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Uganda: Lawyers go digital to reach women farmers

Dossier

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For less than €1, women farmers in Uganda are accessing legal advice via their mobile phones. The SMS service, driven by an all-female team under the leadership of Hellen Mukasa, helps women to realise and defend their rights, particularly in regards to land ownership.

Legal advice has reached 3,000 farmers in their local language in central and northern Uganda via an SMS service, launched in 2017. Lawyers 4 Farmers (L4F) provides farmers with better access to legal information, by offering guidance in response to any legal problem they encounter via SMS. The digital platform eliminates the need for farmers to travel to access legal services and improves farmers’ knowledge of their rights for less than €1 (the cost of sending an SMS). If necessary, the automated response system enables lawyers to arrange follow-up phone calls or meetings with farmers to ensure their issues are resolved.

Protecting women’s land rights

Land is a hotly contested resource in Uganda. Despite the constitutional rights of women to own and inherit land, customary practices of keeping land under the ownership of men often take precedence, particularly since many people are unaware of the constitutional law. It is unsurprising then, that the majority of L4F enquiries relate to land ownership and inheritance, and over 70% of the platform’s beneficiaries are women like Nakazibwe Resty, who farms 0.4 ha of land in Kasana town, in Uganda’s Luwero district. Resty settled on this ‘kibanja’ (piece of land) with the landowner’s consent in 2007. For 10 years she paid annual ground rent, called busuulu, for the land on which she farms and lives with her three children.

However, in 2017, Resty’s landlord decided that he no longer wanted the rental payments and forced her to vacate the land immediately, leaving her crop in the field. With nowhere to go, Resty contacted L4F, who explained her rights as a kibanja holder, which meant she could offer to buy the land from her landlord. Alternatively, the landlord would either need to find another kibanja for her to occupy, or compensate Resty for her interest in the land. “I used the information in a meeting with my landlord, and when he noticed that I knew my rights, he allowed me to pay him for my interest in the kibanja,” Resty explains. “I now own it and have the sale agreement to prove my ownership."

Tackling gender inequalities

Resty heard about L4F through her farmer group, and is now one of the lucky few women farmers to own land in Uganda. Hellen Mukasa, co-founder and executive director of L4F’s all-female team, explains that gender was a major driver for the start-up. “In the legal context, agriculture is more of a minefield for female farmers than male farmers. The agriculture value chain is long and starts at production, and this means access to land. This is where the challenge begins for women in Africa,” states Mukasa.

A 2018 study, the Regional Outlook on Gender and Agri-food Systems, by FAO and the African Union Commission identifies a huge gender gap in terms of women’s access to and control over productive resources, such as land. To address this gender disparity in agriculture, the content that L4F develops and the outreach activities that it carries out are focused on protecting and supporting women farmers, particularly in regards to land rights. L4F works with formal farmer groups in Uganda – which are predominantly made up of women – to offer legal services, such as needs-based legal advice and training on how to formalise a farm business, for example. “Besides legal advice and outreach, we offer subsidised legal services to the farmer groups (e.g. micro legal insurance), where each member pays a small fee, which they pool together and pay for legal cover,” Mukasa explains.

In Uganda, it is illegal for lawyers to advertise their services; to overcome this challenge L4F use physical meetings to reach communities and draw attention to their work. L4F’s outreach activities include highlighting issues related to land ownership, gender equality and women’s rights. The company works with farmer groups to disseminate legal information to raise awareness about land rights and the types of agreements in farm transactions. In addition, posters and infographics are used to improve understanding about L4F’s work. The start-up has found that women are more receptive to getting information about their rights through face-to-face outreach programmes than men. In most of the communities in which L4F work, families send the women to the training on the pretext that the men are too busy to attend.

Enhancing women’s access to legal advice

Namata Teo, another farmer from Kasana, grows and supplies maize grains to different buyers in her town. As a result of repeat business, she developed good relations with her buyers and began to give them produce on credit, without keeping records of the goods supplied. Over time, the buyers owed her so much money that some refused to pay. Teo discovered that L4F could offer her legal guidance to address this problem, following an outreach programme in her community. “I sought help from L4F who helped me to collect some of the money but, due to the lack of records, I was not able to get it all back. L4F gave me templates of simple sale agreements, which I now use with my buyers to guard against such loss,” says Teo.

In addition to using SMS to respond to farmer queries, simplified information is also shared by the organisation’s diverse team of lawyers via social media platforms, such as Whatsapp and Facebook. “In terms of legal services in our context, 60% of our farmers are based in rural areas, and yet, 90% of legal service providers live in urban areas. This poses a challenge for farmers in rural areas because they need extra money to go into town and get legal advice or information,” explains Mukasa. “With digitalisation this is changing. L4F’s mobile platform enables farmers to access legal services without leaving the comfort of their homes.”

Expanding the reach of legal services

Originally a commercial lawyer, Mukasa founded L4F following a family land dispute. “A compulsory government land acquisition took 2 square miles [517 ha] of our 5 square mile [1,294 ha] ranch, but my family never received compensation for the land that was taken. My father did not know how to navigate the complexities of the law in chasing this compensation so I got involved in the case.” Mukasa won her family’s land dispute case, after the Attorney General of Uganda agreed to an out-of-court settlement with several other landholders. “Learning about the challenges on the family ranch and working for my family to solve them gave me the ‘light bulb’ moment as to how many other farmers faced such situations,” says Mukasa.

Mukasa has received support from CTA and the Hague Institution for Innovations of Law to hone her social entrepreneurship skills, including training in building a sustainable business model. As a finalist in CTA’s 2018 Pitch AgriHack competition, which last year focused on supporting innovative women entrepreneurs, Mukasa participated in a 2-day training session to help her manage L4F’s finances and improve the company’s readiness to raise capital from investors. During the competition finals, at the African Green Revolution Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, Mukasa had the opportunity to pitch L4F to potential investors and industry experts. “Pitch AgriHack gave us a lot of visibility, especially in the agricultural sector… this helped us a lot with some partnerships, like the coffee fraternity in Uganda,” Mukasa said.

Since the start-up was launched, over 9,000 SMS messages have been exchanged with 1,965 active users. In 2018 alone, L4F successfully resolved 264 legal cases. With support from partners such as the Africa Agribusiness Academy, which has a presence in Burundi, Kenya and Rwanda, L4F plans to scale out its services within East Africa and reach 15,000 farmers by 2020.