Lilian Nakigozi was born and bred in Katanga, an urban slum in Uganda which is home to approximately 20,000 people. Life in the slums is usually not easy with the majority of occupants living in houses made of mud, wood, and those lucky in brick-made houses. This is worsened by environmental pollution in their surroundings that often leads to contamination of surface and groundwater, ecosystem degradation, soil pollution as well as emission of greenhouse gasses.
Having been raised solely by her mother in a family of nine siblings, Nakigozi would see her mother work extra hard to feed them. Getting food on the table was a challenge and this contributed to the death of her younger sister. These experiences influenced her to have an ambition of changing the lives of urban slum dwellers when an adult; this she does today by offering them an alternative source of income through vertical farming to promote food and nutrition security.
Vertical farming is the practice of growing crops in a vertical manner on top of each other instead of horizontal which is used by many especially in areas where land is vast. Vertical farming leads to proper utilization of space and higher crop yields. One can practice vertical farming even in their home balconies as long as there are good conditions to nurture the crop.
In 2018 Lilian started Women Smiles Uganda, a social enterprise formed by like-minded young female social entrepreneurs with the aim of educating women on vertical farming because of inadequate land availability in urban areas to practice farming. They also manufacture vertical gardens and sell them affordably to women, especially those in urban slums of Kampala where there is hardly any land to grow crops.
Today, food scarcity is a challenge, a situation worsened by changing climatic conditions, use of outdated farming techniques by smallholder farmers, inadequate access to credit and insurance services, limited land and poor post handling practices. The 2022 Global Food Crises mid-year update reveals approximately 140 million people in Africa face acute food insecurity and at least one in five Africans go to bed hungry. In Uganda, the food scarcity situation was categorized as serious in the 2021 Global Hunger index report by Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe.
Women contribute to 76% of agricultural workforce however there productivity is considered low compared to their male counterparts, one of it being shared challenges both genders face as small holder farmers and the other one is inequity challenges faced by women as a result of cultural barriers such as land ownership, less decision making power, inadequate access to credit and financial services, insufficient agricultural training and education and lack of infrastructure.
With increasing urban population and as a strategy to reduce gender gap in the sector, there is a need to educate women on more alternative means of farming such as hydroponics which involves growing plants without soil but in gravel or liquid with added nutrients. Women smiles Uganda not only make and sell vertical farms to its clients but also link them directly to agents who sell improved seeds without them passing through middle men. Women also benefit from additional training depending on their needs such as making compost manure, record keeping skills, drip irrigation amongst other good farming practices. Today, Women Smiles Uganda has expanded its market base to urban slums such as Kimombasa, Katanga, Katwe, Makindye, Old Kampala and Bwaise which are home to almost 35% of Kampala’s population.
“We have a robust marketing team which moves across different slums to identify organized women groups to educate them on vertical farming. Those willing and finance is a challenge are allowed to pay in installments for the vertical farms. Our marketing also comprises the use of social media, adverts, talk shows both on tv and radio,” says Nakigozi.
In 2018, Uganda introduced social media tax and abolished it in 2021 by introducing a 12% tax on internet data which makes it expensive for startups to market their products and services online. Women Smiles Uganda managed to overcome this challenge through door to door visits to urban slum dwellers.
Other challenges include high costs of production for vertical farms and as a women led manufacturing startup, their aim is to have 98% of staff as women however, this is not the case as there are inadequate professional female engineers to work with. Their goal is to set up workshops for manufacturing of vertical farms in different regions to reduce the cost of production.
Written by Sharon Anyango