A Photo Collage Of Alice Bamusiime And Farming In Uganda

Breaking the grass (thatched) ceiling

Alice Bamusiime’s made a career of battling gender barriers and changing lives

Smiles all around. That’s the first thing that happens when Alice Bamusiime enters a room. With a big smile of her own, a colorful style and a striking confidence, there’s no doubt about it, this woman has a presence. She’ll tell you her confidence is thanks to two things, her father and farming, especially because given the circumstances, the odds were stacked against her.

Alice grew up in Rakai, a traditional village in southern Uganda. Her family didn’t have much. Shoes, for example, weren’t something Alice had as a kid. Her first home was made up of mud, water and a grass thatched ceiling. Her family ate one meal a day and drank milk from their herd of cows the rest of the time. And as if that weren’t enough, cultural norms didn’t favor girls.

“People would often comment to my father how strong I was, and what a pity it was that I wasn’t born a boy,” says Alice. “I’ve lived every day of my life to prove them wrong.”

That’s because at an early age, Alice’s father taught her an important lesson that would change the trajectory of her life—women are equal to men. With her father in her corner, she battled - and broke - gender barriers. Spreading the lesson her father taught her eventually became a part of her career, and why she loved her job with Land O’Lakes International Development.

A change maker is made

On a typical day growing up, Alice and her five young siblings would travel 10 kilometers on bike or foot to go to school. The important thing to note here, is that unlike many of the other girls in her village, Alice did go to school.

“It took courage to send us to school. People in the village would question my father’s commitment to sending me and my sisters, asking why pay school fees for girls—they should marry early and be someone else’s prize,” says Alice. “My father was different than most. He understood that all we didn’t have would come through education. Girls or boys, he wanted his kids to study.”

So Alice studied. A lot. She spent her weekends out in the field alongside her father, tending to the cows and reading. “While the cows grazed, I would lean back against a tree for hours with my head buried in a book," says Alice. "We didn't have electricity, so I needed to get all my reading in during the day."  At a young age Alice could read, write and speak Swahili, English, French and two local Ugandan languages. She would eventually go on to become the first person in her village to get a college degree, studying gender and social sciences.

After finishing her master’s degree through a scholarship at the Wageningen University, Netherlands, Alice joined the Land O’Lakes team in Rwanda in 2012. This was a game changer for Alice, and the position came with a cause that was close to her heart.

A change maker at Land O’Lakes

As a gender specialist, Alice played a key role for the Rwanda Dairy Competitiveness Program II (RDCP II), a USAID-funded project that closed this past January. Since 2012, RDCP II has created nearly 12,000 new jobs in the dairy industry and increased liters of milk sold commercially by 787 percent. The project strengthened the Rwanda dairy industry by partnering with the private sector and the local Rwandan government to improve incomes, food security and dairy quality from cow to consumer. Alice ensured that men and women, from dairy farmers to policy makers, were equal participants across the board.

First thing’s first. It’s important to note that Rwanda is ranked number six globally when it comes to gender equality. However, in the household and on the farm, women still face a number of gender barriers due to traditional norms. For projects like RDCP II, education and advocacy on gender equality can go a long way.

Early on, when RDCP II would host on-farm trainings about how to improve the quality and quantity of the farmer’s milk, only men would register. Even though women were highly involved in daily farm operations, the women wouldn’t participate in the trainings. This is where Alice came in.

“Women would sit on the outskirts of the trainings and try to listen in. As training facilitators, we would walk over and invite them. Our message was simple, ‘If you have a cow, you are welcome,’” says Alice.

Over the course of the project, under Alice’s coordination, more than 45 percent of  farmers trained were women. The trainings covered animal care, on-farm quality practices, safe handling practices from farm to the collection center and how to operate  a small dairy business. Woven amongst the courses were discussions on how joint husband and wife decision-making can benefit the whole family, like taking mutual responsibility for daily animal care and agreeing on how to spend household finances.

“Men used to drop off milk at the collection center, then take the payout in cash. Often they’d spend it in town before they even got back home,” says Alice. “So, we facilitated connections between banks, the cooperatives and the cooperative farmer members. Now, payouts go directly to the farmers’ bank account. What’s more, for household level accounts, the wife’s name must be listed—this is a new practice for some here.”

Joint bank accounts benefit the entire family. Research shows that women are more likely to spend income on household needs, like food and school fees. When a woman has equal say at home, and equal access to bank accounts, the future looks brighter for kids back home.

A change maker in her village

Breaking gender barriers. Cows. Women’s equity on the farm. Alice’s role with RDCP II over five years made an impact on women and dairy. She thinks it all started with the experiences that defined her as a child.

“Looking after our cows, I remember sitting by the watering hole while they drank. I looked around, every other person attending their cows were boys,” she says. “They would play together, I would sit and read and practice writing my name. Farming gave us everything. My father’s income, my work ethic and my drive to get educated.”

When Alice returns to her home village, she still goes out to the field to reunite with her father as he tends to their family herd.

“When I go out to see the cows graze, girls from the village will follow me. They want to see a woman who was educated,” she says.

Today, many young girls in the village are named Alice. It’s not a coincidence.