Geoffrey Ojok | September 7, 2015
Winnie Ajok wants to finish her education. So she divides her time between the classroom and the marketplace.
The 17-year-old grows hibiscus on a quarter-hectare plot in the village of Naava, 75 kilometres east of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Ms. Ajok harvests the pods and turns them into a rich, purple juice which she sells in the market in nearby Njeru.
Like most students, she is determined to succeed with her studies. Unlike most students, Ms. Ajok survived a fire which destroyed her house and killed two siblings.
In 2011, Ms. Ajok’s stepfather beat her mother with a stick. Her mother took the children and moved to her sister’s house. Ms. Ajok says: “[My stepfather] came to my aunt’s house, locked us inside, doused the premises with petrol and set it ablaze. Two of my siblings perished. My two brothers and I and my mother and aunt were rescued by neighbours, but we suffered severe burns. We now live with huge scars on our bodies.”
Her stepfather was arrested by the police. But after negotiations between the two families, he was released on police bond after agreeing to pay compensation—twelve cows. Together, the families slaughtered and ate one of the cows as a symbol of their reconciliation.
In March 2014, an NGO ran a week-long workshop on agricultural skills for more than one hundred women from Ms. Ajok’s church. The women learned how to grow vegetables and other plants, including hibiscus, and how to produce juice from hibiscus pods.After the training, Ms. Ajok tried out her new skills. She ploughed the small piece of land behind her aunt’s house and planted hibiscus seeds.
After three months, the pods were ready to harvest. Ms. Ajok says: “My mother and I picked the pods, removed the outer covers, then squeezed them into a clean container. We added water and then filtered the mixture. We use peeled lemons as a preservative.”
When the juice was ready, Ms. Ajok started selling it in the evenings after school. The juice proved to be popular with traders and shoppers. Now she makes and sells 20 litres of the thirst-quenching drink every day. She earns 30,000 Ugandan shillings [US$8.15] from one jerry can of juice. Ms. Ajok says, “My mother also sells fresh hibiscus leaves in the market. In a month, we earn up to 900,000 shillings [US$245].”
Hibiscus is widely grown in northern and eastern Uganda. Known locally as malakwang, it is often mixed with sesame or groundnut paste in cooking. Research shows that hibiscus is effective at treating obesity and mild cases of high blood pressure, and the plant is becoming much more popular as a food.
Roseline Mutebi has grown hibiscus for many years. She used to pay to transport the pods and leaves to markets in northern and eastern Uganda. But now she has a local market. She says, “It’s the first thing that sells out when I harvest it from my garden.”
Hannaniah Mununuzi is a market trader in Njeru. He’s impressed by Ms. Ajok’s growing juice business. He says, “Her challenge is that the business is seasonal. But otherwise, hibiscus is the juice that everyone wants to quench their thirst with.”
Ms. Ajok has risen above the losses she suffered at her stepfather’s hand. Now she is happy as she earns enough money to continue her schooling. She says, “My mother and I work hard to raise my fees for high school. This money also means that we are also able to buy food for the family.”