Lawyers 4 farmers: How a Ugandan legal initiative is helping an underserved community
By Janet Anderson
In December 2017, HiiL Innovating Justice held the 8th Annual Innovating Justice Forum at the Peace Palace in The Hague. The forum brought together the best and most promising justice entrepreneurs from all over the world. The attendees were selected from a pool of more than 600 justice innovators who participated in the Innovating Justice Challenge 2017.
Through the Annual Innovating Justice Forum and other novel initiatives, HiiL hopes to inspire a groundswell of support and interest in justice entrepreneurship as has been witnessed in the spheres of technology and health. Justice Hub tagged along for December’s forum and caught up with a few of the participants on the sidelines of the event.
In this interview, conducted as part of our long-running #MyJustice series, Justice Hub talks to one of the finalists, Hellen Mukasa co-founder of Lawyers 4 Farmers, a Ugandan legal initiative which supports local farmers through offering legal and entrepreneurial advice:
Justice Hub: What is it that your innovation is meant to achieve?
Lawyers for farmers is an initiative that eases the access of farmers in Uganda to basic legal information and services. We deliver this through an SMS based platform that's interactive. A farmer can ask a question and get instant response from a lawyer, but also we offer micro legal insurance to farmers in their groups. Every member of a group contributes a minimal fee that is paid to the lawyers so that when they need good legal service, either as a group or as an individual, they can access that without having to pay anything.
Justice Hub: Why would farmers need lawyers?
Well, several reasons. It varies from the protection of their land to negotiating production contracts if they are farming as a group, but also there are some individual cases. 73% of the farmers we work with are female and there are cases that arise from just being a female farmer in Uganda. Things to do with how they get to share the proceeds after harvest. There is usually a bit of inequality that happens.
Justice Hub: Could you give us an example?
We farm together as a family, the season ends, we harvest and sell but because I am a woman I’m required to hand over everything that we make from the sell to my husband. The issues will arise from how we prioritise what we shall spend the money on. It's not uncommon to find that the man would prefer to spend most of it in a nearby bar while they have to struggle to find school fees or medicine or clothing for the family.
Justice Hub: Why would you want to get a lawyer involved in that kind of affair? Can’t it just be resolved within the family?
Usually, it gets to a lawyer’s level after they have failed to get help from their usual coping mechanisms because indeed there are coping mechanisms. They could report to the police in their area, they could report it to their area local leaders or village elders but usually, you find that those who eventually involve a lawyer have failed to get actual help from these mechanisms so they seek for something beyond that.
Justice Hub: Do people actually want to go to court as such?
Rarely. When you get to the court level it is because they failed to resolve their dispute amicably, because even in a land dispute, you want them to continue having a relationship with their neighbours. They are not going to shift because there was a dispute. It's probably only about boundaries but they will solve it and still farm around each other so no one wants to go to court. They actually believe it's very expensive, draining of their energy, but they only get to that level when they fail to resolve a dispute amicably.
Justice Hub: How effective has your approach been?
The most success has come from testimonies of improved knowledge of rights but also their abilities to prevent a dispute because of that knowledge. We send SMSs that are educative, you pick a principle of the law and break it down into a short message as simple as a tweet, so its disseminated twice weekly to these farmers in our database and with that knowledge they act on their problem, so that prevents a headache that they would have suffered if they didn't have that knowledge.
Quick example. We send out a message saying "Did you know that you could get a land title for customary land?" Then you get feedback of "how can I do that?" "Where should I go?" So when you walk that farmer through the process, they then have a title and it means that they have marked their boundaries, their territory. It is then very difficult to have a dispute with a neighbour over boundaries so you have prevented a future problem for this farmer. That's how it works.
Justice Hub: What do you hope is going to happen out of presenting at Innovative Justice?
Our call to action is to players out there, all stakeholders out there who are able to support this innovation to enable us to reach many farmers. Right now we barely reached a quarter of the people we need to reach. That requires resources. We have good partners who have invited us to participate in outreach events. If we had more of them we would be able to reach many more people with minimal cost. The alternative is to arrange your own [event] which is very costly. These farmers are scattered in different regions. The call to action is for all players who see us an initiative that could work with to join forces, that would help us reach many people with many more resources.
Here are other interviews in this series:
This South African innovation is using community radio to link people with justice solutions: https://justicehub.org/article/south-african-innovation-using-community-radio-link-people-justice-solutions
French start-up stakes a claim to being “The search engine for International Law” https://justicehub.org/article/french-start-stakes-claim-being-search-engine-international-law
Ugandan tech initiative is inspiring citizens to know their rights https://justicehub.org/article/ugandan-tech-initiative-inspiring-citizens-know-their-rights
Photo: Janet Anderson