In his white overcoat Amos Econi, 21, who barely uses his legs for mobility beams with a smile.
A resident of Esevu village in Nyio parish, Vurra Sub County in Arua district, Econi puts a jovial posture, an indication that something has happened that leaves a fundamental mark on his life.
He comes from a family with a history of disability where his father, paternal uncle and sister are all crippled.
He says he is grateful to the Nyio parish woman councillor, Ms Eunice Letaru, who in 2016 brought for him an application form for a non-formal skills training programme run by the Italian international group for technical cooperation with developing countries (ACAV).
Econi filled the form that was dually signed by the village local council official and with the backing of the councillor who witnessed firsthand the squalid living conditions of the family, it was clear that he would sail through the competition.
More than 100 youths in the sub-county responded to the call only to find that there were 25 application forms out of which fifteen people actually got the training.
Econi became one of the first persons to be enrolled for the non-formal skills programme at Obutava community vocational school in Maracha district.
He undertook a knitting course for three months and after two months of industrial training at Edomasia knitting centre in Yumbe district returned to start the Mungueconi knitting centre at Nyio trading centre in his home village.
He has since trained one community member at a cost of sh150,000 a month, knitted and sold sweaters, and stockings to schools and earned more than sh3m in the past three years.
That money has helped Econi to buy food for the family, pay off sh20,000 rent for his business centre and buy a second-hand knitting machine to backup that start-up kit he received at the end of the training.
He says it is a big leap from the previous life of desolation after dropping out of school due to poor performance in the primary leaving examinations and lack of money to continue with studies.
The West Nile region of Uganda has a big population of teenage youths like Econi who, having dropped out of school face the risk of drowning deeper into poverty.
The region has a staggering 34.9% poverty according to the Uganda national household survey conducted in 2016/2017 that also established the percentage of the net primary school enrolment ratio at 80% and the net secondary school enrolment ratio at only 11%.
The net primary school enrolment ratio as per the international standard classification of education is the ratio of the children aged 6 to 12 years (primary one to seven) as a percentage of the total children of that school going age population while the net secondary school enrolment ration covers children from 13 to 18 years of age.
The above discovery implies that whereas 20% of the children of primary school going age in West Nile stay out of school, they are joined by up to 89% who either do not make it to secondary school or drop out before completing that level.
Majority of these youthful population were born to parents who themselves missed education due to political instability in the 1970s and 1980s and the successor guerrilla wars that concluded with the 2003 peace agreement between the defunct Uganda National Rescue Front II rebels and the Ugandan government.
However, at least 1,519 of those youths have had the opportunity to break through the barriers of poverty between 2016 and 2018, thanks to a three-year program dubbed “expanding access to skills and labour market for youths through strengthening local actors (EASY).”
The 999,992 euros (about sh4.2b) project implemented by ACAV covered the five districts of Arua, Koboko, Maracha, Moyo and Yumbe through an inclusive model that targeted out-of-school youths aged between 14 and 19 years.
The project model
The ACAV model of skills development brings on board the local actors, in this case, the five local governments, the six vocational training institutes and the 60 experienced artisans and business entities that provide apprenticeship to the trainees.
Mr Patrick Bongo, the ACAV head of programmes says the young people get training for three months and are taken for industrial training for a period of two months to acquaint with the labour market and integrate into the local economy by providing them with start-up kits to begin their own ventures.
After four months, a team of local government officials and the ACAV staff conduct follow-up visits to ascertain the progress made by the beneficiaries.
The EASY project was 75% funded by the European Union while ACAV footed the rest of the bills.
It augmented an earlier project titled: “support to vulnerable youths through the provision of non-formal skills training to start income generating activities in West Nile” that saw the training and empowerment of 900 youths in the same districts.
Modelled on similar principles, the European Union adopted this approach of giving direct support to beneficiaries through credible nongovernmental organizations after the embarrassing theft of donor funds meant for the peace, recovery and development programme in the office of the prime minister in 2011.
With the new approach, the donors targeted school dropouts most of the teenage mothers, children with disabilities, children living with HIV/AIDS and orphans and vulnerable children.
They were trained in courses such as electrical installation, hairdressing, catering and hotel management, plumbing, carpentry, joinery and concrete practice.
Others were tailoring and garment cutting, knitting and weaving, welding and metal fabrication, motorcycle repairs and phone repairs.
One such beneficiary was Jovita Lizuru of Zambia Cell in Arua hill Division who grew up hawking charcoal from home-to-home on the instructions of her stepmother following the death of her mother when she was in primary two.
Although Lizuru’s older sister tried to push her through school up to senior three, she had to drop out as the ever increasing school fees became unaffordable.
When she heard the radio announcement by ACAV in 2016, she consulted a friend who had benefitted from the training under the previous project.
She was promptly warned about the stiff competition for the training slots while her family was sceptical whether she would succeed in securing such on the opportunity due to rampant corruption and favouritism that blight such projects.
Determined to try her luck, Lizuru faked sickness the next morning so as to remain at home while the rest of the family members went to dig in their subsistence farm.
She sneaked to pick the form and apply for a tailoring course. She repeated the same trick of feigning sickness to be able to attend the interview from where the officials convinced her to switch to catering and hotel management, a course that drew a further objection from her family members who claimed that hotel work environment exposes girls to prostitution.
Lizuru says she shrugged those concerns off, proceeded with the training and was retained by the Heritage Courts hotel in Arua town where she did her apprenticeship.
The hotel pays her sh150,000 a month, money that has not only enabled her to pay school fees of her two brothers but also allowed her to acquire a 7-acre plot of farmland in Logiri sub-county.
Mr Hassan Nginya, the Koboko district chairman who doubles as the chairman of the West Nile Development Association says the EASY project was so inclusive and transparent that it allowed the vulnerable youths from the lowest level to integrate into the society.
However, he added that the overwhelming number of youths who showed interest and missed out on the opportunity shows need for continuity of such a project.
Institutional capacity building
The EASY project also built the capacity of six vocational training institutions- Obutava and St. Lawrence Vocational training centre in Maracha, Omugo technical institute in Arua, Koboko Technical institute, Lodonga polytechnic in Yumbe and Moyo technical institute- through training of their instructors.
The institutes were also equipped with computers, motorcycles, training tools as well as the establishment of piggery, poultry and demonstration farms.
Mr Gilbert Okuonzi, the principal of Koboko Technical institute commends the project for exposing the institution to other nongovernmental organisations like the Catholic Relief Services that followed ACAV’s lead by taking 1,400 South Sudan refugees and Ugandan nationals to be trained there.
“We were prompted to introduce new courses like electrical installation and motorcycle repairs that are on high demand,” he says.
For the apprenticeship centres, the project provided much-needed labour in the process of the trainees fine-tuning their skills.
Mrs Salama Asraf, the manager of Toretteli tailoring centre in Koboko town says she trained 70 and retained five of the students as employees.
Their presence makes the centre very busy thereby attracting more clients. She has entirely left work at the centre in the hands of the retained trainees which accords her more time to go out looking for orders for uniforms from schools and other institutions.
On the side of the local governments, EASY trained 40 officials in project proposal writing and management of the project cycle. In attendance were community development officers, district planners, inspectors of schools, secretaries of social services and chief administrative officers.