Anna Otedor Kusiima
Anna Otedor Kusiima (right) is a co-founder of NoWAD, a nonprofit is working to lift up fellow rural women in Uganda.

Anna Otedor Kusiima is a public health professional and project manager. Fiona Nambaziira Luswata is a social worker and former banker.

They are also farmers in rural Uganda — and two of seven Ugandan women who banded together in 2015 to start Network of Women in Agribusiness and Development (NoWAD), and use their professional and agricultural know-how to improve the lives of poor women around them.

The women take a teach-them-to-fish approach to their mission. NoWAD trains rural women to make products that they can both use and sell for extra income, such as jelly, soap and reusable sanitary pads. And to improve nutrition and well-being, it teaches backyard gardening, farming in small spaces, and how to manage garbage, a healthy environment and family finances.

“Our aim is to empower women in the community,” Luswata says. “We teach them there is no reward in dependency” and that “no matter what situation you’re in, you can get out of it.”

NoWAD is currently bringing its self-sufficiency toolset to households in two districts in central Uganda — Mityana, where Kusiima has her farm, and Wakiso, where Luswata has hers — sometimes in partnership with district leaderships and government programs. This work is currently handled by its seven founders, along with volunteers who help with training. The women are still refining NoWAD’s model. But once they’re ready, they plan to expand into other districts of Uganda where they have founders, and will be able to take advantage of local knowledge and community footholds.

“For us, it’s a way of giving back,” says Kusiima, who came up with the idea for NoWAD. “We have been able to improve our lives… But how about the rural women who are working in the same area where we are,” who don’t have the same information and resources?

“I know that if a woman is empowered, the entire community benefits,” she adds. “We’re creating a network of empowered women.”

Empowering Women as Agents in Development

NoWAD’s seven founders live and work in different districts across Uganda. But they all participated in Ugandan farmer groups and got connected thanks to the popular mobile-messaging service WhatsApp. Because they are spread across the country, they collectively possess a broad understanding of the challenges facing their fellow rural women.

While the proportion of Ugandans living below the national poverty line has been dropping — it fell to 19.7% in 2013 from 31.1% in 2006, according to the World Bank — the country continues to lag in areas like sanitation, access to electricity, education and child malnutrition.

Malnutrition has been a key focus for NoWAD. A root problem in rural areas, ironically, is access to land, Luswata says. “We have lots of land fragmentation, and people have stopped growing crops for food” to grow cash crops instead, she says, leading to high levels of malnutrition. Women, in particular, are held back because marriage law often keeps them from owning land.

To improve family diets, NoWAD teaches women to grow vegetables in backyard plots and even in sacks on their verandas.

It launched a piggery project in the fall of 2016, because raising pigs does not require a lot of space. Also, piggeries can scale up fairly quickly because females conceive every 6 months. NoWAD started the initiative by giving away seven piglets to a group of 15 women in one district, and then later gave out another eight piglets in a second district.

Women participating in the project are expected to expand their piggeries to include between three and five mothers and to donate piglets to other women. “You have been given [a pig], but you are also supposed to help someone else,” Kusiima says.

Her work with NoWAD draws on first-hand experience as a farmer raising pigs, cows and goats and growing an array of vegetables, she says. Kusiima, who is 38, spent more than 15 years working with various non-governmental organizations. She also participated as a mentee in a program from the Cherie Blair Foundation for women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging countries, where she got support in developing plans to start NoWAD and recruit co-founders. Before joining hands with them, she had been working to lift up women in her own area.

Luswata, who is also 38, left a 9-year career in banking in 2010 and has been working in her community teaching financial literacy and doing social work ever since. Her farm has pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys and fruit trees.

“I’ve always enjoyed working in the community, and that’s why I did social work,” she says. “The impact you make when you go to the rural area and you give [a woman] a piglet, it’s like you’ve given her a million dollars.”

NoWAD cofounders
Four of NoWAD’s co-founders, including Fiona Nambaziira Luswata (right, in white).

Creating Local Role Models, Changing Mindsets

It’s challenging but “enriching” to work with poor rural women, who often feel powerless to improve their circumstances because they lack resources, education and connections, Luswata says. Her message is: “You don’t have to die in poverty.” To convince them, she points to women just like them who have made it, insisting that, “women, we have the power in us to do anything.”

Indeed, the ranks of local role models are growing. Thanks to training, mentorship and seed capital from NoWAD, about 70 women are now raising pigs or chickens, growing vegetables or pursuing business ventures. Another 200 have received training in life skills, such as how to set personal goals, manage household finances and improve their food security.

The organization assists rural women in a wide variety of ways because, “when you look at this woman, she has so many needs,” Kusiima says, and because not all have the same capacity.

Indeed, selling soap, gardening and financial skills can build capacity by generating the resources women need to take on more ambitious ventures, such as looking after pigs, the women say. In the future, they would like to help women get capital to expand ventures by introducing a micro-financing program through which women could save money together and then lend it to each other at a low interest rates.

To build the capacity of whole communities, NoWAD is also reaching out to the younger generation, entering schools with lessons on nutrition, reproductive health, gender violence and environmental stewardship. For instance, they have enlisted school kids in tree-planting initiatives.

“We realized that we cannot only work with women and leave out the children,” Kusiima says. By running programs for school kids, they gain opportunities to shape young minds and change mindsets.

Many of the families they encounter “don’t understand why they should plant trees. All they know is they were born poor and they will die poor,” she says. But NoWAD aims to open their minds to richer possibilities. Its 2020 goal is to create a network of 5,000 Ugandan women who act as agents of economic development and positive change, and to empower 20,000 with skills and training so “they can get out of the poverty trap.”