Reimagining Rural Futures
The inaugural Okere Summit for Sustainable Development was organized from 26th-29th May 2022, in Okere City, Otuke district. This flagship summit centered on the theme: “Reimagining Rural Futures in Africa”.
The summit was organized by African Centre for Trade and Development (ACTADE) in collaboration with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and Okere City. The summit brought together a total of 50 participants from Kampala to have a free exchange of ideas on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 200 rural people of Okere parish, Adwari Sub-County, Northern Uganda. The main objective of the summit was to generate and increase more interest in rural futurism as one of the ways to drive the attainment of the SDGs.
Opening Ceremony: Planting of Shea Trees
Unlike conventional conferences that usually start with strong verbal statements and speeches, Okere summit was started with a simple and novel act of planting 100 Shea trees. Experts from Kampala together with local leaders in Okere assembled at the farmland which is being transformed into a Shea parkland. Each of the 50 participants was handed 2 Shea tree seedlings which they successfully planted. “We are planting these Shea trees today because, over the past 20 years, Okere village has lost 80% of its Shea trees cover due to charcoal burning,” Ojok said. He also said that Okere City aims to plant over 1M Shea seedlings in the next 10 years to reverse the ecological and economic loss which are already being experienced in Okere, such as incessant drought and increasing poverty conditions and the rural people can no longer harvest more Shea nuts to sell as a source of household income.
According to Mr. Odany, one of the local leaders of Okere, life in the village was significantly bettered by the Shea trees. As the trees have become increasingly cut down, the local people are beginning to have a lesser appreciation of the natural asset. “I call upon my fellow local leaders to do more work in sensitizing the local people to plant more Shea trees, whilst jealously the few we have standing,” Mr. Odany said.
Susan Nanduddu, a climate change expert appreciated the initiative because Shea trees are tropical trees that contribute immensely to sequestrating carbon. Shea trees are among the 100 trees on the red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which are on the verge of extinction if nothing is done to conserve and protect them.
After the shea tree planting activity, the summit reconvened with opening remarks from Ojok Okello, the CEO Okere City who expressed his pleasure to the participants and thanked KAS and ACTADE for collaborating with Okere City. He reviewed some of the pertinent facts concerning Okere city arguing that the idea is built around the power of the community’s collective action to reimagine a better future for the village. According to Ojok, “Okere City aims to build the first sustainable rural city in Africa”. Susan Nanddudu, the Executive Director of ACTADE in her remarks highlighted the reasons for ACTADE’s involvement with the summit, noting that, “ACTADE together with KAS have always organized conversations on sustainable development but these have largely been held in hotel conference rooms without the voices of the rural people, yet the discussions are often about them”. “If we make sure that opportunities for listening to rural people’s voices and understanding their realities are created, we could address many complex challenges that the rural people find themselves trapped in” Susan emphasized. “I hope that Okere Summit for Sustainable Development becomes a platform for knowledge sharing that can meaningfully inform policies that work for the rural” she concluded her address.
Keynote Address: Okere City: Re-imagining Rural Futures
To start the conference, Ojok Okello, who founded Okere City gave a keynote address entitled, “re-imaging rural futures”. Ojok noted that Okere City which was established in 2019 is an experiment to showcase the practical meaning of sustainability and the SDGs. Accordingly, he reiterated that sustainability has been included in all aspects of Okere city, for example, sustainable energy through the use of solar solutions, and sustainable social enterprises meant to attain financial stability and reduce over-reliance on aid, among others. To Okere City, sustainability means trying to balance the benefits of development both for the present and future generations.
Ojok attributed the success so far to the power of community people and their ability to appreciate the project. Although Okere City’s steps seem to be in the right direction, Ojok alluded that many challenges still persist because most problems are systemic and deeply rooted which makes them very difficult to eradicate. Thus far, Okere City is managing to resuscitate many rural possibilities and overcome many legacies of the protracted LRA war and Karimojong cattle raids that completely obliterated the future of the village. Currently, Okere City is managing to lay the foundation of what a progressive and sustainable rural city could look like by investing in basic infrastructure and providing services and goods to the rural people of Okere. Indeed, these short-term investments are slowly paying off by bringing the city to life. But as Ojok reasons, more focused and visionary thinking to build Okere as a futuristic city is required. This requires producing knowledge through conducting evidence-based research which can demonstrate each progress Okere City is making. More so, creating more networks for collaboration and knowledge sharing is crucial if the idea of Okere City can be used as a case study to demonstrate what a futuristic rural city in Africa could look like in 50 or more years.
As part of her post-2030 development agenda, Okere City hopes to achieve the following in the next 10 years;
- Fight poverty by investing in market-creating initiatives and creating off-farm rural job opportunities (SDG 1 & 8).
- Fight hunger by investing in community irrigation projects, livestock management, and other agribusiness initiatives (SDG 2).
- Increase investment in quality education for all by making sure that 15,000 rural children benefit from Okere City’s community education programs by 2030 (SDG 4).
- Build a healthcare system that provides quality and affordable healthcare services to 10,000 rural dwellers by 2030 (SDG 3).
- Promote access to clean water and sanitation by drilling boreholes (SDG 6).
- Promote and use clean and affordable energy, such as solar power (SDG 7).
- Invest in critical infrastructures, such as roads, irrigation systems, industries (Shea butter processing plant), and solar-powered street lights (SDG 9).
- Protect the environment and regenerate to over 1 million shear trees by 2030 (SDG 13)
- Build the capacity of local leaders to become more effective in promoting peaceful community existence and strong institutions (SDG 16) and forging relevant partnerships with individuals and organizations in Uganda and beyond (SDG 17). Indeed, according to Ojok Okello, Okere City can only attain her vision of becoming a sustainable and thriving village through the commitment, dedication, and hard work of the community members and the local leaders, and the buy-in and support of both state and non-state actors.
Education and Health status for Okere City
Okere City since its inception has prioritized education and health for its population. According to Pius Ocen, a teacher at Okere City School, pupil enrolment in the school has gradually improved. The school started with 8 pupils in 2019 when Okere City started to have over 200 learners to date. Ocen attributes the increase to the trust parents have gained for the school due to the quality of education the school offers. The school is still in its infancy and has challenges such as; limited teaching resources, infrastructure, and fewer teachers. Equally, Okere City has a health facility and according to Bosco Okello, the health-in-charge at the facility, Okere City Health Center offers only basic health services and handles mild issues. However, the health facility also struggles with many challenges, such as limited medical like laboratory services, and inadequate drugs which disable her from providing the best medical services to the rural community.
Okere City as a Rural Futurist Attempt
During the second day of the conference, there were critical reflections and philosophical debates on the key questions around rural futurism. Among others, there were questions, like how we can make rural futures more just and durable. How can we make sure that rural futures are not hinged on growth-based and selfish capitalistic modes associated with urban areas today?
It was noted from the onset that rural futurism goes beyond villages. There was also an emphasis that rural futurism defies descriptions as such as marginality, peripherality, and backwardness often associated with the rural. More so, rural futurism also goes beyond villages and countryside as mere factors of production instead it seeks to make sure the rural area is an active participant in the production and experimentation of pro-people and almost very desirable futures.
Ojok argued that the countryside is undoubtedly where the most decisive battle to protect and conserve the environment shall be fought. Rural people live in solidarity with and closeness with nature thereby emerging as their natural and best custodians. But urbanization has taken a dangerous toll on Okere City, for example, as the demand for charcoal in urban areas has largely contributed to the cutting down of Shea trees, which are crucial ecological and economic assets in the village. As such, Okere city has embarked on a mission of planting 10,000 shea trees a year which totals 1 million trees in the next 10 years.
Ojok also reasoned that the idea of rural futurism is important because it renews interest in the countryside and reduces rural-urban migration which puts a lot of strain on urban spaces and life. Besides, rural futurism is important because it leads to significant investments in services, and amenities that can make life more meaningful to and enjoyable for the rural people rejecting the notion that rural benefits must only be enjoyed by the wealthy who can pay for exotic countryside experiences.
Lastly, he implied that rural people often do not have the voice and the urgency to speak up to demand accountability from their leaders. This is because they are illiterate voters and are gullible to be exploited by politicians. But Ojok, argues, that rural futurism offers an opportunity to make sure that rural people are empowered, skilled and have better possibilities of choosing the right leaders they need to transform their communities and if this happens, maybe some bad practices and mal-governance of most African societies could be eradicated.
Keynote address: Assembling the Future in the Countryside, Possibilities for Imagining Rural Futures
After Ojok Okello’s address, Julia Spanier who is a Ph.D. Student and reader at Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development gave a riveting keynote address. To start with, Julia reasoned that the urban condition is a global phenomenon. That the contemporary cultural discourse connects the urban to ideas of the future and the rural to ideas of the past. Moreover, Julia notes, “the rural is often being depicted as the passive recipient of modernity”. She noted that “whereas there’s a lot of researchers who are imagining good cities, there are only a few that imagine the countryside as places of many possibilities for shaping the future”. Consequently, research and transition towards environmentally sound futures are mostly done in cities. She argued that cities are understood as places where innovative practices proliferate and from where certain transformations are supposed to start. Moreover, To Julia, the idea of planetary urbanization, i.e., the global urbanization of all parts of the globe urbanized thwarting and dominating the global countryside.
Julia alluded that rural futurism rejects the idea of the countryside as a faraway world. Truly, rural futurism is inspired by the countryside as a space of opportunity, freer and less defined than the overly controlled and maximized urban cities. She further reasoned that rural futurism is a lens that releases the countryside from its detention of the past faraway world and guides attention to many rural initiatives, and communities, places to contribute to the making of alternatives for more hopeful rural futures. Moreover, she reiterated that in order to work towards more hopeful futures, we have to build on and empower the existing initiatives that are already in the countryside.
“Rural futurism in contrast emphasizes the agency of the rural in the continuous ongoing of the making of the future and is inspired by Afrofuturism which reclaims anticipation of the global and African future from the white technocratic elite and provides an alternative to the idea of a singular Eurocentric idea” Julia argued.
To drive her point home, Julia use the case study of The Ferme de la Mhotte, a countryside community in France.According to Julia this initiative tries to create alternative rural futures just like Okere City. It tries to; a) overcome certain elements of capitalism by revitalizing social life, and inhabitants transform the land into commons-rural self-governed economy that assures social protection. b) Find new ways in which humans and non-humans (plants and animals) can leave alongside each other; c) work collectively as a community whilst at the same time building stronger connections with their territories to attain bigger autonomy to free themselves from external support systems. Lastly, Julia echoed that the countryside like Ferme de la Mhotte and Okere city are redefining the countryside because its members have chosen to re-engage the potential futuristic future of the countryside.
Insights during the Panel discussion session
To further the conversations, a panel discussion session to tease out and expand the keynote addresses by Ojok Okello and Julia Spanier followed suit. Constance Okollet, the founder and coordinator of Osukuru United Women’s Network located in Tororo district noted that “any social development project needs to create mechanisms to facilitate greater community participation very early in the process, and work towards “buy-in” of the people”. She explained that very often, communities might have ideas on how to solve their spatial context problems, but are unable to articulate these ideas due to the absence of collective action. Citing her experience with Osukuru United Women’s Network, she argued that togetherness and mutual understanding of community problems is important to the concept of rural development in general and rural futurism in particular. Thus, any action should be open to helping communities articulate their views, working with them on their development plans. On her part, Susan Nanduddu alluded to the fact that the idea of rural development and rural futurism must start from the ground, getting the agency for people to act. According to her, existing pilot models like Okere City need to be studied and understood before they can be replicated elsewhere since communities are different and they have different contextual realities.
Insights from the plenary
During the plenary session, participants raised a number of pertinent issues around rural futurism and sustainable development, namely;
Solidarity and responsibility: it was noted that collective action is key to spurring rural futurism and this requires that there is a responsibility by all stakeholders to take the mantle to drive the agenda.
Capacity and ability: enhancing the capacities of communities to combat and respond to rural challenges like climate change, with particular attention on adaptive capacity that enhances the resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable communities.
Link to SDGs: it was noted that rural futurism and the pursuit of sustainable development are two sides of the same coin. For either process to work, each must reinforce the other. To be at all meaningful, any rural development must have sustainable development as a central goal at the start as well as operational levels.
Generally, participants agreed that there’s need to “get back to the basics” to rural development, understanding the rural community dynamics, guided by how to develop solutions to specific community needs as well what activities they can do to impact on communities. According to, a Maren, one of the participants from Norway, “certain fundamentals of rural futurism do not change, regardless of where the concept is initiated but they tend to differ just a little bit”. As such, it was also agreed that essentially, rural futurism offers a unique opportunity to impact positively on the social life of rural people across the world. The issue of data and data analytics was also raised and the argument was that key and strategic decision-making is only possible with the availability of relevant data. According to Shem Opolot who is part of the WEF Global Shapers community in Uganda, investing in data allows futuristic rural attempts like Okere City to respond effectively to the challenges of the social needs of communities.
It was also observed that there’s limited youth involvement in Okere City and according to Ojok Okello, the youth are less interested in Okere City development agenda compared to their adult counterparts. He added that youth are engaged in many unproductive activities, and some are even doing gambling and/or drugs. More so, most of the youth have migrated to nearby urban centers in search of greener pastures. Benjamin Rwekungye, Founder, of Boundless minds argued that futuristic community projects with the potential that Okere City has must integrate youth into their agenda of change since they represent a constituency that must take charge and responsibility in shaping a better rural future in Africa.
Another pertinent issue raised was the missing relationship between Okere city and the sub-national government. Although the City works and has a strong relationship with the lowest local councils (LC1’s), participants argued that it is not enough and the city should forge a relationship with sub-national government (sub-county, district, and even national level government authorities).
Conclusions and recommendations
Okere Summit for Sustainable Development provided a unique opportunity to initiate the discussion on the larger architecture of rural futurism and sustainable development in Uganda and Africa at large. The concept of ‘Sustainable Villages’ or ‘Resilient Communities’ like Okere City should be studied and researched further to offer possibilities for replication across the country and Africa. Importantly, the idea of sustainability with a well-defined focus on fostering collective community action must be the key driver of rural futurism. It must be noted that championing rural futurism requires moving away from business as usual to take on disruptive rural practices facilitated by a contraction and convergence of public policies towards rural futurism. Again, the limited youth involvement which is an under-appreciation of youth importance may or may not impact the future of Okere city in short term but will nearly certainly adversely impact the future of Okere City in long run. The youth therefore should be central in Okere City development endeavor and be encouraged to take up opportunities that Okere City can offer. Okere City should establish a relationship and engage with the sub-national government. Doing so will provide the opportunity to build on the synergies. Not doing so will slow down Okere City’s future development aspirations. Lastly, to make a start, the summit helped the participants and community to learn and appreciate more about rural futurism.
What did the participants say about the conference?
Based on the evaluation,
85% of the participants said they had never heard about the concept of rural futurism before the conference.
100% of the participants were elated that the conference gave them a unique opportunity to think differently about rural development.
Participants’ key takeaways from the summit
“From the Summit, I understood that rural initiatives, communities, and places can significantly contribute towards the creation of alternative, or even a potentially more helpful, future” Maren Bjorgum
“Rural futurism is not just going back to village life but also adding new ideas, mindsets, and innovations for driving meaningful” Maren Bjorgum
“I attended the #OkereSummit and was amazed by e vibrant Shea nut industry, solar light in a village so deep. Did I mention the lively school with students over 80 years old” Raziah Athman, New Vision
“The idea of rural futurism has the potential to enhance rural capacity to take charge – it shifts attention from the negative connotations attached to rural areas and lives to their positive potential” Jonathan Angura, Programme Officer, ACTADE
“There is no way we are going to attain the SDGs when the rural is left out. That’s why the Okere Summit was held in a deep and remote location of Okere City to give experts an opportunity to learn from and engage with rural people from the village” Ojok Okello
“From the summit, I have learned that community organizing is a key ingredient for the success of any futuristic rural development attempt” Achom Adile