Thursday, December 14, 2017

Building Dreams from the Grassroots Up

 On a nine-hour, 326 miles road trip from bustling Kampala heading south to the spectacular mountains of Kisoro, I interviewed an extraordinary man.

From humble beginnings, Obed has become a champion of Uganda’s poor, empowering thousands of rural communities.

He was part of the CSO side meetings in New York that helped shape the UN Global Goals in 2015, attends international conferences with famous leaders such as Bill Gates and has been honoured with countless awards and accolades.

And he’s just beginning! Obed’s next ambitious project is building a multi-storey training centre teaching dynamic community development strategies to key change agents throughout east and southern Africa.  

This is his story.
The Courage To Serve the Poor

Kabanda Obed grew up as one of 11 children in a struggling peasant farming family in Kasese District in Western Uganda and knows the gnawing feeling of being constantly hungry.

Obed with some of his brothers and sisters

As an enthusiastic graduate in Community Development and Leadership, after struggling for years to pay his way through university, he faced a moral dilemma: should he pursue a lucrative career in the city of Kampala or devote himself to grassroots action serving impoverished communities?

He was 26, the year was 2003, and the horrendous social problems of his cherished country were overwhelming.

“We had just come out of the Allied Democratic Forces-ADF War, which impacted Uganda’s western border where I lived. We had an influx of refugees returning to their homes from the camps, the HIV/AIDS rate was a staggering 13 per cent and we had a broken health care system. Many of the health workers in remote areas had left, running for their lives. We had a high number of orphans and vulnerable children who ended up on the streets".

“Amidst all this chaos, women were the ones earning money because the men were in hiding in fear of being abducted by the rebel forces. Given our African patriarchal society, husbands were feeling emasculated to have their wives’ be the providers and domestic violence erupted.

“For me as an idealistic graduate returning home, excited by theories of development and how to cause social change, I was confused to find all this suffering.
So I had two voices in my head; one saying: ‘Go get a job in the city’ and the other voice saying: ‘You can not ignore this tragic situation. You have to do something.’ 

This was a turning point for Obed. He remembers: “I did a lot of soul searching and was torn between the desire for a prestigious career and the desire to make a contribution. I had grown from a humble background seeing people suffer in poverty. I was fortunate to even make it to university and felt I wanted to give back to my community. And I had a lot of empathy for the children and vulnerable women and men trapped in despair, which in the end was stronger than my personal ambition.

“I was the first graduate in my family and everyone was expecting me to get a job and start supporting my siblings. It was hard to go against the family.”

Grassroots Action
Obed in the field

Obed was ready to take immediate action in response to the emergencies that surrounded him. He founded Action For Community Development, with the acronym, ACODEV.

A natural organiser and networker, he rallied a group of supporters comprising medical, educational, government and charity experts.

“I brought these people together under a tree – where all the best meetings are held – as we didn’t have money to even hire a room. We discussed the profound social problems and they gave me their support and encouragement. We formed a board with a plan to work in three districts initially, where the problems were rife.

Obed leading a community meeting 

"I went around to meet the district leaders and community members to gather information and stories. But then, the challenge became: ‘How do I enter the communities?’ I didn’t have funding to pay for venues so I held meetings in schools and churches that did not require any cost.

“I discovered that a lot of the social problems were interlinked and
realised that domestic violence was at the centre of the disruption of home life, health, education and economic livelihood. I started promoting safe, healthy families with support from the established board and volunteers.”

Obed's parents celebrating their anniversary with family 
“My parents had a Christian foundation and were living as examples to us but there would be moments that we would observe as children where they needed more forgiveness, coexistence and better parenting. But I witnessed domestic violence in the neighbourhood fuelled by alcoholism and polygamous practices that saw many marriages breaking and suffering of children. All this shaped my thinking and ambition to do something about the vice of domestic violence.”
Obed managed to break the silence and get people talking about the hidden problems in their families. And once the discussion started it was unstoppable!
Visiting hundreds of churches and schools, the workload became overwhelming so Obed recruited volunteers to help facilitate meetings.

Risking Disapproval and Failure to Follow His Dreams

“Following African custom, my parents had given me a small plot of land to farm but I decided to sell it to pay for rent of an office in Kasese and buy basic furniture. This was very radical and risky. I wasn’t sure if ACODEV would succeed. It took faith and hope.

“I was dreaming big, believing we could make a difference and drawing on courage and willpower to keep going. It was necessary to have an office to be taken seriously in the community. We started training volunteers in communication skills.

“I am thankful to the first board members who continued to make contributions to have the office running but it was so difficult. One time the landlord chased us out of his house for failing to pay rent after almost a year of paying rent and no funding was coming through. And I had to shift the office to my small house until we received a first grant a year later and we rented an office once again.

“I knew I had to network and build partnerships. So I approached the Association for Human Rights Organisation- AHURIO. They were shocked when I said we had no funding! And offered space for training volunteers in gathering domestic violence information and research skills.
“This is when we attracted our first donor, KIOS, a Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights, who were impressed by our grassroots outreach and gave us a €7000 grant to expand our work into radio shows, print media, drama and musical performances to inspire communities with the message of Safe, Healthy Families.”

We raised robust awareness raising including a widespread radio campaign and drama series on domestic violence and its relationship with other development sectors, established mediation services at DV clinics to help couples overcome domestic violence and child abuse.

KIOS renewed their funding and more funding followed from other charities impressed by ACODEV’s effective strategies and later expanded its work to include HIV and AIDS prevention and mitigation activities, and reproductive health promotion.

Obed narrates how difficult it is to raise and attract a first grant and the challenge of building trust by donors by grassroots organisations who realistically have great ambitions but with limited capacity at the start and the many requirements to meet granting conditions. But he stresses how important it is to have seed grants to such start-up grassroots organisations to help stand with them in building their systems to grow into strong organisations like ACODEV is now.

These days Obed’s trains other start-up charities in how to attract funding.

Relocating to Kampala

In 2009 Obed was asked to contribute to the drafting process of the government legislation to recognise domestic violence as a crime and joined a national board committee of Uganda Network of AIDS Organisations - UNASO, which took him to Kampala twice a week.

ACODEV was also later on contracted to work with UNICEF, the Ministry of Gender and the Human Rights Commission to promote the Human Rights Based Approach to Programming - HRBAP models to integrate human rights including women’s and children’s rights into development programmes and District Development Plans.

Suddenly ACODEV had gone national and needed premises in the capital.

By this stage, Obed, was married to his wife Louise, who worked for Compassion International, based in Kasese under South Rwenzori Diocese, and they had a baby son.

On top of all the demands, Obed was also studying for his Masters Degree and still not making a salary. He once again took a giant leap of faith and moved to Kampala on his own to establish an office.

“Louise and I had to take a hard decision. I’ve been blessed to have a very supportive, loving, understanding and courageous wife to stand with me and share my vision. And we were depending on her salary, which I’m grateful for.”

The sacrifice paid off because ACODEV grew rapidly working from a small rented office in Kampala city. And in 2011 with contributions from Board members ACODEV bought office land in Kampala and later on starting construction of an office and in 2013 a donor funded the remaining part of the building of spacious office premises that ACODEV enjoys now in Kampala.

And now, in 2017 ACODEV has nine substantial grants supporting far-reaching programmes in over 20 urban and rural districts throughout Uganda run by a dedicated team of 60 development specialists and community workers. Obed shakes his head in disbelief at how his organisation has grown from a one-man band to a vibrant staff of 60 in the span of just 14 years!

How Communities Develop

Obed and his team designed an integrated programme that pulled together issues of health and human rights such as the right to safety and protection, food,water and sanitation, , healthcare, education and livelihood.

“We train young people in vocational skills for improving their employment and economic livelihoods, and train mothers in birth preparedness, early childhood development, and offer pre and post natal care and support. We educate parents about child abuse and domestic violence and family planning and avoiding HIV/AIDS. We reach women and children and men –we include everyone.

“We work closely with communities to discover their priorities and start with their most desperate needs,” explains Obed.

ACODEV’s systematic approach comprises five specific steps: research and learning; awareness-raising; systems strengthening that includes capacity-building for different structures so that communities can demand services; identifying gaps and filling them through advocacy and activism and finally partnership and collaboration with stakeholders.

Obed is adamant that raising awareness of social problems is not enough. He believes it’s essential to build communities’ capacity to solve problems through accessing social services and resources.

Over 14 years ACODEV has reached close to one million people in thousands of communities throughout Uganda, empowering them to overcome their problems and meet their basic needs themselves, breaking free from dependency and hand-outs.

Obed with some of the dedicated ACODEV team

Healing the Shame of Obstetric Fistula

Obed is proud of the team’s work in the promotion of integrated health, child protection and early childhood services, the uptake of family planning and the reduction in domestic violence and the rise in happy, safe homes.

And he has been deeply touched by witnessing the transformation of lives.

He recalls cases of women suffering from obstetric fistula, caused by the tearing of the vaginal wall during childbirth, which leaves a woman leaking urine and faeces and ostracised in shame and disgrace.

“The look of joy on the face of a woman who has undergone surgery to repair a fistula is radiant. It inspired me to do my research for my Public Health Masters on the subject and I interviewed over 50 mothers who had sustained fistula. Talking to them I came to understand that the damage to the women was caused through a combination of early marriage of immature girls and malnutrition meaning the birth canal was not adequate enough for the babies but also the delays in labour due to delays at home for lack of making timely decisions, delays on the way to health centres due to poor roads, and delays in the health facility as a result of either lack of personal or necessary infrastructure to support timely birth were apparent .”

“It was hugely rewarding to see the transformation of these women who had lived with the devastating condition for many years believing they were ‘bewitched’ and seeing how the reparative surgery restored their health and dignity was so fulfilling.”

Recognition For A High Achiever

Obed and wife Louise and their four children
Obed, now the father of four children and just making 40, has achieved so much at a young age.

His achievements have been recognised by prestigious awards.
In February 2013, Obed was awarded the "Safe Motherhood Change Agent of the Year" by Save The Mothers International Canada.

In July 2015 Obed won the “Angel for Africa Award” for his remarkable contribution to social change, which attracted widespread publicity

In November 2016, he also won an award for being one of “40 men under 40” in Uganda who achieved great accomplishments under the age of 40.

In November 2016 Obed was recognised for the "Global Leadership Fellowship Award" The Fellowship, awarded to accomplished leaders, is managed by ILEAP Seattle Washington State and includes a paid five weeks training on Leadership to strengthen the leadership capacity to manage social change and growth;

And in September 2015 he joined world leaders in New York in brainstorming the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development, which form the inspiring plan for social change by the year 2030.

A respected authority on community development, Obed is inundated with invitations to international events. In October 2017, he attended the Grand Challenges Conference in Washington DC with legendary philanthropist, Bill Gates as the keynote speaker.
The building has a long way to go but Obed has unshakeable faith

Obed chats with a labourer on site 
Obed on the top floor of the building in Oct 2017

Build it and They Will Come

And yet his most daring project is ahead of him. He has a grand vision to build an impressive, multi-storey Leadership Training Centre to offer innovative courses in community development to charities and NGOs throughout east and southern Africa and also philanthropy awareness to donors on grassroots models and operations and how to effectively work with frontline grassroots

The spectacular building,set in beautiful farmlands on the fringe of Kampala,is halfway complete and Obed is seeking visionary donors to finish the building, which will include training rooms, IT rooms, 44 rooms of accommodation and modern kitchen facilities for full catering.

“I have a vision to see an Africa where development is being championed by grassroots organisations that are people-driven with local solutions to transform lives within their communities.

“Some International NGOs often come to Africa and when they are not in touch with the realities on the ground they often prescribe solutions, which turn out to be a waste of resources when their projects do not produce the desired social change because they don't involve the communities they are trying to help.

“For us to achieve the UN sustainable development goals, we need grassroots organisations to take the lead.”

He aims to start offering courses next year in 2018 and is actively seeking a range of partners to share the vision by contributing to a Grassroots Forward Fund

“This Leadership Centre will train grassroots leaders, social change champions, and high calibre, intelligent leaders capable of taking on the challenge of sustainable social change.”

Already Obed sees the Leadership Centre as his legacy that will impact the 21st century bringing much-needed community development through raising accountable leaders with the moral fabric to support the suffering humanity of Africa.

Why? Because he knows in his heart that humanity matters and Africa matters. And he knows grassroots leadership will be the catalyst for social change.


  1. Its great work being done and am sure in years to come many ugandans lives will change!

  2. Its Great reading the inspiring story, it gives me a learning of how human beings have the potential to change the world, only a few comes out courageously and fearlessly to risk it all like this Gentle man - Obed! This is my appreciation for his tremendous work which is evidenced through the many lives that have been touched by his dream and bringing valuable people into his dream to play their part in causing change! Thank you Obed - The Sky still holds your limits.

    Selvano ( )