What Ugandans can learn from a little village in China and how China is transforming its villages.
By Justin Ojangole
Thirty years ago, Lee Jia village in Huanggang district, Hubei Province in central China was a very poor community where a few hundred locals struggled to make ends meet. Then the regional government hatched an idea; teach the villagers the commercial value of horticulture.
Ninety households were organised to use their land communally and to identify local leaders who could champion development. The provincial administration sent experts to initiate horticulture. Over the next few years, the village developed expertise in plant cultivation, irrigation, tractor operations and marketing. They set up farming schedules and got to work.
Today, Lee Jia village is a commercial producer of photinia fraseri plants for beautifying city streets and compounds. The village has been transformed into a modern settlement, with various amenities. It has a beautiful training centre for farmers, modern housing powered mainly by solar power, piped water and free high-speed internet.
Visiting the village a few weeks ago, I realised that China's approach to rural transformation has valuable lessons for Uganda. I travelled to Lee Jia village as part of a media delegation to China at the invitation of the Chinese Ambassador to Uganda, H.E. Zheng Zhuqiang. Our delegation was led by Ofwono Opondo, the Executive Director of the Uganda Media Centre.
"We now have experts in everything to do with horticulture in our village," said Zheng Xingping the secretary of Lee Jia Bay Village, Chencelou Town, Huangzhou District, Huanggang City. There are 234 families with 844 people in the village. Zheng Xingping is one of the village elders. He said: "We were very poor, but hard work and good leaders have changed our village." Saying that this is geared at: "Win-win co-operation and join hands to build a closer community with a shared future for China and Africa."
To get to Lee Jia village, we travelled from Beijing to Wuhan City in Hubei by High Speed Train, which cut the 1,150 km journey down to just five and half hours. Then we drove down by bus. Wuhan has a population of over 10 million people and a GDP of $180b and is the capital city of Hubei Province. The city is a political, economic, financial, cultural, transportation and educational centre.
Our eight-day programme had begun in Beijing and later took us to Wuhan and Yichang cities. We visited key developmental projects to primarily understand the Chinese experience on poverty elevation.
In Beijing, we were briefed by Ambassador Chen Yuming, Vice President of China Public Diplomacy Association, who explained how China is ready to work closely with Africa on poverty elevation, improvement of infrastructure and development of natural resources.
We also held bilateral discussion with Wan Li, the Deputy Director General Department of African Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China and later visited Xinhua News Agency and Star Times media houses.
Yichang City was our last stop after Wuhan. The bullet train journey was four hours. Here we visited the famous Three Gorges Dam project, which is regarded as the biggest hydroelectric dam project in the world with an annual output of about 88.2 billion kilowatts.
Yichang is a very beautiful city with mountains, water falls, forest and Yangtze River running though the city centre. Most amazing was the grandiose of the Three Gorges Dam project. Constructed over 13 years from 2002, the dam is magnificent. It has 32 super large hydropower turbine generation units, each producing almost the equivalent of what Karuma, Nalubale and Isimba power dams produce in Uganda.
Travelling across China, I noticed the transformation of Lee Jia village is not an isolated activity. With a population of over 1.3 billion people, China has managed to strike a delicate balance between development, agricultural production, environment conservation, massive urbanisation and a rapidly growing tourism. Rated as a fast industrialising country with a high population, China leveraged development activities to sustain a green economy.
Some of the strategies are simple and could easily be replicated in Uganda. By encouraging massive urbanisation, China has freed much of the land for commercial agricultural activities. To sustain the environment, tree planting is taken seriously. Trees are planted along land boundaries and on some reserved acres. Yichang and Wuhan are mountainous, so existing forests have been left intact.
The other strategy has been to organise the residential system to ensure improved living standards and sustainable use of resources such as water. Travelling between Beijing and Yichang, for example, one sees a lot of rivers and streams, but they were deliberately created. Feng Lin, our leader, told me that the water was diverted from the main rivers and lakes for agricultural use. As a result, the farmers can produce throughout the year.
China has harnessed its water resources, water storage projects, water diversion, water lifting, water transfer and underground water projects. There are 98,000 water reservoirs with a total capacity of 932.3 billion m3 and as a result, China has 64.50 million hectares of irrigated farmland, accounting for 53.8% of the country's arable land.
In Uganda, our forest cover and water sources are so badly managed that I worry for the future. The lesson from China is that local leadership and small interventions can make a difference. Imagine we planted 500 trees per government schools. In 10 years, we will have greened the schools.
Another strategy that has transformed China is the focus on tourism. The Gorges Dam Project, apart from generating electricity, is a major tourist site. Unlike our hydro power stations, Chinese and other foreign tourists flock to the dam. The dam also has a viewing point of 240m above sea-level.
According to the World Bank, China has experienced rapid economic and social development since it shifted from a centrally to a market-market based economy in 1978. The sustained average GDP growth of 10% per year has lifted more than 800 million out of poverty. There are still plenty of challenges, but China is on course to achieve its development agenda.
In September, African leaders including President Museveni are expected to attend the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit that will be hosted by President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China. The leaders will be accompanied by large delegations of officials.
It is my hope that instead of spending all their free time shopping in China's massive malls, some of the Ugandan delegates should visit Lee Jia village, pick some lessons and return to implement what they will learn. Development can be achieved village-by-village.
The writer is the publisher of China - Uganda magazine