No one has been impervious to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of us have lost loved ones. Others, the opportunity to earn an income. In many of the communities we serve at Action Against Hunger, families are struggling to feed their children.
But even in one of the most challenging years we’ve ever experienced, there are bright spots – and people who inspire us. Today, I want to share the story of one of these resilient people: Lucy Lakello, a refugee woman I met in May 2019, on my first trip to see Action Against Hunger’s programs as the organization’s new CEO. She made a strong impression on me - her level of “sticktoitiveness” is truly remarkable. I check in with my colleagues in Uganda from time to time to time to see how she’s doing.
About six years ago, Lucy fled the conflict in South Sudan, seeking refuge in Kiryandongo settlement in northern Uganda. Life at the settlement has never been easy. When they first arrived, Lucy’s family lived in a basic mud hut that leaked badly during the rainy seasons. Lucy struggled to find adequate shelter and enough food for her elderly mother and six children.
Two years ago, Lucy started her own mushroom-growing business after receiving training and supplies from Action Against Hunger. Mushrooms grow quickly – and so did her profits. Within a couple months, Lucy was earning more than $70 monthly for each harvest. She could pay for school fees for her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. She also joined one of Action Against Hunger’s Villages Savings and Loans groups to help her save and invest in the future for her family and her business.
“My life suddenly improved," said Lucy when I met her. "With what I earned from my first harvest, I built a decent hut for my mother. Then, I built a new house for my children and me. We are healthier. We eat mushrooms at least twice a week, and I can buy other foods to help improve our diet.”
Alongside the mushrooms, with training from Action Against Hunger, Lucy planted a garden where she grows nutritious crops at home. The trainings are part of our ENABLER project, which provides tailored support to refugees and vulnerable Ugandans based on their level of need. As more than 85% of the refugees in Uganda are women and children, a primary goal of the program is to increase self-sufficiency and provide women with employment and revenue-generating skills.
I saw firsthand how impressive a businesswoman Lucy is. Her knowledge about mushrooms and her local market was remarkable. But what struck me most about her – and what I remember most clearly today - was her clear joy and pride in being able to make a better life for herself and her family.
When COVID-19 hit, the lockdown in Uganda hit Lucy’s business hard - she could not access the raw materials needed for production. Lucy could no longer make enough money and needed to find other means to provide for her family.
“Since the schools closed, all the children came back home and they eat a lot,” Lucy explained to us in June. “With such a big family, I needed to diversify to ensure that I could feed all of them.”
“From my mushroom savings, I bought a few vegetable seeds and, with the help from Action Against Hunger staff, we set up new nursery beds of onions and [collard greens],” Lucy told our team. “My vegetables are doing so well. Together with my children, we set up more nursery beds.”
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Ugandan government restricted movement, which resulted in increasing food prices in the local market. Lucy – a true entrepreneur – found opportunity in this challenging situation. She started selling her surplus crops to earn additional income and eventually expanded her farming to include staple local grains such as beans and maize.
“Venturing into crop production helped my family navigate through the COVID hardships smoothly. We constantly had food to eat and could afford basic items such as soap, sugar, matches, and salt from the income we earned from the vegetable sales,” said Lucy.
When the government lifted restrictions in early August, Lucy resumed her mushroom growing, but was frustrated by the limited materials she could get. Seeds were still scarce and the substrates – the base material that helps to cultivate mushroom growth – were poor quality, impacting her crop yield.
Our team trained Lucy and four other mushroom growers on how to multiply seeds and substrates at home, improving their quality and reducing the need for outside suppliers. After the training, we provided starter materials and the tools needed for production.
With her new skills, Lucy immediately got to work. Now, with help from her family, she makes her own seed spawns and substrates at home. Together with the other mushroom growers, she also hopes to sell spawns locally to other producers. The group has agreed that they will sell their product to the community at a price one-third less than the middlemen they used to depend on.
“I am excited to have acquired this new skill. All production materials are within my reach, and I believe that my production capacity shall improve,” Lucy told us. “My first attempt to producing the spawns and substrates has been a success!”
When I last met her, Lucy and her family lived in an old and too-small house. In the middle of 2020 – a year that challenged all of us - Lucy managed to construct a bigger, stronger house that fits everyone.
Our Uganda team spoke with Lucy recently, and she told them: “I am forever grateful to Action Against Hunger for empowering me. The tools and skills they have given me strengthened my family’s economic, health, and social stability.”
I, too, am grateful to our team in Uganda – and all of our Action Against Hunger humanitarian workers – and I’m also thankful for women like Lucy, who teach us the true meaning of hope, ingenuity, and resilience.