By Violet Ikong 

In 2015, about a year after she fled South Sudan’s civil war and arrived in the Ayilo 1 refugee settlement in northern Uganda, Rose Asenjo took up subsistence farming, planning to fill the nutrition gap between what aid organizations provided and what her family needed to survive. Every year, at the start of the rainy season, she leased land to plant vegetables. But to her frustration, she often ended up with a poor crop yield. Unbeknownst to her, the culprit was climate change, which causes increased flooding, drought, pests, and diseases.  

Kuol Arou, founder of SPEAG Uganda

Less funding, less food 

Poor crop yields as a result of climate change contributed to hunger pangs and malnutrition for Asenjo’s family. And they were not alone. Over 39,000 hungry South Sudanese Dinka refugees live in the Ayilo 1 and 2 settlements, existing on the food provided by humanitarian organizations. But funding shortages in recent years have forced the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to cut amounts of food and monetary support for refugee camps worldwide and, according to the aid agency, Uganda received less than half of the $343 million (USD) it needed to adequately feed refugees in their camps in 2022. The hunger problem is so bad that some refugees have returned home. “Some refugees had to risk going back home [to South Sudan] because they felt there was no difference between dying from the gun there and dying from starvation here,” Asenjo said. 

Adopting a climate-smart approach 

Then in November 2022, a friend told Asenjo about an agricultural training program for refugee women that teaches how to farm in a world impacted by climate change. Asenjo attended the training, which was organized by Shabab Peace and Environment Action Group (, a refugee-led nonprofit founded in 2018 by Kuol Arou, a 31-year-old South Sudanese former child soldier, who is also a refugee. In addition to teaching agricultural skills, the nonprofit promotes peace and cohesion between refugees and host community members in the Adjumani district, where the Ayilo refugee settlements are located. 

  Twenty-six women, including Asenjo, were selected for the training, where they learned about climate change. Until she was introduced to the concept of climate change, Asenjo had believed that a spiritual force was behind the yearly floods and poor yield on her farm. “The women are people who do not have exposure to the media or climate discussions, so we had to first bring them to the consciousness of what is happening in the world in terms of climate change and its impact on agriculture, especially in Africa,” Arou said.  

A refugee woman with freshly harvested vegetables from her farm

Although Africa’s contribution to global climate change is less than 3.8% of global emissions, the continent’s agricultural sector suffers from its harsh implications. According to Sunday Akpan, Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics and Extension at the Akwa Ibom State University in southern Nigeria, “Climate change has affected the farming system in Africa, and it has almost gone beyond the control of the farmer. It has changed a lot of things, like the planting schedule, the type of crops to plant, and the income-generating capacity of farmers on the continent.” 

  The trainers taught the women climate-smart agriculture strategies for mitigating climate change’s impact on their small farms. The approach is based on sustainability methods such as making ditches, which channel excess water away from their farmlands; irrigation, so they can grow crops during the dry season or in drought; and the importance of quality seeds. According to Akpan, “Farmers need quality seeds that can resist challenges posed by climate change, including pests and drought.” 

Refugee women harvesting vegetables from their farm.

  At the end of the training, the women were taken around a six-acre plot of land situated at SPEAG’s office premises. Each person was allotted a portion and given quality seeds to grow fast-yielding crops such as tomatoes, okra, and black-eyed peas, locally called korofo lubia by the South Sudanese. Farming the land is a collaborative effort between the women and trained volunteers. The volunteers help to make the nursery beds for planting, while the women transfer seedlings to the beds. And the women and volunteers alternate days of caring for the crops. 

  Experts warn that developing regions like sub-Saharan Africa are particularly vulnerable to climate change because of the absence of adaptive technology and an overdependence on rain-fed agriculture. So the farmers use water from a solar-powered borehole owned by the UNHCR to help water their crops, instead of relying solely on rainwater. 

And SPEAG recently secured funding to purchase eight water tanks of 10,000 liters each to collect and store water during the rainy season – a climate-smart approach called rainwater harvesting. The donor organization is Kitchen Table Charities Trust, based in the United Kingdom. 

  The women harvest mature crops at intervals of one to two weeks to feed their families and to sell at the Ayilo market, which serves refugees from the Ayilo 1 and 2 settlements, as well as residents of Adjumani, the host district. Five pieces of harvested okra and tomatoes are sold for UGX 1000 ($0.27). A bundle of leaves from the black-eyed peas is sold for UGX 1000 ($0.27), as are bunches of okra and tomatoes. Each woman earns between UGX 15,000 ($4.01) and UGX 25,000 ($6.68) from sales at the market. 

“I meet family needs with what I make from crop sales, and I no longer worry about money to buy vegetables to feed my children. I just get them from the farm,” said Lagua Christine, a 39-year-old refugee single mother of nine from South Sudan. 

“I meet family needs with what I make from crop sales, and I no longer worry about money to buy vegetables to feed my children. I just get them from the farm,” said Lagua Christine, a 39-year-old refugee single mother of nine from South Sudan. 

Some of the farmers harvesting and looking after vegetables in their farm.

Stray animals and funding problems 

The women farmers do have their share of troubles, however. Sometimes when both the women and the team at SPEAG are away from the farm, stray animals such as goats find their way into the farm and gobble up crops. And funding is a serious issue. SPEAG began with 26 women in its climate-smart agriculture program, but only nine remain because of funding problems. Arou is passionate about the importance of the program though, and is optimistic. “Even though funding is a challenge, we plan to scale up next year and bring in more women,” she said. 

  Meanwhile, Asenjo now saves UGX 10,000 ($2.69) biweekly from the sales of her crops. And her family is eating much better these days. “Besides saving that amount, I am happy that I go back home every week with little vegetables to feed my children,” she said. Asenjo hopes to go into large-scale farming in the future and utilize the knowledge she has gotten about climate-smart agriculture to successfully grow her crops despite the ravages of climate change.