African Women Rising: Speaking with Founder Linda Eckerbom Cole
In a remote corner of Northern Uganda, African Women Rising has been making waves as a force for change, led by its founder, Linda Eckerbom Cole. With an approach focused on listening, engaging local leaders, and being responsive to the unique needs of each community, the organization has worked with 25,000 people and touched the lives of more than 150,000 individuals, particularly women and girls. I had the opportunity to sit down with Linda, as she shared the inspiring journey of African Women Rising, the challenges they faced, and her hopes for the future of the organization and the communities they serve.
Q: How did you develop your philosophy to create African Women Rising?
A: My background is working with women in conflict and post-conflict areas. I was frustrated with the development aid approach, which is often donor-driven, short-term, and lacks community involvement. I believed I could create a more effective organization.
What was the process of starting African Women Rising?
I spent about a year traveling in Northern Uganda during the war, talking to people in internally displaced people camps, government officials, and women’s groups to understand their needs. In 2006, I started with 150 women and focused on providing access to capital through microfinance.
How has the organization evolved over time?
The needs of the communities have changed. When people were living in camps, they didn’t have access to agricultural land. Now, we provide agricultural support and education. We are the largest provider of adult literacy and work with 17 primary schools to ensure students finish their education.
Can you tell us more about your programs?
We have a graduation program where people participate in microfinance, regenerative agriculture, and adult literacy. Access to capital allows them to invest in farming and other businesses, while learning to read and write helps them become better businesspeople. We see the most success when people participate in all three programs.
So, when you’re considering those three major areas, how do you prioritize or decide which one to focus on for a particular community?
I think it’s important to first understand the specific needs and challenges of each community. We typically start by engaging with the community members and conducting assessments to gather information about their needs and priorities. Once we have a clear understanding of the community’s needs, we work with our local staff and partners to develop and implement programs tailored to those specific needs. For example, the work we do in the refugee camp is different from what works best in a community where people are more stable. It’s all about being responsive to the circumstances of each community and adapting our approach accordingly.
That’s a very thoughtful approach. Can you share an example of a community or project where African Women Rising has made a significant impact?
One example that comes to mind is our regenerative agricultural program and the impact it has had in Palabek refugee camp. Since 2017, over 1.5 million refugees have fled South Sudan and are living in camps in Northern Uganda. The conditions are extremely difficult and access to food is a priority. We continue to work with over 5,000 refugees, providing them with training in Permagardens, a regenerative farming approach that looks at maximizing food production on the small plot of land refugees are assigned.
Over time, we have seen a remarkable transformation from this methodology. People can grow enough food to feed their families and even have surplus to sell at the market, which allows them to generate income to buy basic items such as soap, salt, and medication. It’s providing food security to refugees and vulnerable communities in extreme need.
It’s really inspiring how you’ve built those strong relationships and trust within the communities you serve. As you continue to work with these communities and the refugee population, what are some of the most significant lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Well, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the value of listening. As I mentioned earlier, when I first started, I had my own ideas about what needed to be done, but I quickly realized that I had to put those ideas aside and really listen to what the people in the communities were telling me. They know their needs and priorities better than anyone, and by listening and being responsive to their voices, we’re able to create more effective and sustainable programs. We have an amazing team of over 250 women and men running our programs. Some of them started as participants in our programs and many are refugees. These leaders have become the driving force behind the changes we want to see, and they’re able to take ownership and continue the work long after we’re gone.
Those are incredibly valuable insights, and it’s clear that your approach has had a real impact on the lives of many people. As African Women Rising continues to grow and evolve, what are your hopes for the future of the organization and the communities you serve?
We already know that communities we work in become self-sufficient. We generally work in a community for three to five years, at the end of which families are financially stable and food secure. They can send their children to school and access healthcare.
So, my hope is really to be able to extend our programs to more communities. There is a great need for the kind of work we do, providing long-term investments to build capacity and create a better future. We cannot empower, but we can provide the tools and resources women need to empower themselves.
Learn more about what African Women Rising is doing through their website at www.africanwomenrising.org