The initial focus of the UNDP Accelerator Lab Uganda is to explore innovative solutions to tackle the leading drivers of deforestation
Mr. Edgar Kasenene speaks on “The innovation landscape” during the launch of the UNDP Accelerator Lab Uganda

From whichever corner of Uganda that you stand, be sure to savour the nature, the vast National Parks teeming with wildlife; the dense tropical rainforests; the calm freshwater Lakes like Victoria, and a lot more. This is part of the stunning package of Uganda’s natural beauty in tourism and landscapes that support millions of livelihoods.

This is the beauty that struck former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill when he visited the continent in 1908. In his Book, My African Journey, Churchill stated that for her beauty, colour, natural wonders (flora and fauna) “Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa.”

While Uganda’s thick forests are known to provide obvious products like timber, firewood, fruits, medicinal plants and nature walks for tourists, Mucwa forest in South Western Uganda is home for the minority indigenous community of the Batwa: Their livelihood is inseparable from the ecosystem as they feed and live off what the forest offers in its natural habitat. It's not easy to imagine the survival of the Batwa without the forest!

But Uganda forests are now under threat. Just like other natural resources, a rapidly growing population and demand for forest products, land for settlement, agriculture, infrastructure; and in some cases ignorance of the values of conservation, have combined to put a strain on these valuable assets. A report by the National Forestry Authority, the Ministry of Water and the Environment Forestry Sector indicated the declining forest cover in Uganda, giving a trajectory of forests being wiped out completely by the year 2040 should there not be urgent and sustainable interventions to curb the high rate of deforestation.

If forests are extinct, not only will Uganda’s natural beauty disappear and subsequently the “Pearl” fade, but also livelihoods will be at peril and the achievement of Uganda’s Vision 2040 and the Sustainable Development Goals at risk.

Facing the challenge

Despite Government’s efforts to conserve the environment and tackle deforestation - policies, laws, protection programmes, these have not gained the right amount of traction to address the problem.

In the first 100-days of operation, the UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab has tried to have a fresh look at the drivers of deforestation using a new set of methodologies.

The first stage was a sense-making workshop in Entebbe, which drew representatives from multi-sectoral players within the government and private companies managing natural resources. In the meeting, we (proudly) included a set of unusual actors - illegal loggers, charcoal burners and dealers, firewood sellers, housewives, consumers of bio-fuel, schools, religious leaders and security agencies. Some of them are not included in our programming efforts as much as they should, so this time we made sure to get the right people in order to have the right discussion.

To map out and explore the possible causes of deforestation, we modelled a traditional African fireplace discussion. In these conversations, communities sat in a circle around a fire to discuss and find harmonious solutions to pertinent community problems. Mimicking this allowed us to candidly and comfortably harness interesting insights into the problem from the variety of stakeholders in the room.

Voices of participants

The representatives of the national authorities in charge of environment and forest management walked into the room expecting the usual sessions on natural resource depletion. However, they soon realised the new approach and agreed that collective intelligence could have more far-reaching results to tackle deforestation.

Schools in Uganda are listed as one of the biggest consumers of wood fuel. It was, therefore, important to listen to their insights. Walking into the room, the school administrator would not imagine how this topic would be of concern to her. At the end, she acknowledged having been enrolled in a class where she inadvertently learnt a lot.

“I have been blaming people involved in deforestation and little did I know that as large volume consumers, schools are also culpable. You have made me feel guilty. It’s time for us to experiment on alternative sources of energy,” said Mrs. Joy Veronica Maraka, the Rector of Greenhill Academy.

Representatives of faith-based organisations agreed to act and educate believers on the need to protect nature that God provided to man and find renewable alternatives to wood fuel.

“Bring us on board. We gather many people and can share this information with our congregations.”

The prisons commissioner, Dr James Kisambu, candidly shared how the burden of feeding 152,000 prisoners leave them without an alternative, even when it's known to them that deforestation is endangering the ecosystems and making climate change worse. They can only mitigate their encroachment through restoration. He said several attempts to use alternative sources of energy have proved futile as either they cannot fuel their large volume of need, or the technology is corrosive to utensils or highly risky and loathed like electric saucepans.

“We have 152,000 prisoners to feed every day. We are also planting forests because prisons are one of the largest owners of the land. So, we are restoring what we are destroying,” he shared.

The woodcutters

The wood business is a key source of livelihood for a vast amount of the rural poor. A youth who represented the illegal loggers or wood-cutters confessed to cutting the trees, with all the risks of arrest and danger of the lurking wild animals and reptiles, as a last resort to fend for his family.

“When my local council chairman dragged me here, I was expecting summary arrest. I am surprised we are merely discussing how to find a solution to the problem that affects all of us,” he said adding, “I do this (logging) because I have no job and I have a family to feed.”

Nonetheless, he was patient to sit through the proceedings and even participated in the panel discussion for causes, possible solutions and alternative sources of energy.  According to what I have learned today from this workshop, I have realized that if I don’t find an alternative source of income, my future and that of my children will be doomed by the disappearance of the forests. Therefore, I will start thinking of an alternative source of income,” he disclosed.

Housewife Perception:

Socio-cultural beliefs also influence the energy choices people make. As one housewife confessed, some of these choices are harmful to the environment, “Steamed matooke (plantain) tastes and has a better aroma when cooked with firewood or charcoal,” one housewife testified. Matooke is a staple food in central Uganda.

“I just have to walk out of my house, go to the stall of charcoal or firewood in the neighbourhood, with only 1000 Uganda Shillings ($ 0.26)) and I will have fuel to cook food for my family,” a mother shared.

Walking out of this session, there was a lot to learn from having different players in the room. Together we realised the drivers of deforestation were vast and no one solution would solve this. Could it be a behavioural problem? Could it be a lack of alternative affordable energy sources? Could it be a lack of real time accurate data to back up the interventions?

Next Steps

After what was a very enlightening workshop, the Accelerator Lab team engaged the United Nations Pulse Lab to obtain real-time data using satellite imagery. Soon we shall embark on the ecosystem mapping to engage with players doing some work in this arena, at their workplace, as well as mapping out potential solutions.

The Accelerator Lab team is hopeful that the Pearl of Africa will retain its shine and sparkle.

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