Ojok Okello, 36, is a radical community worker and development mobilizer behind the futuristic Okere City in Otuke district. He wants Okere and its 4,000 inhabitants to be Africa’s first sustainable “rural city”, using shea butter, solar energy and hard work. Quick Talk caught up with the father-of-four.
Can you tell me more about Ojok Okello?
I was born to Julio Okello [RIP] and Miriam Achan. I am the third born. I completed my primary school at Morelem Boys School in Abim district.
For secondary, I joined Dr Obote College, from which I joined Makerere University for a bachelor’s degree in Development Studies. I then joined the London School of Economics for my postgraduate studies in international development. Development work is my daily food and life.
How was life growing up?
My father died when I was six months old. He was found lying in a pool of blood on the first anniversary of the National Resistance Army victory. To date, we don’t know what led to his death. My father worked with the now defunct Foods and Beverages Limited. My mother worked as a housewife.
She moved back to Lira to fend for us. She is a typical exemplification of an African woman; she sold charcoal, beans and rice to see that we got whatever was within her means. She later remarried [my mother had married dad at 16, and my father died when she was about 26]. So, we grew up with a stepfather.
How did her decision to remarry affect you?
I got detached from my paternal roots from childhood until I was married. I had never been linked to my father’s roots [Okere village]. I had these questions of belonging; who am I? Who are my people? Where are my ancestors? In 2018, I decided to go back to Okere to understand [my roots]. I was a father then.
What was life like with your stepfather?
He treated all of us as his children until a later time towards my university, when I started noticing the red flags. When one is apportioning his property among his children, it dawns upon you that you have to find your roots.
I spent my whole life in boarding schools, which made me grow ahead of my years. From P2, my stepfather dropped me in Karamoja. It was a hostile environment. I didn’t speak the [local] language, which made me strong because I had to survive.
I grew up to know that no one was there for me. As an adult, I am conscious how I treat others. I treasure how people are treated. In Okere, I have declined any talk of me vying for elective politics. I remain as a community organizer.
You left your job to concentrate on Okere!
In December 2021, I resigned my job from Makerere as University assistant secretary to concentrate on actualization of my dreams in Okere [Okere city started in 2019]. My wife is in total support of my dreams. She is the on-ground manager of Okere city as I move around looking for funds. My children also study in Okere.
Wow! Walking the walk. What pushed you to return to Okere?
Nothing great is built on comfort. To transform my village, I had to be radical and uncompromising. We’re talking about starting from zero. I noticed that if I didn’t do this now, I would forever be burdened. If problems are not solved, they keep evolving.
Was your relocation a quest for belonging… making up for lost time?
Growing up, my mother gave me the liberty to choose what would be good for me. I knew my clan and village. My elder brother usually travelled to Okere and I pushed him to construct an ancestral home in Okere, because our father died young before establishing a home.
When we returned, our grandfather allotted to us a piece of land that had been meant for our father. The customary land system allowed us to coexist with our families. My quest for identity, belonging and my subsequent return to Okere sparked off the Okere city project.
I had selfishly wanted a house for myself. When I went home, I slept in my brother’s kitchen for a night. It rained heavily and the roof was leaking. I spent the whole night sitting in the corner. It was then that I decided to construct a house that meets the basic minimum.
At the end of 2018, I started the construction work. Children came to play around the construction site. I was shocked because it was school time. I engaged the parents and they told me the nearest school was 3km away. The house that I wanted for my home turned into a school project. That became the accidental beginning of Okere city. Three months later, the numbers had grown to 120.
What exactly is this Okere city?
It is an ambitious development plan seeking to transform a rural village into the first sustainable rural city in Africa, by harnessing the power of social enterprises, natural resources, etc to create economic opportunities.
We have 12 businesses cutting across health, business, shea butter production, etc. At the shop we offer goods on credit. Our currency of operation is trust. If someone needs sweet tea, they should be able to get it.
We have a health center, restaurant, and an adult education center with 130 women enrolled. [Where are the men?] Men do community work; women are the most important asset. They are more open to knowledge. We have a well-planned environment that hosts classrooms, community halls, shop, grocery, etc.
How do you raise these funds?
I started with personal finances from 2018 to 2020. These were my savings from the different businesses I own around Kampala. I started with approximately $53,000 [shs 186m]. By 2020/2021, people began seeing our work. We got donations in 2021 worth over $21,000 [shs 74m].
Is the investment in Okere paying off?
Financially, it is not; this is a social enterprise which, by design, is meant to pay off in 25 years. At the moment, 200 children are enrolled in our school, 25 people visit our clinic daily.
A school will always be a profitable venture in the long run. [They provide the Uneb curriculum with emphasis on extracurricular activities. “Instead of making them wake up at 5 am, we make them participate in dancing, etc.”]
Has the village embraced your dream and vision?
Society never completely believes in big dreams. They doubt my dreams when I tell them we are establishing a city bigger than Lira.
We had many doubters at the start but the progression at Okere has challenged them. Within a month, Okere experienced great changes. They now link me to devil worshiping – whatever it means – because of my dreams.
I am curious about the adult education…
The demand of adult education wasn’t in my grand scheme of initial projects. When the parents bring children to school and the children return home, the positive behaviour change in the children raises the interest of the parents in receiving an education. They requested that they would be coming every Saturday morning.
Nice. How did you survive the lockdown?
We found a silver lining in the cloud. I was taking an afternoon walk, when I was led to a gigantic shea tree. I know it makes good oil. I know from the markets in London that any cosmetic product with shea butter is the most expensive.
I told myself we had to use the resource for our development. We found the vibranium of Okere. Our first production came in June 2020. We began with rudimentary methods and then got in touch with someone that had a small machine. We supply them with the nuts and they give us the butter.
By the end of 2020, we were able to make $2,000 [Shs 7m] net profit. We have it as the most profitable product. The profit made me understand how possible we could position shea butter as the fuel to propel community transformation. By the end of 2021, we had made a net profit of $7000 [Shs 25m].
Any city needs Internet and electricity…
We are an eco-friendly city that has embraced renewable solar energy to power all our operations. The Internet was a problem, but we wrote to MTN and they have rectified that. It is a good asset to have in the village. It has enabled us to promote digital literacy and extension services to farmers. We use YouTube videos to guide on farming best practices.
Internet connectivity has also helped people in our local community to link up with people in the diaspora. This has motivated more people to return home and start similar projects driving towards community transformation. We were able to get $10,000 [Shs 35m] from our project. The money is in the savings group; $8,000 is from Ugandans in the diaspora. I want to position the project as a social enterprise, not a charity.
You must be proud of how far you have come, then!
I am super proud that so much could be achieved in so little time. Not a single day passes without a project. The future is bright for Okere.
The government is interested in making Okere city a model for the parish development model [which President Yoweri Museveni launched in Kibuku last Saturday]. The idea of Okere city should be replicated around Africa since we face the same problems. We want anyone to come from wherever and be inspired to transform the agrarian economies.
What is your favourite book, Ojok?
Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama. I love the person of Obama – the community organizer. In him, I see the success story of Okere.