Women Smiles Uganda: Gender, Vertical Farming, and Food Security

This Feature appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

An Interview with Lilian Nakigozi

Lilian Nakigozi is Founder & CEO of Women Smiles Uganda, an organization in Kampala, Uganda dedicated to empowering women through sustainable agricultural solutions for urban spaces. The Journal spoke with Lilian to learn more about the organization and its incorporation of vertical farming technologies, the impact COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine are having on the health and well-being of women and children across Uganda, and the challenges and triumphs of giving back to your community.

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): Tell us about where you grew up, where you went to school, and some of your formative experiences in your younger years.

Lilian Nakigozi (LN): I’m Lilian Nakigozi, and I’m from Uganda. I was born in a small town. However, when my parents separated, my mother and my siblings moved to Kampala, to the city. In the city, we settled in one of the urban slums, Katanga. Because my mother didn’t have money, and to get us a decent home in a different area, she decided to put us in a small house. That’s where we lived most of our time, in my childhood. I remember, at the age of 8, that’s when we moved there with my other eight siblings. We had already lost a baby sister. Of course, I should say that life wasn’t really easy on us. Life was really hard. My mother, being a single mother, struggled, working day and night to care for us, pay school fees for us, and of course feed us, because we had this huge family. So, it was really a struggle.

Being a single mother, and her not having any stable source of income, and not having any access to land for us to grow crops, the time came when we hardly had dinner. We could just have one meal a day, and we usually had it at 5 pm. As time went on, the situation even became that we hardly had any meals, and we slept on empty stomachs. Of course, it was the same situation with the rest of the neighborhood, especially for families which are headed by single mothers. Losing a baby sister due to hunger, that’s when I realized that things could keeping getting worse. It hit us so hard, even the entire neighborhood noticed. We tried to ask for help, but of course no one could help, because all the households were experiencing the same situation that we experienced.

When I was 11 years old, I got so lucky. I was bright in school. I used to get good grades, so my school decided to give me half payment, and of course my mother paid the other half. I performed so well in my primary, and we have these different schools that give sponsorship to children who perform better, so when I got a first grade, I was supported in school. For my entire high school, I studied for free. My mother only bought school requirements, which wasn’t a lot of money. I got an opportunity to go to a good school, still in high school, because I knew my background. I knew where I was coming from. I focused on my studies, and I still got good grades. I got a first grade, so that’s how we upgrade it. If you perform well, you get a first grade. In Uganda, their education system is the same as that of the UK. In high school, you have to study six years before you go to the university. After my high school, I performed better and had to join the advanced-level high school, which is for two years. I was still lucky. I’ve always considered myself as a lucky child, I should say, in the family.

I performed well, and I got a government sponsorship and joined Makerere University. That was in August 2014. I did a bachelor’s degree of Business Administration, and I specialized in accounting. At school, I remember in 2016 we had community outreach. Taking you back, by the time I joined my primary, we moved out of the urban slum and went to another small town where my mom and I and my siblings lived. So of course, I remember during my university this community outreach—it’s more of giving back to the community, and we had to collect foodstuffs and clothing—and going there, because I grew up there and lived most of my time there. I saw the situation hadn’t changed. It was still the same; just how we lived, that’s how that situation was. It was really a very distinct experience for me, I should say, because I remembered how we lived, and seeing these people being in the same situation like we were was really disturbing for me. I remember shedding tears and crying, and my friends were asking me, “Lilian, why are you crying?” and I had to tell them that I had lived here, and I knew what these people were really experiencing, having grown up with such an experience firsthand.

When I finished my university and graduated in 2018, I decided to do something and make sure that I changed the experience of women, the experience of children, especially those who struggle so hard to put food on the table for their families. That’s how Women Smiles Uganda was born, out of my personal experiences. I do what I do out of passion.

JIA: What was it like to start your organization, Women Smiles? Why did you choose to a found a new organization, as opposed to joining one that was already in existence?

LN: I chose to start Women Smiles Uganda because I believed I could do something to change people’s lives, to put smiles on people’s faces, especially women. That’s where the name Women Smiles Uganda comes in, because I always want to see people smiling. I’m always smiling, and I always put my bright smile out there.

Starting Women Smiles, I should say, wasn’t easy. It came with a lot of challenges. What I did during my time at the university was to save some money. As government students, we are given some small allowances while at the university, and I saved part of that money because I knew at one time I would come up with something. Uganda has high levels of unemployment, so I didn’t really look at finding a job because I knew it was really hard to find one. So I was thought, Why don’t I just start something of my own, something that can actually impact my community, help out families whose situation was no different from mine. That’s when I decided to start. I went into registering it as a nonprofit, as a social enterprise, because I didn’t really look at making money out of it. The most important part was, for me, to support communities, to support women, to support mothers who are actually really struggling. We started with 20 families, and these we trained free of charge. They didn’t pay anything, and we organized a community training. We trained them with the small savings that I had put aside, and we supplied agriculture inputs to them.

So then, why vertical farming? I first taught myself how to farm. I started with the Internet, and then I visited some of the farms in Uganda. They are not doing vertical farming, but I just needed to get the knowledge of farming. Then I incorporated it into vertical farming. After learning all that, that’s when I realized that I can do this and it can work out. What I realized with vertical farming was that people can actually grow crops in the limited spaces without being limited by lack of access to land, and that with change climate conditions, they can actually grow all year round. That’s when I decided that farming can actually not only solve hunger, but it can also be used for income generation purposes. People can generate fresh produce and develop communities, because people usually come together to work as a group and as a family. That’s what Women Smiles does: vegetable farming, agricultural sustainability, and empowerment, where we actually provide our women, teenage mothers included, sustainable vertical farming concepts, because we believe in vertical farming. They are empowered with skills and knowledge, with capacity to grow crops in areas of limited space to improve their food security, and livelihoods. Since we work with communities, it allows us to build supportive networks that allow women to share skills, work together as a team, and grow sustaining food for their families.

We’ve been doing that since 2018, and over the years, we’ve managed to impact over 10,000 people. They are growing crops in their compounds, in their backyards. Then, we’ve also set up a community demonstration farm. People want to learn, and we realized that we needed to target beyond women. We see so many school-going children who need it. If you impact a young child as early as five years, they grow up knowing what it takes to actually have food on the table. Basically, that’s what we do in Uganda.

Of course, I don’t work alone. I am joined by amazing young people. I was just a single founder, but as time went on, I got friends who believed in the what I was doing, who have the heart for community development and supporting communities. We are now a group of 15 people, all young people below the age of 35. We are doing this work as a team, together.

JIA: Starting with research online and some experience on actual farms, take us through the process of adapting that knowledge to a very local context, by integrating local knowledge in the community as well as local resources to actually develop the physical end-product.

LN: When I researched, I found that the vertical farms online are more advanced. They need high levels of technology that we don’t have currently in Uganda. Instead, I chose a concept of growing crops without soil, and we went with that: hydroponics, which we actually do in Uganda. Then, in terms of local farming, we had to get organic fertilizers, so we don’t have to use toxic chemicals. We are encouraging our beneficiaries to actually make their own composting. How we do it is we collect green matter and decompose it. We learned from this and incorporated it into vertical farming.

For the units that we use, we basically make them out of recycled plastic waste, found containers. Uganda is not so good at recycling. We don’t have that good system, so you find plastic containers dumped everywhere, which are really harmful to the community. We encourage our beneficiaries to get those containers from their environment and recycle them for growing crops. We also have the vertical component. We call it a tower garden. When I looked at the advanced technology, they grow a variety of crops. I remember sitting down with one of my friends, and he asked me, “What should we do about this? How can we grow variety?” So that’s when we thought of a tower garden. My friend created that design with the plastic containers. We also build vertical units that are made out of wood, but those are not so common. Each unit of our garden can accommodate up to 200 seedlings in a variety of plants. You can grow peanuts, potatoes, any kind of vegetables, including strawberries. Of course, with ongoing climate change, it is challenging, so we always encourage our farmers and our beneficiaries to make sure that they not only save the environment, but they also benefit from it.

JIA: What are some of the other crops that that people grow in these vertical farms?

LN: They mostly grow larger vegetables. But they also grow spinach, cabbages, lettuce, and even spices. They actually are concentrating on strawberries, as I mentioned, because there are markets in Uganda. Not so many people grow strawberries, so we always encourage our women farmers to engage in growing them since they have a market. We take them through trainings as well. They learn the skills needed to grow new varieties and take care of the strawberries.

Depending on the type of vertical farm, you can even grow heavy feeders like maize, as well as, like I said, potatoes—even sweet potatoes. You can grow any kind of vegetable, really.

JIA: You started with the vertical farms, but you also indicated that building community is important. How did you go about expanding some of the services that you were offering, beyond only trainings and materials?

LN: It’s more that we teach them agriculture as a business and not simply as growing your own food. During our sessions, we offer extra training on entrepreneurship, and we specifically train them to carry out agriculture as a business. We take them through basic bookkeeping skills: part of your vegetables you keep, part of the vegetables set aside for sale, because you can actually generate income out of it. We are working with low-income communities, and we want them to be financially independent, especially the women. That’s why we introduce this as an aspect of the training.

As an organization, we take an amount to provide ready markets, since we know that finding a market is very hard. We have partnerships with restaurants, with hotels, with some schools, and of course with some market vendors where our customers are actually linked to the point of sale. That’s also another benefit that we have added to our services.

JIA: You had some relationships with existing suppliers. Do you also form partnerships with other organizations in some of these communities to expand offerings or facilitate recruitment?

LN: Yes, we partner with certain organizations. We’ve had some organizations reach out to us. Of course, the first organization we partnered with was Kampala Capital City Authority. They run garbage collection in the city, and we partner with them because they have local ties. They help us reach out to different communities that we are not working in. After Katanga, we’ve expanded to different slums in Uganda and to other regions. We also partner with local leaders, as well as some local grassroots organizations, specifically NGOs who want us to support the beneficiaries of their programs.

JIA: How do you go about recruitment? When you were starting out, it was drawing on your own personal contacts or contacts of contacts. Now that the organization has grown, how do you go about that process of bringing in women or entire families into the program?

LN: Some of these women have small savings groups. We work with the leaders of those savings groups. Having a relationship with those leaders means that when we find one group of women, it can have 100, 200, 300 women. It actually becomes easier for us to recruit them into our programs, and we accommodate all of them in the group.

JIA: What is your process for gathering feedback, including learning from participants and gauging their involvement?

LN: We don’t just train and empower them and then stop there. We always go back into those communities to see how they are doing with what we train them on and are they actually practicing it. We have a database of all of our participants, and we use that to help us track and conduct interviews. They tell us about their journey, and I have a few videos of our participants who have shared their journey since the first day they joined Women Smiles Uganda, including the day-to-day of their experience. That also helps us to make improvements where necessary. When we do make changes, it helps us to encourage more people, and if someone watches the video of a participant sharing her journey, it then encourages the other person to do the same. That’s what we do for our labs, as well as to collect feedback from our customers.

JIA: Your organization works primarily with women. Do you have programming or any opportunities for children and young people to also get involved?

LN: It just so happens that most of these children are always involved, because you often find that many of these mothers attend their trainings with their children. We usually involve the children with the community demonstration farms that we set up. We always encourage the parents to bring in children to learn how to farm and get that exposure when they are still young.

As part of our vision for the future, we’re looking at setting up a school in one of the communities if we can get the resources that are needed: a school where children can be empowered not just in agriculture practices in vertical farming, but also with more general support. You find that some of them don’t attend good schools.

I always go to Katanga whenever I am in Uganda. I make sure I visit, because it’s where my heart is. I recently visited some of our beneficiaries there, and as I was interacting with their children, they shared their challenges with me. Within my team, we have one of our partner organizations that is supporting children, but mostly it is supporting children with disabilities in Uganda. As I was speaking with him, I brought up the possibility of supporting these children so that they can also access the good education that other children are already accessing. We are still in discussion with that, as the team is limited with its resources. That would be our idea and our vision, to see that these children are also supported, beyond them getting involved in urban farming.

JIA: 2020 was still the early in the organization’s existence. What was your experience with Women Smiles Uganda in the COVID-19 pandemic?

LN: We started in 2018, and even then, we were struggling as a new organization. In 2019, we were trying to break through, but then COVID came in 2020. It was a very frustrating situation for us as a team, because we were all locked down in our in our homes. No moving, no travelling. It was so difficult when we were locked down. I didn’t know anything about the workers except what I discussed with them. I told them that if we could actually come together, even when we were not meeting physically, we might be able to support the people around us. I made sure that each and every person who works with me had guidance for their home. That’s the beauty of my team: we are also practicing what we teach.

We came together and supported our communities with food supplies, because we realized that many people were struggling to access fresh food during the lockdowns. They were not allowed to move. We used that as a challenge, an opportunity, to bond more with the communities around us. We supplied free food to them, and that’s how we managed to maneuver through. Of course, as an organization, getting back on track was very hard. I should say we really struggled. 2020 was very hard for us, but 2021 was when we actually introduced a food delivery program, where we support our participants with access to ready markets. That’s when we introduced that. And we realized as an organization that after COVID, there are some opportunities that we need to explore. I’ve always told myself to look for opportunities, to write proposals, so I got busy during that time. I started writing proposals for fundraising support, and we did get some funding, which really helped us to maneuver through that situation.

Right now, we are okay. We are back on track, and we are doing the same work as before. This year, we are scaling to Kenya because we found a new partner, as well as to South Sudan.

JIA: Women Smiles is expanding soon to Kenya and South Sudan. How did that come about?

LN: We’ve secured a partnership with a community-based organization or CBO there. We’re going to train the 200 members of the community on sustainable urban practices and regenerative agriculture. They reached out to us last year and told us that Women Smiles is the right organization to help them with economic development, because they are more focused on cattle. They see vertical farming and regenerative agriculture as the way to solve problems of food in their community, including as a way of helping children to learn about agriculture when they are still young. The program is slated for July, and I will be implementing it then.

I believe that we need to make meaningful partnerships, because they can help you to scale your impact and also help support other communities. The partnership in South Sudan is focused on sustainable development. They reached out to us, and they wanted us to train South Sudanese in a campbased setting for refugees. It’s close to Uganda, so we’ll also be engaging with that community, to empower women and young girls specifically to grow crops to sustain themselves and become self-reliant and independent.

JIA: You were an Obama Scholar. Tell us about your experience meeting people who have done similar work in very different contexts.

LN: I got an email about the application process, because in 2019, I attended one of their programs, the Obama Foundation Leaders Africa. There was a convening of 200 African leaders in Johannesburg, South Africa. I would always get emails from the foundation after that, and one time I got an email about the previous cohort for 2020-2021. When I looked at the biographies of those people, my first thought was, I don’t think I’m fit for this. These people are doing amazing work.

Still, I applied, and at the end of 2021, I received notification that I had been selected. I was a bit skeptical about applying because honestly, I didn’t believe that I could make it and be selected as a scholar. I saw that it is competitive, and they only select a few people across the world. I didn’t give it much attention at first. I remember sitting in my office and thinking, Let me try to apply for this scholarship. Whatever happens, it’s okay. I also had to record a video for the application process. I had a microphone and recorded my video, and then we waited. But I didn’t have high hopes of getting through the application process. Later, I got a notification about an interview because I was selected to give one. During the interview process, I felt like I bonded with the interviewers because it was more of a sharing of my work, who I am, my aspirations. That I know, so after the interview, I felt good. Then I started believing in myself, thinking that maybe I could make it.

In May, I got a notification that I was selected, and it really was my dream coming true. The Obama Foundation program is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I had an opportunity to attend, from participating in skillbuilding workshops to learning from courageous and selfless inspiring young leaders. The scholars are doing amazing work, and they really made me feel that the impossible can be possible and that there is a solution to each and every problem in this world. Getting that experience and learning from each other has been very impactful on me. Meeting trailblazing people and community leaders, bonding more with scholars, engaging in different sessions, and being invited to speak at different events has inspired me. Now, I care more about meeting new people and building through networks, because you never know what life can offer you. I feel more empowered to do that.

JIA: Looking ahead to food security in 2023, after a year in which the cost of living and food prices have been high everywhere but particularly in Africa, tell us about how Uganda has been impacted and how your organization has tried to address some of those needs in the community.

LN: Food Security has been one of our challenges, post-COVID. We’ve seen so many communities affected. In Uganda, we’re affected, too. Agricultural production went down because farmers lacked access to imports and support. But we haven’t seen as much support for women farmers. At Women Smiles, we’ve continued to put out the message that we need to support female farmers. We’ve taken extra steps to support more communities. We’ve scaled to different regions, because initially we were working in the city center. After COVID, we realized that other communities are affected as well. First, we scaled to other regions in Uganda, and now we are also scaling to other countries in Africa. We are always looking to support more communities and elevate the voices of women farmers in agriculture.

Women are actually 70% of the agricultural sector, so when we elevate their voices, when we support women to engage and encourage them through agriculture, they are the ones who will solve this problem of food insecurity. Women Smiles Uganda continues to do just that. We also have a campaign running all of this year in partnership with the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens, where we are elevating the voices of women farmers and young people in the agricultural sector. We are encouraging them to actually engage in innovative and sustainable agricultural practices, so that we can bring about improved food security, nutritional status, and livelihoods for our communities.

Participants of a Women Smiles Uganda program at one of the demonstration farmsin Kampala.

Participants of a Women Smiles Uganda program at one of the demonstration farms in Kampala.