Group stability and progress achieved through intentional group strengthening

In smallholder irrigation systems, water is almost always a shared resource. In Uganda, it’s common for people to come together informally to collaborate toward community goals. Formal and informal water users’ groups are a way to build shared responsibilities for, and equitable access to, shared water sources. User groups are also a medium for representing interests within the wider community, sharing skills and knowledge, and ultimately improving livelihoods. A challenge for the success of these groups is governance. A clear set of regulations and rules are needed to establish and maintain healthy group dynamics.

TEWDI Uganda, a partner organisation of the Innovations in Dry Season Horticulture Project, has been working to find ways of strengthening these irrigation and water users’ groups, with a focus on ensuring that women play a meaningful role in making sure their systems are fair and equitable to all members.

The case of Aloet

Ojobira Women’s Group illustrates the importance of developing key group dynamics for the success of all members. This group, located at Aloet, was started as a mostly-women savings and loans collective. Ojobira members began experimenting with irrigation by carrying water to their plots using jerricans. Because fields in a nearby valley are often waterlogged, members were convinced they could only produce rice. However, upslope there is a strong spring that can supply water even during dry seasons. To improve the group’s ability to irrigate, HIP worked with the farmers to find a solution to channel this water for dry season horticulture. However, since most of the members are women, accessing land was a major challenge in this area where men largely use these rice fields for cash crops. To overcome this issue, the group formed a separate ‘land trust,’ or irrigation group, in which each member contributes a small amount of money toward the rent payment for the land, and in turn is allocated a plot within the larger area they negotiate with the landlord.

Helen Acuku (left) speaks with farmers at Aloet.

Helen Acuku (left) speaks with farmers at Aloet.

Helen Acuku (left) facilitates a group discussion during a group field work day at Aloet.

Helen Acuku (left) facilitates a group discussion during a group field work day at Aloet.

As members developed their irrigation activities, leadership issues began to hinder the growth and functioning of this group. One individual—the only man participant—claimed to be the founder of the group and dominated all decision-making. He tried to discredit the views of female members, and dictated what they could and could not do in the group—referring to women members as “know-nothings,” and using manipulation and intimidation to keep the group and its resources under his control. Some of the women members formed opposing factions supporting or against the man, while others, to avoid conflicts and tension, gradually withdrew. This state of affairs pushed the group toward disintegration.

Since early 2018 TEWDI Uganda has been working with this group to re-establish dynamics that allow all members to have meaningful input in decision-making and equitable access to resources.

Early sessions addressed the topic of leadership. Discussions focused on asking the group to identify the qualities of good leaders. Must they have previously held office? Are they simply the most vocal in the group, or do they have other traits? In addition to probing these questions, the groups specified several leadership positions and assigned different purposes to each. These discussions allowed the group to elect new office-bearers based upon who they believed would perform best in each position, rather than selecting a single general “leader.” Participating equally in community-based discussions and elections gave members ownership over the process, building a sense of unity and group cohesion.

The next stage has involved developing mechanisms for group resource mobilisation to ensure the sustainability of the group’s income generating activities. These include organizing group savings for land rent, labor for maintenance of the spring-fed irrigation canal, and purchase of inputs such as seed and fertilizers in bulk. A separate savings collective has recently been started to support these activities, and the group has agreed on a calendar of labor days in which members work alongside and support one another in managing their plots.

Without a functioning governance structure, however, there remains a risk these institutions would not be maintained. Enforcement mechanisms have been developed that build simple rules covering the main aspects affecting irrigation groups: accessing land, accessing water, operations and maintenance, enforcing of rules, dispute resolution, and rule changes. Formalizing these simple rules has helped the leaders to enforce and build respect for them among members.

Finally, formalizing the group with the local government subcounty and district offices has been key to ensuring these group strengthening activities are sustained. After HIP concludes its activities at Aloet, it may be possible for members to erode the legitimacy of leaders, rules, and contributions. By formally registering the group and putting these structures into a constitution and bylaws, it is harder for dominant individuals to seize power in the group and use its activities and resources for their own means.

In addition to these strengthening sessions and activities, our project organized exchange visits among the six groups we work with. Groups visit one another’s irrigation sites, to observe technologies and learn about their organizing structures. These exchanges further build cohesiveness within groups and provide unique hands-on opportunities for learning.

We have already observed positive outcomes. Ojobira Group members are now driven toward achieving both their individual goals and the larger group’s vision. Their savings fund has provided resources for purchasing their own inputs, rather than relying on HIP support. They are accessing credit from their original savings group and investing in their irrigated horticulture business, which in turn supports other income generating activities. Group membership now includes both women and men; the individual whose behavior previously threatened the group’s existence now can participate in the group as long as he complies with the new formalized agreements and rules.

When things are going well for some, others in the community take notice. Observing the successes achieved by Ojobira group members, both members and non-members have begun to experiment with small-scale horticulture at the household scale: today, a walk through the village reveals small sets of furrows dug into the soil of families’ compounds, with tomatoes and onions growing up from the irrigated beds.

Helen Acuku