From coffee plantations to school

published 11 June 2017 updated 7 July 2021

In Uganda, the teachers’ union UNATU (1) has linked up with an NGO and a coffee export business to develop child-labor-free areas in the Western Nile region.

The first area has been operating since 2015 in Erussi, one of the poorest communities in Uganda, near the Congo border in the north-west of the country. In this region, children are mainly employed in domestic work, agricultural activities and selling in markets. The UNATU trade union has trained 120 teachers and 15 headteachers from Erussi in fighting child labor. “ Thanks to this project, we have improved the monitoring of pupils in our school,” says Claudius Oketch, head of Oboth primary school in Erussi.“We monitor their daily attendance and academic performance, and we act as soon as a pupil shows any loss of motivation.Before the project, if a parent asked for my permission to allow his child to be absent in order to help them at work, I gave my consent.Now, I explain to the parent that missing school for work, even for one day, is unthinkable.”

The project has set up music, dance, sports, debating and other clubs in 15 schools in Erussi. “ These clubs attract children to the school who had never thought of coming before. They see drums, games and sports tournaments and they have a different image of school,” says Sister Mary Berocan, coordinator of the UNATU project in Erussi. Panels are placed in the playgrounds of all schools in Erussi bearing positive messages: “Education is the best investment”, “Discuss your problems with the teachers” and others. These panels are sometimes used by teachers to stimulate a debate about a slogan with the pupils.

Scrapping corporal punishment

Through its training, UNATU has made the teachers in Erussi understand that they need to serve as role models in the community: being present at school regularly, making sure their own children go to school and not using children as domestic workers at home. One of the project’s specific results in the classroom is that teachers have scrapped corporal punishment. This development is recommended by the Ministry of Education, but UNATU’s training on the use of alternative disciplinary measures has helped teachers in Erussi to decide for themselves to stop hitting children to punish them.

This UNATU project is backed by several partners (2) via Education International. While UNATU concentrates on actions in schools, Kyagalanyi, one of the biggest coffee buyers in the Western Nile region, prevents child labor among the planter families who supply it with beans by helping them improve the quality of harvests. This increases family income and makes it possible for them to send their children to school. Eliminating child labor among its planters helps Kyagalanyi increase the proportion of coffee certified with the UTZ label as being produced by “sustainable agriculture” (3). This coffee is exported around the world, particularly to Germany. Kyagalanyi does not content itself with eliminating child labor in coffee plantations. It also requires planter families to send all their children to school. Relationships are being developed between Kyagalanyi’s local representatives and teachers in Erussi schools to make it easier for planters’ children to be integrated in schools.

The other partner in the project, the local NGO CEFORD, has played an important role in mobilizing communities, particularly by developing micro savings and credit groups in villages. These groups help families achieve small increases in income which, added to higher prices for the coffee bought by Kyagalanyi, allow parents to pay their children’s school costs (enrolment, uniforms, materials).

The complementary nature of the actions by UNATU, Kyagalanyi and CEFORD and the involvement of the local authorities at each stage of the project have helped communities become more aware of the value of education. UNATU has invited local authority representatives, members of parents’ associations and school management committees to each training session. Teachers feel encouraged by this new boost for education. “ By involving each actor, the project helps us convince reluctant parents about the idea of sending their children to school, as they feel pressure from the whole community,” points outAdole Kelemente, a teacher at Kelle primary school in Erussi. “UNATU’s training has also allowed me to improve my communication skills, I have developed better arguments for discussions with parents who are not sending their children to school.”

17% growth in school rolls

The results of the project are very specific: school rolls grew by 17% between 2015 and 2019 in the 15 schools included in the Erussi project, while the drop-out rate has fallen dramatically. The number of UNATU members in Erussi also increased by 23% in the same period. “ Before this project, the union was seen as selfish – an organization concerned only with teachers’ problems and often involved in strikes,” explains Mori Samuel Sidoro, UNATU representative in the Western Nile. The child labor project has changed this perception. People understand that we’re also fighting for quality education and child welfare.” UNATU also notes an improvement in the payment of wages and affiliation fees (via the check-off system) linked to the improvement in relations between UNATU representatives and the education authorities at local level, who are delighted at the success of the project.

The success of the Erussi project has led UTZ to involve the same partners in developing a child-labor-free area in Zombo, a district near Erussi. UNATU has already trained 90 teachers in 12 schools in Zombo in combating child labor. “ Every Monday morning, the teachers and pupils from my school walk through the village streets singing about the benefits of school. We invite the children who see us in the street to join the march and come to school,”, says the head of Okeyo primary school. We have already attracted dozens of children to school thanks to these marches.” UNATU is delighted at these successes, but it also notes that there are some classes of more than 200 pupils, which prevents any kind of quality teaching. The union is also heavily lobbying the national authorities to increase the number of schools and teachers.

In Erussi, the local authorities are beginning to take up the challenge to ensure the sustainability of the project even when it no longer has backing from a foreign partner. “ We have set up a committee to fight child labor consisting of all the leading figures in Erussi. A local by-law has been adopted to punish child labor and every year we organize a week of actions to raise awareness of the importance of education,” said Collins Orom Jalacida, leader of the Erussi local council. If we keep moving in the same direction for several more years, we will have high literacy and employment rates and we will achieve better living standards which will dissuade people from alcohol and drug addiction, which are the scourges of Erussi. This project is transforming my community.”

  1. Uganda National Teachers Union
  2. GEW Fair Childhood Foundation, AOb, Mondiaal FNV.
  3. UTZ is a sustainability certification programmed for coffee, cocoa and tea.