Customer Co-Design in Rural Uganda

How URDT Empowers Grass Roots Creativity

March 8, 2007

Through the eyes of a western business professional, the task of rural development looks daunting. Where do you start? What trade-offs do you make? The Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme, working with students from the African Rural University, held a community development workshop with villagers in Kabamba to tackle these issues. The approach they took is one that can be applicable for your organization as it works with customers to create innovative solutions.


Here’s a glimpse into customer co-design in action in rural Uganda. Whenever you think that your constituents or fellow workers aren’t creative enough to envision and create new approaches and new ideas, remember that there are smart, creative people all over the world who could resign themselves to the status quo. Yet, instead, they choose to envision and create a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities. When given the opportunity to create something better than what they currently have, and a supportive structure for achieving their goals, people will always rise to the occasion to do so.

I’ve been following the work of this group of educational innovators in Uganda for 20 years. In February 2007, I made my second on-site visit. On this two-week trip to western Uganda, I immersed myself in the activities on the campus of the Uganda Rural Development and Training (URDT) Programme in Kagadi. During that time, I accompanied a group of first-year students from the new African Rural University for women into the field as they embarked on their first grassroots community development initiative.

URDT serves men and women, boys and girls. However, the results achieved by educating girls and young women to be community change agents are yielding the most dramatic results. Young women have been an under-educated underclass in rural Uganda. Thanks to URDT, they are becoming rural transformation specialists.


After a five-hour drive from Kampala, the last three hours on bone-jarring, deeply-rutted dirt roads which are only passable because the rainy season has not yet begun, you reach the frontier boom town of Kagadi. Like any frontier town, this one swirls with dust as vehicles come and go, with people picking up supplies, bringing family members to the 100-bed hospital, dropping neighbors off at the bus stop. In Kagadi today, you can get your cell phone, radio, bicycle, or motorbike repaired, buy food, clothes and shoes, buy agricultural and building supplies, buy furniture for your home, buy beer and soda, eat at a restaurant, or stay in a local hotel. Since my last visit in March of 2006, electricity has finally reached Kagadi town, although you can still hear the hum of diesel generators, kicking in during peak hours.

Please download the PDF to see the illustration.
Illustration 2. This is the way Kagadi looks today. Although located 3 hours via dirt road from the nearest city, this town has grown since 1987 from one street with three stores to a bustling town, complete with electricity, a 100-bed hospital, and an Internet café.


There is no gold in Kagadi, nor any other natural resources that have built up the local economy. Kagadi’s “gold mine” is the Uganda Rural Development and Training Centre, known throughout the nine counties it serves as URDT. It’s fitting that URDT’s 60-acre campus sits on one side of the valley facing the increasing sprawl as the town of Kagadi grows and thrives, nourished by the social and economic entrepreneurs that URDT produces. URDT was created 25 years ago by three social entrepreneurs--Mwalimu Musheshe, Ephrem Rutaboba and Silvana Veltkamp--who were welcomed by the town of Kagadi to lead them in grassroots community development. URDT is a secular non-government organization that has evolved its education and training programs to support the dreams of Kagadi’s villagers and those of the six million people in the 9 nine surrounding districts. This area is a multi-tribal, rural, subsistence farming area that had been rife with conflict, underserved by the federal and local governments, and therefore dubbed the “lost counties” of Uganda.

Training and Education

Today, URDT provides training in organic and intensive farming, fish-farming, carpentry, brick-making, solar energy and bio-gas production, functional adult literacy, journalism, accounting, business, micro-finance, human rights, land rights, gender issues (including family planning), and HIV prevention. You can learn computer skills, access the Internet, or broadcast your contributions on its community radio station (KKCR).

The Role of Community Radio

Since its inception in 2000, as the first community radio station in East Africa, KKCR radio (see Illustration 6) reaches about four million people, many of whom are glued to the station on their hand-held battery-powered radios. The programming ranges from local music to agricultural extension classes, to human rights training, to women’s issues, to political commentary and history. People call in to ask questions, to debate local issues, and to broadcast messages to their families. URDT uses the radio station as its main outreach to the communities, promulgating a “can do” attitude, exposing corruption, teaching nutrition and sanitary practices, educating families in how to prevent domestic violence, and in the rights of women and children.

Please download the PDF to see the illustration.
Illustration 5. On the left, two students present a program on Kagadi Kibaale Community Radio, which reaches 3 million people in 9 counties. On the right, a journalism student interviews local women about womens’ rights in preparation for her radio program.

One of the most popular shows is Odembos Maloba’s call-in show. Odembos is the human rights officer at URDT. He uses the radio as the last resort in resolving domestic conflicts. When all other measures fail, Odembos uses his weekly radio program to expose a particularly egregious example of child neglect, domestic violence, or human rights abuses. He gets the parties on air to make their cases, he takes calls and suggestions from avid listeners, and he arbitrates publicly, illustrating the principles of justice, fairness, and explaining the Ugandan penal code. Joseph Musse Wasibi, the Land Rights Officer, provides a similar weekly radio program focusing on land rights issues and violations--how to resolve family and tribal squabbles over land which is owned by the male head of household--and what happens when that person dies intestate, often leaving multiple wives and sons squabbling over the house and surrounding farmland. The girls from the URDT Girls’ school also create and broadcast programs on the topics they are learning--including domestic violence, corruption, proper sanitation, and nutrition.

URDT’s Educational Institutions

URDT includes a boarding school for 12- to-18-year-old girls from rural, low-income families, a vocational and training institute for young men and women, and its latest jewel: The African Rural University--an all-womens’ university that is training young women to be community transformation leaders. The graduates’ mission is to replicate the successful model of integrated grassroots development that URDT has invented and evolved over 25 years into other rural districts and communities across Uganda, and eventually, throughout Africa.

There are three aspects of the educational programs at URDT that are fundamentally distinctive and that have led to dramatic results in the development of the surrounding district and communities...


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