The Okere City kickboxing team put on a show. Photograph: Katumba Badru Sultan / The Guardian

Omodo began boxing while in a camp for people displaced by fighting in the region in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He is one of some 80 members of the team. Okere boxing, most of whom practiced the sport to defend themselves during the conflict.

Among them is Nickson Akaca, 40, who coordinates the team. He is also inspired by the progress of the project so far.

“This place was basically a desert; there was nothing here, ”he says. “And in a very short period of time, there has been a lot of change and progress. It gives us hope that our passion for kickboxing may not be lost. “

But rural-urban development projects only work if they are created by and include the communities they serve, Yasin says.

“Okere City is intentionally developed with the community in mind,” she says. “While what we often see in cities around the world doing something similar are individuals who sort of flee big cities and settle into smaller communities that they are not originally from. “

Yasin says this leads these cities to become exclusive, like Auroville, the experimental utopian township of India.

“What does it look like when these utopian cities become closed cities? Yasin asks. “No more closed communities, no more closed neighborhoods, but closed towns surrounded by smaller, poorer and indigenous local villages. “

At nightfall, the final whistle sounds over the football match which was broadcast on the big screen in the Okere town hall and the hall turns into a social club, with dancing and a small bar.

Tomorrow morning, the same room will serve as a church.

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