Making sure Fort Portal's 'modernisation' plan feeds the poor

An innovative research project in Fort Portal, Uganda is seeking to prevent a rise in inequality as the city modernises.

A market in Fort Portal (Photo: Sister Haiti, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Driving 300 kilometres west of Kampala, Uganda, past the vast tea fields and in sight of the natural border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Rwenzori Mountains, lies Fort Portal. It is the location for an innovative research, mobilisation and advocacy project, the Fort Portal Food Lab.

Fort Portal, with its 50,000 inhabitants, has been included in a recent government 'modernization' plan called Vision 2040. By that date, Fort Portal is expected to grow tenfold into a fully-fledged city with a population of half a million. 

Non-governmental organisations as well as local authorities realise that this is an opportunity to plan the growth of the town in an inclusive and sustainable way, shifting the focus to 'softer' infrastructure (e.g. services). Their entry point for these conversations are around food, particularly access to food for the poor, and the socioeconomic transformations occurring between rural and urban areas during this period of growth and urbanisation.

Working in collaboration with IIED and Hivos, KRC is conducting the Fort Portal Food Lab project to understand the changing relations between rural and urban areas and to campaign for pro-poor and inclusive policies. 

Christopher Busiinge is the head of the Kabarole Research and Resource Centre (KRC) Information Unit and is an IIED International Fellow. He talked to me about the project's goals and about what has happened so far.

PC: What is your main objective with the Fort Portal Food Lab? 

CB: Currently we are gathering evidence to inform the policy process of Fort Portal becoming a city under the Vision 2040 agenda. With this evidence we wish to start a dialogue with the local authorities to contribute to the shaping and development of the town. 

We are looking at larger cities like Kampala or Nairobi and we see great inequality – we do not want that for Fort Portal. That is why we want to influence the urban planning not only in terms of hard infrastructure but also, and especially, in terms of soft infrastructure. For this reason we are focusing on the food systems of rural and urban poor. 

PC: What kind of methodology is KRC using to gather data? 

CB: We are using a rather innovative methodology that is based on the use of communication for development. Through our radio station, the KRC FM, we are mobilising more than 200 households in the hinterland of Fort Portal to discuss the issues around food and nutrition. Our main interest is to understand what people are eating, why they are eating it, and where it comes from. From these dialogues we then learn more about people's livelihoods and the economic and social transformation the rural areas are experiencing. 

PC: Do you have any preliminary results from these focus group discussions?

CB: Our preliminary results highlight that nutritious food is available in the rural areas around Fort Portal. However, it is difficult to access it. This is due to a number of different challenges such as time constraint, school fees, healthcare, and many others. We have also found out that these dietary constraints are effecting primarily young children – rather than adults – who show signs of stunting due to the lack of right nutrients intake early in life.   

PC: Do you also have any preliminary findings that focus on the Fort Portal urban area?

CB: Yes, absolutely. We have found out that a lot of the raw food produced here is transported out of the region in the form of grain. Maize, for example, is produced in the area around Rwimi (a small town in the hinterland of Fort Portal), and it is transported to Kampala. There it is transformed into flour and shipped back to Fort Portal. The price at the retailer, at the end of this chain, is so high that a farmer selling 100kg of maize will only be able, with the same money, to buy back 20kg of flour.  

This is a problem for the town in at least two aspects. First, there is no value addition to the product in the Fort Portal municipality and there seems to be no real incentive to the growth of businesses focusing on transformation – at least from what we have discovered so far. This, of course is a problem now, but it will be even more so when the town will grow into a city. 

Second, there is a nutrition issue. The flour that is transformed in Kampala and sold here is of a very refined quality, which is good in terms of cooking time – that is why people prefer it. But because the hull and germ (where much of the nutritious content is found) are removed from the corn during the milling process, the final refined product is less nutritious than wholegrain flour (which is produced locally). So there you have a have a more expensive product, transformed elsewhere, not very nutritious – and that is what the majority of people are eating here. Basically we are exporting our nutrition and buy back empty calories. 

Christopher Busiinge discusses the project in the video below:

Paolo Cravero (paolo.cravero@iied.org) is a researcher in IIED's Human Settlements Group.