Archive | May, 2013

What is Julia Doing in Uganda?

31 May

It’s taken me a while to write this post because, frankly, it’s taken me a while to figure out what exactly I will be working on this summer. It’s complicated. Maybe even complex…But I’m going to try to keep it simple, and email me if you want more details. (For a super quick summary, just scroll to the bottom) I’ve tried to limit my use of buzz-words, but it might help to take a look at my Intro to Agriculture Value Chains before reading this.

I’m working for an organization called Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB). I’m not in engineering, but I dig the organization because it’s full of super smart people with a lot of passion, doing their best to create sustainable change in both Canada and Africa. They’ve hired me to work as a Junior Fellow – sort of like an intern – for their Agriculture Value Chains (AVC) venture, which is currently operating in Uganda and Kenya.

Two other Junior Fellows and I have been assigned to work with USAID on their new “Feed the Future Agriculture Inputs Activity” project. The overall aim of the project is to increase the use of high quality agricultural inputs (ie. seeds, fertilizers, agro-chemicals, spraying services, etc) and support performance improvements in the agriculture industry. Considering that agriculture is one of Uganda’s primary industries, improving this system is pretty important for the long-term development of the country.

We (Hannah, Ellen, and I) are doing research to understand farmers, and how the existing Agriculture Inputs system affects them. So for the past two weeks I have been interviewing individual farmers, meeting with farmer groups, and hanging out at my host-parents’ farm supply store to eavesdrop on conversations. I’ve learned a lot about farmers’ perceptions of different products, how agricultural businesses operate, and how farmer networks/relationships influence purchasing decisions. However there’s also a lot more to find out, so I’ll be doing even more investigating in the next couple of weeks.

Once I’ve got a better understanding of Agriculture Inputs and farmers in the community, my work will change a bit. I will be working with one of USAID’s Business Growth Specialists, Lawrence, who is Ugandan and is much more qualified than I am. I will share what I’ve learned with him, and we will continue to do further research together. Hopefully we will identify areas where local Agriculture Inputs businesses could better serve their customers (farmers). Lawrence will then be able to help these businesses improve their service, thus helping the farmers to be more successful and also helping the businesses to be more profitable. The end goal is that Lawrence and I can come up with effective market research methods together, so that his work for the next 5 years will be more effective in serving farmers and agriculture-based businesses.

Super Summary: Julia’s work involves interviewing farmers and store owners; it’s a bit like market research. She will share her knowledge with other people here. These other people will stay in Uganda and use some of Julia’s knowledge (and a lot more of their own knowledge) to do awesome market facilitation work. This work will strengthen Ag-Inputs businesses, and eventually improve the agriculture system as a whole. Farmers will be happier. Agricultural businesses will be happier. People at the markets will be happier (ideally). Julia won’t really have done much, but she will have been a part of the process, and this will make her happy too.



30 May


Westerners have the clocks, Africans have the time.” ~ clock at ICU Guesthouse

Mr. Buligwanga and I sat in the shade of the mango tree, sipping chai and chatting for hours. We talked about agriculture, but Mr. Buligwanga’s concept of farming goes deeper than his knowledge of seeds and soils and tools. For him, as for many other farmers around the world, he has little need for clocks because his personal timeline is tied to that of his crops and livestock. Farming is a matter of understanding time in terms of seasons and life-cycles, where there is little need to hurry unless a storm is approaching. Seasons become years, years become decades, and at Mr. Buligwanga’s age, the decades of farming stretch so far back that a few hours spent sitting with a curious student seems like no time at all.

He spoke of his farm as a part of his own life-cycle. He told me about the legacy he hopes to leave for his community, and about how the seasons have changed since his childhood. We discussed the ways in which a person may find fulfillment in life. He challenged me to envision my life at future milestones, and to think about how people and environments will shape the life I lead.

When our tea was finished the old man leaned back in his chair and said, “So Juli, I believe you had some questions for me, for your research?”

I smiled to myself, realising that he had been trying to test the patience of The Young Westerner, just as I had been trying to learn about the livelihood of The Ugandan Farmer. It would seem that I passed his test. I pulled out my notebook and asked him the formulaic questions he was expecting, but I had already been getting answers for hours.

Once Upon a Boda Boda

24 May


Photo borrowed from:

Image source:

Boda-bodas, Uganda’s infamous motorcycle taxis, are both fascinating and scary. At every landmark, major intersection, and taxi park you’ll find hordes of men with motorcycles (of questionable roadworthiness) eager to drive you anywhere at low-cost and high-speed. They’re an effective way to transport people and things – all kinds of things – from place to place. But they can also be a bit hazardous, and there are some unappealing stereotypes surrounding boda-boda drivers.

The danger factor, combined with my general fear of speed, has kept me from riding on a boda for the past couple of weeks. However, yesterday my host-father unknowingly forced me to face my fears by asking a boda driver-cum-translator to take me around the village to interview farmers. I took my time digging my helmet out from under my bed, collecting my notebooks and greeting the driver, but eventually pride and practicality won out. It was time to beat my nerves into submission and get on with my job. I put my helmet on (wishing that I could also don a full suit of hockey equipment), took a deep breath and slid onto the boda. I prayed that my host-father had a preference for sensible drivers.

The driver must have noticed how tense I was, because he drove veeeery slowly for the first couple of kilometers. Gradually, I grew more comfortable and started to enjoy the incredible views of lush farms and rolling hills. The boda began to speed up to a normal driving speed and I was feeling okay… until I noticed The Hill of Impending Doom, covered in Potholes of Certain Death. I knew that we would have to accelerate to reach the top, so I clung to the back of the seat and hoped that we wouldn’t end up looking like smooshed papaya on the side of the road. With every bump my heart jumped and I clung to the seat with white knuckles. My adrenaline was racing as we reached the top.

Fortunately, the next minute we turned a corner and parked in the driveway of a farm. We were greeted by a lovely old lady wearing a purple gomez and a huge smile. She showed us her many pigs and adorable piglets, her bio-gas reactor, and her magnificent trellises covered in passionfruit. I didn’t get all the information I had wanted, but by the end of the visit I had calmed down enough to get back on the motorcycle. With each farm visit, it became easier and easier to get back on the boda, and by the time we returned home I was relaxed enough to enjoy the sunset.

I’m still nervous about boda-bodas, but at least I know there’s one driver that I can rely on to keep me safe(ish). I’ve been learning every day since arriving in Uganda that my fears often create expectations that are worse than the danger itself. Unless we push ourselves to face the things that intimidate us, we will forever limit our own growth and ability to do good work.


Call Me Maybe

13 May

Hey! I just left you,
and this is crazy,
but here’s my number,
so call me maybe!

(011-256) 79 048 9324

*EDIT: My awesome host siblings showed me how to buy cheap calling packages for North America. If you’re in Canada, just send me a text with your name and the time you’d like to talk. Then I’ll go buy airtime and call you (it ends up costing me about $2 for 45 mins… sweet deal, huh?)

If you call from Canada, I don’t have to pay for incoming calls… but maybe check with your phone company about what it will cost you. I would love to hear from anyone in EWB, and family and friends throughout the summer, so don’t hesitate to call. But keep in mind that Ugandan time is 9 hours ahead of Albertan time.

Love from Kampala!


10 May

As I sit here, in an airplane flying away from Canada at a speed of 956 km/hour, I have before me a notebook filled with reminders of all that I have done to prepare for this departure. My EWB-UCalgary friends gave this notebook to me on the day that they announced I would be one of our two Junior Fellows this summer. Since that day, the pages have slowly filled with inky quotes, words of encouragement, diagrams, challenges, lessons learned, and dreams for the fast-approaching future. I’m flipping through the pages, hoping that some snipet of information will calm the rabid bats of fear-of-the-unknown flapping around in my stomach. Fortunately, I’ve received many fear-appeasing words of wisdom, especially in the last week of Pre-Departure Training. I wish that I could share every incredible moment of PreDep with you, but instead I’ll share just a few take-aways:

10 Things I Learned at PreDep (In chronological order)

1. Self-improvement and self-love: It is important to strive to become a better human being, but it is also important to pause, be present for a moment, and say “I am enough.” Our imperfections and fears are not always bad things.

2. “You’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.” … If you find yourself continually complaining without attempting to create a solution, consider the possibility that you might be part of the problem.

3. You should never do something for the sake of cultural integration if it will not result in a positive outcome.

4. In real life, bats with rabies shouldn’t be a problem if you stay away from caves. On the other hand, petting sketchy looking dogs is always a bad idea. “There is no vaccine for stupidity.”

5. Sunscreen goes on first, insect repellent second.

6. I do not know nearly enough about social issues and poverty in Canada.

7. “The way you show up for your placement makes the difference between staying comfortable in your landscape and discovering who you truly are. Pushing yourself into discomfort will transform the way you see your own society.”

8. “Every point of view is true…partially.”

9. You have to stand for something. Know your values, act as you speak, pick your battles.

10. The world is filled with incredible people, and connection to all of this incredible-ness is what keeps me going.