I was embarrassed but had to stand strong in my shame. I had just told him I was expectant. Something he had continuously warned me about. 'Do not be like the other young village girls who fall into the trap of early motherhood. Focus on your studies so that you can make a better life for yourself', he repeatedly told me. Yet, here I was confirming what seemed like his worst fear. I had not even completed my primary school education and was about to be called ‘mum’. My mother could not say anything to defend me at that point. Today, I have three children and I am expecting my fourth born in a few months", 22-year old Esther Bisikwa narrates.
"My wife and I got our first child 10 years ago. We currently have five children", Rogers states. "I was only 12 when I first became a dad. My parents were not pleased but accepted my circumstance as it was common in our culture. They were kind enough to build me a one-bedroom mud house in their compound which I began living in with the mother of my child. She was also a high school dropout and would occasionally help my parents with light duties around the house as I either looked for casual jobs in neighbouring farms or helped in my parents’ garden. They grew food crops like beans, maize, yams and onions for sale", Rogers Bwayo explains.
Namisindwa, in the Eastern Region of Uganda, where Esther and Rogers reside, is a fertile hilly district that has previously recorded a large number of school dropouts. Shockingly, their stories are not unique. According to the 2016 Uganda Demographic Health Survey (UDHS), 25% of women aged 15 to 19 years are already mothers or pregnant with their first child. This implies that at least one in every four teenage girls is pregnant or has already had a child. In addition, pregnancy contributes 25% to the school dropouts in Uganda.
While mapping implementation areas for Swisscontact’s LSDY project, Namisindwa was selected because of the high rates of poverty, illiteracy and early parenthood. The project was designed on the premise that young people in Uganda can be innovative in building sustainable livelihoods regardless of their social backgrounds but they often lack opportunities to make that possible.
In 2017, the Swisscontact LSDY Project Facilitator approached Namisindwa sub-county officials asking them to rally out-of-school, unemployed youth for a meeting that would see them understand the LSDY project and the potential it had to improving their lives. Many youths expressed their interest – Esther and Rogers included. They were taken through the project offerings of agribusiness, hospitality and construction and due to the geographic layout of Namisindwa, construction and hospitality seemed impractical. Esther, Rogers and 21 other youths formed Tsekulu Young Farmers Association and were taken through an extensive career guidance session. Swisscontact invited several business companies to present a cost-benefit analysis of farming their products. The Tsekulu group unanimously chose to focus on passion fruit after realising its potential profitability following a presentation from Budaka Ever Green Commercial Farmers (BECOFA).
"The career guidance and counselling session was a crucial step. It ensured that we aligned our business ideas with the private sector interests. We received technical training on how to farm passion fruit. We learnt so much from the agronomist attached to our group and can now plant, weed, spray and harvest our passion fruit without a problem. The agronomist still makes regular visits to each group members garden and his guidance gives us more confidence in our work. The agronomist services are fully taken care of by BECOFA who also provide transport and market for the fruits as per the 4-year contract we signed", Esther explains.
Swisscontact facilitates youth training on various topics such as social and life skills, reproductive and healthy living, leadership, work readiness and safety, coaching and linkages, financial literacy, community savings groups (mavuno) among others.
Esther explains that when she learnt about family planning, she went home and discussed it with her husband. His response was cold. "Why would you listen to other people’s advice about our family?’", he asked. "In fact, I think you are wasting a lot of time attending these training sessions and you have deserted your family. We only see you for a few hours a day now", he bitterly expressed himself. "Eventually, when he cooled down, we agreed to cut the number of children we initially planned to have. We settled for six rather than eight as we felt we could sustain that number", Esther explains.
"Majority of the training sessions were held in the field. We learnt how to attend to our crops practically which was very enlightening. For the theory sessions, Swisscontact was kind enough to get us trainers who spoke Luganda and if they didn’t, there was always a translator. But I could not read or write well because of my level of education. It is then that I realised the importance of education. I have decided to invest heavily in educating my children and have admitted the first two school-going ones to private school.
I’m willing to work harder to ensure all of them get a quality education. My future in passion fruit farming already looks bright. From my first harvest week, I made CHF 48 which was impressive as compared to the onions I was selling fortnightly at CHF 20. I never used to save but now I put away about 20% of my earnings and have managed to buy a goat worth CHF 40 and five chicken worth CHF 27 which I intend to breed. In future, I also want to build a big permanent house", a hopeful Rogers expounds.
"My father visited me the other day and was shocked to see the progress I had made. For the first time, he told me he was proud of me,’ Esther says as she hides her shy smile. ‘Now I’m able to take my children to private school and have bought an additional half-acre for farming more passion fruit. I'm living proof that early pregnancy is not a death sentence. I’ve forgiven myself for my past mistakes, learned from them and now want to focus on providing the best for my family."
The Local Skills Development for the Youth (LSDY) project, is in its second 4-year phase and is currently implemented in 11 districts in Eastern Uganda. It follows a learning cycle that is strongly driven by "youth and markets". The youth form learning groups based on common interests and are empowered with skills which help them alleviate poverty.
The project works in close collaboration with public and private stakeholders for economic sustainability. It is funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Happel Foundation.