Hellen Acham, Executive Director of North East Chili Producer, Northern Uganda

Words of Wisdom: “Become involved with the economic activities that will not separate your family. We need to work with the support of our partners.” – Hellen Acham

Interview with Hellen Acham, Executive Director of North East Chili Producers, Northern Uganda

Hellen Acham, Executive Director of North East Chili Producers, Northern Uganda

Hellen Acham, Executive Director, North East Chili Producers  

Hellen is Chairperson Northern Uganda Transitional Justice Working Group, Executive Director North East Chili Producers Association. North East Chili Producers Association (NECPA) coordinates groups of thirty Women Associations of chili producers across Northern Ugandan.  Hellen has helped these women to processes and market their crop for export.  She has trained more than three hundred women in entrepreneurship skills, marketing and other areas.

Hellen is not only a businesswoman and trainer, but also a mentor, counselor and peace builder. She attended Pilot Peace building and conflict management course at Austrian Centre for Peace and Conflict management 2009 and Transitional Justice training organized by ICTJ in 2010 and trained as an Entrepreneur with Reykjavik University of Iceland. Hellen worked with the Ministry of Agriculture between 1992- 1998, she is the founder of Uganda Victims Foundation.

Hellen is peace builder advocate since year 2000 to date. She has vast experience working with the LRA War Victims since the year 2000 providing Psycho- social and Economic services especially the formerly abducted women and youth.

She doubles as an entrepreneur,

Hellen introduced high value non-traditional crops in Northern Uganda to the war Victim. She is a board member Pan African Competitiveness Forum, and she actively participated in Juba Peace talks representing the Views of Victims through Civil Society forums Hellen is the founder member of Africa Agribusiness Academy.  

Hellen Acham won a TIAW (The International Alliance of Women), World of Difference Award in October 2011. She was recognized for her community contributions.

North East Chili Producers: www.necpaug.org

Hellen Acham, Executive Director of North East Chili Producers, Northern Uganda

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: What motivated you to leave the Public Sector?

[ Hellen Acham ]:

  1. I realized I was not really utilizing my skills and talent to effectively support the community, especially women.
    • There was a gap in women’s economic participation especially in Northern Uganda.
    • I also looked at other successful entrepreneurs and saw an opportunity. I knew I could make a change in women’s lives in the community.
  1. Also the salary in Public service in Uganda is too low, so I thought I should explore entrepreneurship and use the available natural resources in Northern Uganda to have an impact.
  2. I was working on a project in the Public Service that only focused on one crop, and therefore, not taking advantage of my entire skill set.

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: What gave you the confidence to think you could make the transition to work for the Public Sector and then become an Entrepreneur?

[ Hellen Acham ]: I started my journey in Uganda Women’s Entrepreneur Association Limited learning how they were doing business. I got more inspired and motivated. I saw some women doing business where they were able to make ‘ends meat.’ Many of them where also supporting others to come together.

Initially I had no money, so I took entrepreneurial training. I asked the question “what am I?” and through that process I conducted a SWAT analysis (strength, weakness, opportunities, threats), and I realized that I had a very high potential that I could utilize to make a change in my life and the lives of many who were not able to do things on their own.

[ Suzanne ]: What type of training did you find most beneficial?

[ Hellen ]: Entrepreneur skills development was the most helpful. I took it when I was in the Public Sector and it was organized by Uganda’s Women Entrepreneur Association, in Kampala, Uganda.

How did you start your business in Agribusiness and then how did it translate into benefiting women in the community?

In 1998 while working in the Public Service, I started I realized that many women in Northern Uganda did not have the business skills. So I started organizing women into groups to train them so they would be able to become self-reliant and start-up something that would generate income for them.

I started working with 1027 women mobilizing them by putting them into smaller groups. We started with 30 groups. We trained them in entrepreneur skills. We also trained the youth in horticultural skills so they were able to do agriculture as a business.

North Uganda accounts for more then half the country, and I realized there was a high potential as there were very fertile lands with good weather. There was no guidance on what people could produce to meet the market demands.

I decided to produce chili; it was never grown in Uganda, it was picked wild. I started initiating the first chili production in Uganda. I think Uganda is the highest producer of chili in East Africa now. It was my initiative, which I am very proud of.

  • I started with only women, but now I work with 10,000 households across Northern Uganda who are producing chili. We expect over 500 metric tons of chili production.

I have also been engaging in agro forestry. We realized that Uganda can also grow coffee, and we have a lot of coffee being grown by men and women.

Why did you initially targeting women? What skills do women bring

Women were the most impoverished in Northern Uganda. They had no income. In Uganda all the land belongs to men. So even if women have a small piece of land and their husbands give them some land they can produce something that can give them income.

  • Women in Africa, more specifically in Uganda, are the breadwinners of the families. Especially in Northern Uganda where we had war, where everything was put on women. Here women were the most disadvantaged. So that is why I targeted them.
  • I realized that women could easily learn and adapt to new skills and technologies faster then sometimes men.
  • Women are also easier to work with.
  • Women saw me as bringing something new. There was some resistance from men however. They saw me joining groups of women together and felt they could be compromised. They believed this because they had a very bad experience with cooperatives where they were purely growing cotton in Northern Uganda and they lost a lot of money to unscrupulous dealers who got their products and credit.
  • Chili had a market and the demand was high. Women provided most of the household labour.  Men are now learning from women.

In households now men and women learn together and work together.

Have there been any challenges of men accepting that women are the breadwinners?

There has been quite a lot of challenges

  • When it comes to marketing the product and when women get money, men want to take full control over the money and therefore the marketing of the products.
    • What we have done through various trainings is to mainstream gender by bringing men and women together to understand each ones role. They need to understand what they are producing belongs to both men and women in the house. They should work together, not marginalize women. So for now there is improvement.
    • Traditionally women would do the marketing and then men would come and get the money. Sometimes we would chase the man away. The man would leave and then marry new woman. Those who produced and had money were then abandoned with the children.
    • These were some of the biggest challenges.

What business do you think you are in?

I am in the agribusiness, but I am also a peace promoter. I have been fighting for peace since year 2000 when there were a lot of problems between Limo & Teso sub regions. I have trying to bridge a gap by trying to bring these people together so they really understand each other and love one another.

  • I have been using economic activities for social intervention.
  • I promote when we work together we can produce the bulk of the chili which we can bring to market, but also building peace amongst ourselves.
  • Also trying to build peace among men and women.

We have decided to gender mainstream all our activities, whether piece building or economic activities.

  • We bring men together to try to teach men their gender roles so they work together for the betterment of their families.

What are some the technologies needed to further grow the agricultural business?

  1. Post-harvest handling technology

We have been using the UV tarpaulin sheets for drying our chili in order to get the quality that we would need. However, we are also looking at technology developments so we can further process the chili to get finished products.

  • We need to process chili power and chili oil (which is very high marketable commodity), it categorized under essential oils. We are also looking at making chili sauce. Most of Chili sauce is imported. We only have one company that is producing chili sauce in Uganda.
  • We think if we can make chili sauce concentrate then export it to other factories who can dilute chili sauce to use it.

If we can acquire these technologies it would really assist us in expanding our market.

  • The chili oil is very essential because pharmaceuticals need it. It is the most expensive element in the chili industry. All the drugs for humans or animals, injectable or tablets, are preserved using the chili oil.
  • All the garment industry uses chili for colour separation.

If we get the technology that will help us do all the proper processing and separating the necessary value additions for various products we can produce from chili.

Production in chili is increasing, not only in Northern Uganda, but now we have farmers in central and Western Uganda who have approached us to start growing chili. Our chili is the best in the global market so far.

What advice would provide to farmers to grow their business? 

  1. To become a commercial farmer. Try to acquire a big space of land that you can utilize.
  2. Use improved technologies
  3. Add value through your processing.
  • The majority of the farmers are selling unprocessed food.
  1. Most importantly, farmers must adhere to quality standards. Good post-harvest handling processes can achieve this. The market wants quality products.
  2. Harvest products when it has matured fully. I.e. the market in vanilla was too big and people were harvesting the vanilla at 50% maturity. The result the entire market disappeared. It is important to harvest only at maturity period of whatever products they are producing. So they are able to increase their incomes as well as sustain and maintain the markets. It is easier to gain a market, but much more difficult to sustain it.

Do you have any recommendations on how to go from grower to producer?

  1. With processing chili, we have put people in groups. Now we are forming larger groups to creative cooperatives so it will be easier for them to market their products.
  2. Processing is something that can be done centrally if all the groups accept and produce the minimum standards of the product. This is important.
  3. The market does need some products unprocessed, but it is important that they maintain the quality standards.

I would advice the farmers no matter what products they produce, post harvest handling is essential, whichever form you are selling it, whether fresh or dried.

  • How do you handle the product?
  • At what time do you harvest?
    • Handling the product includes pre- and post harvest
      • Pre-harvest you would look at the maturity period.
      • Most-harvest is how you will handle your product after you harvested it.

What are two example of post-harvest handling?

  1. If good farmer you harvest when the harvest is mature. For example, if you harvest maize, harvest it when it is 95% mature. It should have dried, before you harvest it completely from the field. After you have removed it, only remove the cobs. Keep it in a dry clean place. If possible use tarpaulin, or silos, and dry it again before you prepare to remove it from the cobs.
  • If you don’t have some of these technologies you can use the solid driers, by erecting a solid dryer or buy a UV tarpaulin sheet. You can dry your maize, glean and thrash it, and then you can package it very well. By following this procedure, you will not encounter post harvest losses.
  • Farmers loose 25% of their products during the post-harvest. They post-harvest losses are so high.
    • One of the reasons is if they harvest an immature crop much of it will be billowed when they are cleaning it because the grains did not get an opportunity to fill in. If it was immature, even the colour of the product will change. You will not be able to get proper grain seed that is needed.
    • The only time it is understandable to harvest before maturity is when there is climatic changes, especially for farmers that who are depending on rain fed agriculture, which is 99% of Ugandan farmers. If there is a disaster, it is understandable, but not because you are rushing to get money. You will produce a poor quality product, which will chase away the market, not sustain it.
  1. All agriculture must observe the pre- and post- agriculture harvesting to succeed.
  2. You can even decide to take one product and grow it on big commercial bases, and you will make money.
  • However, I always tell the farmers that grow chili that in order to take care of food security also grows other foods besides chili. You should have ‘intercrops.’ Specialize in one to three crops so you can maximize production. If a disaster falls and you are reliant on one crop, you may not have anything to eat. Relying on three crops gives you food security and better profits.
  • Once you specialize you can have better output then growing so many products at the same time and then you have poor quality of everything and you don’t maximize the outputs.

How are you able to coordinate 30 groups to work together

In each group I identified a lead farmer.

  • We have more farmer leads then staff
  • As an organization I have 22 field staff, who are based in various districts and sub-counties who coordinate activities.
  • These farm groups all have their leaders. We train them build their capacities. They are able to coordinate some of the activities. We delegate them to do much of the work.
  • This has been key to our success. Once you build the capacity of other individuals they are able to coordinate. We give them the power to do the work that I should be doing and they are able to produce the results.

We have mainstream training to assist them to handle the challenges that they face.

  • We have mainstream conflict development and sensitivity programs in place i.e. gender sensitivity. We train them to be conflict sensitive to anything that they are doing. As an entrepreneur there may be many different types of conflicts that may arise.
    • For example, there can be conflict that may arise because of the nature of the business. i.e. we use land to produce. Where to put a warehouse for the community? Infrastructure for roads. We need the roads to get access for product.
    • We encourage the communities to take the lead. We achieve this by giving them the skills to deal with diverse situations.

What are some of the biggest challenges related to exporting

Standards. We use the EU (European Union) standards that every product in Africa must follow.We produce organic chili. Certification is a long process.Some farmers have not been certified, and some have.

Some groups were certified, but since the government came up with the policy of spraying DDT inside the housed of the community we had to re-register those farmers.

  • It takes three years for a farmer to be certified as an organic producer. It is a very long process.

The inspectors will come often. It is a bit expensive to do organic certification.

  1. The European standards can change at any time.
  2. There can be very stringent conditions depending on what commodity is being produced and exported. Especially if you are exporting to Europe.
  3. We also export locally, approximately 65%. Some goes to Kenya but I have learnt that they then export it.

How do you deal with the evolving standards? Which strategy do you use – respond to them, or anticipate them?

  •  We try to respond to the standards, because if you try to be ahead of them, you may not know what they exactly want.
  •  We get updates on the international standards that we produce.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment?

  1. I feel I have I have been able to economically empower the women and community of Northern Uganda.
  2. I have been able to bring peace and unity. Most communities in Northern Uganda are living in harmony, even though they are from different tribes and speak different languages. I think I have managed to bridge that gap.
  3. Economically, I have tried my best that they will have enough income to meet the basics human needs. Some are sending their kids to school. I would say 65% of the women that have children in University are able to pay their university fees.
  • They are no longer dependent on handouts, they are now self reliant, especially those that are reliant on chili production.

4. I think I have also have done a lot to unite the civil society in Uganda. The civil society can now sit together and work for the community.

Personally I have achieved:

  1. I own my own home.
  2. My family is happy.
  3. I have paid for my six of my adopted sons and daughters university education.
  4. I have three pick-ups.
  5. I have been able to acquire almost 100 acres of farm land.
  6. I own an office and a warehouse.

If you can attribute your personal financial success and the impact you have made on so many people to one thing, what would it be?

Self-motivation and hard work. I also received support from various partners that made me successful: USAID has supported me twice and ECHO, a Dutch organization. These partners came later. I have been using my limited resources to get the project off the ground. When I retired Public Service I only had 300 shillings. So I would say hard work, and the cooperation from the women was the most impactful. The market that I got for my products also has helped make me what I am.

Can you provide one example of something that you implemented that did not work. What would you do differently in the future?

  • I initiated Uganda Victims Foundation. We register the foundation, set-up the offices.  We started with three of us, and then I was alone. I persisted mobilizing the organizations and as we were starting to get support there were a lot of people who wanted to take over. I wanted to mentor them, that is the way I like to handle things. But I saw there was a lot of force, particularly political force trying to interfere a lot, I realized it was time to stop being involved.
  • The organization has had a lot of challenges.  There was a lot of mismanagement of funds and other things.
  • I am trying to revive the organization with the new elected board. I am providing them with a series of training that I support myself. I told them to focus on the organization and not individuals, since there was tension amongst each other.
  • I told them to look at the objectives of the organization and why it was formed and then they will be able forge their way forward.
  • I am trying to convince people that it is being revitalized.
  • Now we are also seeking an outside consultant to evaluate why there is so much mistrust in the organization.

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

I had always been offering a free service. ECHO, a partner, said that all the beneficiaries of initiatives have to do cost sharing.  In the past people were use to handouts, now they are being asked to pay for everything they are doing. I feel uncomfortable because the dynamics of the economy are changing and we are forced to ask people to pay for the services or contribute to have the services.

I feel uncomfortable asking for the money, but it is the trend of the global economy that I cannot really change.

Did you see a change in the individuals once you asked for contribution?

Yes, there is more ownership.

Traditionally when we give the seed for chili, they would say: “That is Hellen’s chili.” Now they have ownership, they take very good care of what they are doing. They produce good quality.

Initially there was high resistance of paying or contributing, but people who were contributing were becoming more successful.

How do you define leadership?

It is a process. It is inspiring others to do things the better way it should be done. It takes a lot of motivation to have that process.

Leadership Lessons Learned – Hellen Acham

  1. A good leader must be trustworthy.
  2. They must motivate others to do things a better way.
  3. Should inspire other to do what is right.

Given the chance, what would you like to do that you have not done yet?

 I want to process finished products.

I am also challenged how to bring women from middle class to top class to stand out.

Reflective Realizations from Hellen Acham

Q. What advice would you give to your 11 yr. old daughter?

I look at the talents they have and motivate them to take up those talents.

She has to be hardworking girl and learn from my own struggles.

Q What do you wish you were told at 11yrs?

Please keep up what you are doing. You are doing something good.

Words of Wisdom by Hellen Acham

Work hard and use the talents you have. Obey the gender roles don’t step on people’s shoes. Look at entrepreneur skills, as that will assist you.

If you are agribusiness then specializing is key to your success.

Women are the backbone of the economy of Africa. Become involved with the economic activities that will not separate your family. We need to work with the support of our partners.

 


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    4 replies to "Hellen Acham"

    • MAUREEN ODOI

      Congrats! this is an inspiring moment to share with other service providers. With peace we will feed the nations, the people and the poor.

      Stay blessed! maureen

    • gloria nalule

      Hellen, thank you for the work you are doing and thank you again for challenging us to remember that we can all earn a living from our way of life-that is if as a person I come from a traditionally pastoral or agriculturalist background, I can still ingeniously create a way of first of all, improving the way things are done, maintain those methods that have proved to give results to earn money. It is amazing to know that I do not necessarily have to leave my station in life in the hope of an opportunity that may never come or that it is too late to make a bold and definite decision.
      Thank you for going back home.
      Cheers,
      Gloria Nalule.

    • Clene Nyiramahoro

      Hellen, Thank you for being a peace keeper in your country Uganda. I have never thought that Chilli can be such a crop that one can rely on for financial sustainability. Your story is a reminder that it is possible to make a positive change where we are, using what we have. Peace is what we need and everything else will follow. Thank you for bridging the gap, and for preaching unity among your people.
      Keep up your good work,
      Clene

      • Acham Hellen K Elungat

        Dear Friends I would like to thank all of you who have shown love and appreciation to my efforts and initiatives I would like to encourage you all to strive for success and always be determined God will bless you and please remember that you cant do it alone joint efforts are needed ( HELP OTHERS TO HELP YOURSELF.

        WITH LOVE AND HONOUR

        HELLEN

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