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By Ojok Okello
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  • Department of Global Development
  • Global Development

In the face of entrenched conflict, climate change, and poverty in rural Uganda, Ojok Okello embarked on a bold mission to create the first sustainable rural city in the country. As the founder and CEO of Okere City, Ojok engages with residents on holistic initiatives from education and healthcare to environmental management and social enterprise. As a 2023-24 Humphrey Fellow in Global Development, Ojok spent the year at Cornell to build on his skills as a community leader, social entrepreneur, and development manager. In this field note, Ojok shares his vision for Okere City and how his time at Cornell has contributed to the next chapter in his career. 

What are the big challenges in your career that your work confronts? 

To put it simply, my work seeks to tackle the root causes of conflict, rural poverty, and rural-urban migration in Africa. According to the World Bank, 55% of the people in Sub-Saharan African people live in rural areas today. Also, it is in rural Africa where poverty levels are highest with about 400M living below the poverty line. About 79% of the world’s poor live in rural areas today. The poverty rate in rural areas is 17%—more than three times higher than in urban areas (5%). In Africa, human development indicators such as good nutrition, better health and education services, higher literacy rates, and access to functional infrastructure and/or social amenities are significantly better in urban compared to urban areas. 

Moreover, climate change is hitting rural Africa hardest and compounding the already existing challenges. Thus, many are being pushed away from the countryside to both escape rural poverty and access urban opportunities, orchestrating one of the fastest rural-to-urban migration episodes in Africa’s history. For instance, in 1950, just 27% lived in African cities. The number grew to 42% in 2021 and is projected to reach 80% by 2050

How can we improve rural experiences? How can we ensure that villages in Africa emerge out of the hopelessness they find themselves grappling with today? How should we ensure that the countryside emerges as a constructive participant in building a more sustainable and thriving future in Africa? How can the vibrancy and vastness of Africa's youth be turned into a demographic dividend? 

These questions kept me awake for a long time as a development practitioner who has been working on multiple development projects in Uganda for more a decade. In 2019, I started Okere City, a community-based development experiment in Okere, a deep rural village in Northern Uganda that was once a war zone.

Tell us more about your work at Okere City. 

Due to the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebel activities, the village's inhabitants were forcefully displaced to IDP camps in the nearby towns, whilst hundreds were killed between 1986 and 2004. When people returned to the village around 2005, they had to start rebuilding their lives from scratch. Among other challenges, Okere suffers from economic disenfranchisement and destitution, flight to urban areas, high HIV & AIDs, gender-based violence and adult illiteracy rates, and intergenerational transfer of PTSD. Just to recap a few heartbreaking statistics as of 2020: the adult illiteracy rate in Okere stands at 72%, and the early childhood education enrollment rate was a paltry 5%.

But since 2019, Okere City has emerged as an experimental futuristic African village showcasing the practical meaning of sustainability by designing and implementing sustainable projects and programs that promote environmental management, whilst at the same time enabling us to attain financial stability and reduce over-reliance on foreign assistance. 

Our work is premised on the belief that using a holistic and participatory development approach to design and implement community initiatives can inspire self-determination within the population. 

Since 2019, our ecosystem of 20 social businesses and community projects serves 10,000 rural people in Okere and surrounding villages through the targeted provision of services/products across the education, health, agriculture, tourism, and finance sectors designed to not only economically empower residents but to meaningfully address these crippling legacies. So far, 2,000 learners have benefited from our functional adult education, early childhood and primary education, and vocational skilling projects. 8,000 patients have been treated at our health facility. 150 women who are members of our Shea butter co-op have seen their daily household incomes triple from under $1 to now $4. Okere City’s interventions are successful because of our insistence to involve the community in every stage: planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation thereby building a strong sense of trust and participation, which are key ingredients of sustainable community development. 

What are you taking away from your time at Cornell Global Development?

During our first meeting as Humphrey fellows, Prof. Ed Mabaya, the Director of the program, aptly likened the fellowship to the halftime break in a soccer game. “Just as the players and their coach take this intermission to review, strategize, refocus, and emerge stronger in the second half, you, too, should take the time to reflect, refocus, and re-energize before you return to your countries to continue serving your communities”, he said. All through my fellowship year, this advice acted as a constant reminder, urging me to continue learning, to deliberately expand my professional and social networks, and sow the seeds that could possibly sprout and blossom to support my public service and community development in Uganda in particular and Africa at large. 

Some takeaways include courses that have enabled me to delve deeply into understanding both the theoretical and practical aspects of community organizing, digital communication, and the transition toward sustainability which are quintessential facets of my work. Simultaneously, I've been sharing our work at Okere City through seminars and conversations with students and faculty members at the Global Development Department and Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. 

As part of the Practitioner-Assistant-Collaborative Training (PACT) Program, I engaged Sunny Dandapantula, who is a global development student in his sophomore year, as a research assistant. Together with Sunny, we conducted research to understand what sustainable rural futures means in the context of Africa. 

Our paper explores existing rural futuristic models, examples, modus operandi, as well as the opportunities that exist and the challenges they face. This research enabled me to have a deeper theoretical understanding of the concept of rural futurism and why it matters for global development. 

What are some activities at Cornell that have enriched the next chapter of your career?

Three practical examples have particularly been quite fascinating and impactful:

  • Firstly, I have worked closely with Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management students discuss and build Business to Business (B2B) and Business to Customers (B2C) business strategy for Okere Shea Butter Cooperative Society.  The technical advice enabled us to launch our product on Amazon in Jan 2024 and this is boosting our sales which will enable us to generate more profits to continue to economically empower rural women in northern Uganda.
  • Secondly, through the support of my Humphrey Friendship Partner, Marsha Accera who is a resident of the Ecovillage at Ithaca (EVI), I was able to forge a sister-village twinning arrangement between EVI and Okere City. Some of the immediate outcomes include, EVI residents coming in to volunteer their time to support the management of our shea butter e-commerce operations in North America. Soon, we shall organize virtual knowledge and experience sharing forums to strengthen this relationship. 
  • Thirdly, engaging in voluntary activities, especially at the Christian Science Reading Room and the State Theatre of Ithaca enabled me to meet different people and forge relationships relevant for my work. Another key highlight for me was visiting Caroline Elementary School and reciting a poem about Uganda and sharing with the children in America about the life of their counterparts in a rural Ugandan village. 

About the author

Humphrey Fellow, 2023-24

Ojok Okello

  • Home country: Uganda
  • Specialization: Rural development in Africa; Rural futurism
  • Current role: CEO and Founder of Okere City
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