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The Untapped Potential of Teso – Key Note Address

By Professor Venansius Baryamureeba, PhD

A Keynote Speech delivered on 18th September 2017 at the 4th Teso Development International Conference hosted by Iteso Welfare Association UK (IWA UK) at the University of East London, London, United Kingdom, 18th—23rd September 2017: Conference theme- Teso: Past, Present, and Future.


Teso faces several development challenges including poor standards of education, poor health services, persistent famine, and higher rates of poverty. The sub-region also faces persistent natural hazards including floods and environmental degradation. These conditions have made the sub-region lag behind the rest of Uganda.

However, despite these development challenges, the sub-region has several opportunities including natural resources, infrastructure, strategic geographical location and talented people, which if exploited could catapult the region forward.

In the 2016 Uganda national elections, Prof. Baryamureeba (www.baryamureeba.ug) was one of the 8 presidential candidates. During the campaign, he traversed the country to understand the problems affecting the people. Given his vast experience, Prof. Baryamureeba will speak about, “The Untapped Potential of Teso”. Professor Baryamureeba will examine the development of Teso from the 1990s to demonstrate how it is lagging behind other sub-regions of Uganda. He will highlight missed opportunities and potential of the sub-region. He will argue that Teso possesses resources and potential that can transform it and that its people are key to its development.

  1. Introduction

In Uganda, the Iteso live mainly in Teso sub-region i.e. the districts of Amuria, Bukedea, Kaberamaido, Katakwi, Kumi, Ngora, Serere, and Soroti as well as in the districts of Pallisa, Bugiri, Tororo and Busia. They number about 4 million. In Kenya, the Iteso live mainly in Busia county and they number about 600,000. The Kenyan Teso people are an extension of their Ugandan counterparts in that they were merely separated by the partition of East Africa during the historic scramble and partition of Africa just like the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania and the Oromo of Kenya and Ethiopia. They are among the Plain Nilotic groups closely related to the Turkana, Karamojong, Toposa, Kumam, Lango and the Maa groups of the Maasai and Samburu.

Until 1980, the Iteso were the second largest ethnic group in Uganda. As of 2002 they were the fifth largest but this has remained questionable especially since there has never been any genocide that could have massacred more than a half of the Iteso populace. However, there has been both internal migration of Iteso to other parts of Uganda and external migration to other parts of the world. Furthermore, since 1986, Uganda has taken on high numbers of refuges/ migrants (both documented and undocumented) especially in Southern, Western and Northern parts of Uganda that have gradually integrated into the local communities. These refugees/ migrants are mainly from Burundi, Rwanda, DRC, South Sudan and Somalia. This has not only changed the population dynamics and ethnicity in these regions but also the voting dynamics especially at Presidential level. Refugees/ migrants should be welcomed world over but their settlement in any country/ state/ region should never have substantial impact on the politics, social and cultures of that country/ state/ region. Uganda needs to learn from developed nations like Canada, US, UK, Australia, and Germany; refugees/ immigrants take time to acquire voting rights or citizenship status in these countries.

Also, since the distribution of the national budget is disbursed based on population numbers, it is important to ensure that the population of both citizens and refugees in each region is accurately estimated.

Under the rule of President Museveni since 1986, Uganda has had a measure of stability and prosperity. However, in Teso there were outbreaks of insurgency and civil conflict. From 1986 to 1990 there were incursions of the cattle-rustling Karamojong. Between 1987 and 1992, the rebellion by the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) destabilized the region, forcing people to flee their homes and land. Later, in 2003/4 there was the incursion into Teso by Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that waged a campaign of burning, looting, murder and child abduction. These incursions in Teso led to widespread destruction of its infrastructure, schools and homes. These rebel attacks forced people to leave their homes and live in camps in safer areas. The political turmoil and cattle rustling depleted the region of cattle, and most families that depended on cattle now live in abject poverty. Teso has also suffered from successive waves of drought and flooding.

Before 1986 Teso sub region was a Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) stronghold. When NRM took over power in 1986 it suspended political party activities in Uganda but Teso was still perceived as a UPC stronghold. In African politics, its natural to weaken your opponents’ strongholds in order to hang unto power. When Uganda restored multiparty politics as a result of the July 28, 2005 referendum, Teso was at the time still being perceived as an opposition stronghold. Indeed, during the 2006 elections, President Museveni lost to his main opponent, FDC’s Dr Kizza Besigye by getting 22.62% against 72.9 %, respectively across Teso sub-region. However, in 2011, President Museveni picked up to 68.4%, against Dr. Besigye’s 26% and similar partner happened in 2016 Presidential Election. So, it can be argued that some of the problems that crippled Teso were political in nature and a case in point is the UPA that comprised mainly of young Iteso, which the government perceived as Iteso wanting to overthrow the government. Secondly, the government had the capacity to stop immediately cattle rustling that went on for some years hence weakening several Iteso households that depended on livestock for livelihood. As of today, over 80% of the people in Teso sub-region are poor, making Teso one of the poorest sub-regions in Uganda.

Currently many parts of Teso are characterised by:

  • inadequate and unsafe water supply in most villages, making thousands vulnerable to waterborne diseases;
  • Low quality primary and secondary education as a result of poor and inadequate teachers and poorly equipped and overcrowded schools;
  • Ill-equipped tertiary institutions;
  • Ill-equipped hospitals, health centres and other health facilities;
  • High incidence of destitute children who lost parents through disease or war;
  • Food shortages and malnutrition in the drought and flood hit areas;
  • Fewer livestock farmers and a dysfunctional Soroti meat packers;
  • High poverty levels;
  • Dependence on firewood for cooking; and
  • Heavy reliance on agriculture a means of livelihood.
  1. Devastation of Teso Sub-region

Insecurity in Teso in the 80s and 90s was at the heart of devastation of Teso economy and culture. The rebellion by the UPA, NRA and other rebel groups destabilized the region, forcing people to flee their homes and the land. No one could either go to the garden or graze cattle during the war; so a lot of land was idle and the Iteso were depending on relief from government. For many decades, households in Teso sub-region just like the Bahima in Ankole largely depended on livestock rearing as the main means of livelihood. Unlike the nomads and pastoralists in other parts of the country, communities in Teso and other indigenous groups around the Kyoga Basin practiced settled cattle keeping. Several households in Teso lost their livestock to Karamojong cattle rustlers, rebels and suspected government soldiers, leaving locals with nothing but subsistence farming to depend on. The people of Teso always depended on cattle to settle most of their problems. They married, settled disputes, paid debts, sent their children to better schools by selling their cattle.

The sub-region, according to local and civil society leaders, used to grow plenty of cassava both as a food crop and cash crop. In the late 1980s, the sub-region was hit by the catastrophe of the mosaic disease which destroyed acres and acres of cassava, which was the sub-region’s staple food. Without a reliable food crop, the sub-region started teetering on the edge of famine. People moved onto other crops like sweet potatoes, groundnuts, millet and sorghum. After the war, there was a population explosion as normalcy returned. All of a sudden people did not have enough land to cultivate and there was need to put back the children in school. With little food being produced on fragmented pieces of land, the region began to stare into the face of famine starting from the early 2000s.

Fast forward to 2007, the sub-region experienced devastating floods, following persistent rains. The floods washed away gardens, destroyed road infrastructure and led to the death of some people. In a joint assessment of the impact of the 2007 floods on food security in eastern Uganda, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), painted a bleak picture ahead for Teso. The floods set in motion a pattern of two contrasting climatic conditions that the sub-region continues to experience till this day. Sometimes when it rains, it rains so heavily that whatever crops farmers have planted are destroyed and when it is dry, it goes on for so long that animals die due to lack of water. Most people have thrown away the culture of storing food in granaries for tomorrow, opted to exchange it for money that will be used today. Like elsewhere in rural Uganda, granaries were introduced in Teso by the British colonialists and served two main purposes: first, they acted as a food reservoir for families for the period between planting and harvesting; secondly, they served as a store for seeds for the next planting season.

  1. Tapping into the Untapped Potential of Teso

First and foremost, education is a human right and an educated population is essential to a nation’s prosperity. As Mandela said ‘’ education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world’’. President JF Kennedy said, ‘’let us think of of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each one of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.’’

Education and sustainable development are directly proportional. No country or region can develop without developing its education system. So its not surprising that the best education institutions are mainly in the top 10 leading world economics and top on the list is the United Sates. In Uganda, Kampala and Wakiso have the best education institutions because there are at the heart of Uganda’s economic activity.  When you go outside Kampala, a town like Mbarara that is almost gaining City status like Kampala in terms of development is now host to some of the best educational institutions in Uganda like Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Bishop Stuart University, several university campuses, Ntare School, and Mary Hill High School among others. Needless to mention there are so many good nursery and primary schools in Mbarara.

So if we want to tap into the untapped potential of Teso first and foremost we must focus on educating the Iteso from the best education institutions and establishing good education institutions in Teso sub-region.

Furthermore, at the heart of tapping the untapped potential of Teso lies three generations of Iteso, namely those who are above 40; those who are between 10 and 40 and those below 10 years. Most of the Iteso aged between 10 and 40 grew up in camps as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and to some extent are disconnected from those above 40 who know about Teso and its culture before 1986 where cattle rearing was one of the main economic activities. The question is what is the best possible way to involve Iteso from different generations in tapping the untapped potential of Teso?

In summary, ‘’The state of a country or region is a reflection of its people’’. If the people are educated, innovative, developmental, patriotic, etc. this will be reflected in the state of the nation/ country/ region. For example, if you want to know the state of the Parliament of Uganda just look at who are the Members of Parliament.

The Iteso regardless of where they live are at the heart of developing Teso and before we talk about the role or interventions of government and development partners including NGOs and charities, we need to talk about ‘’What the Iteso can do for Teso’’.

Ministry for Teso affairs should be an affirmative action ministry with budget for improving social services including health and education, restocking Teso, reviving dysfunctional industrial establishments and setting new ones among others. In 2010, when President Museveni promised to create a Ministry for Teso, he stated that the ministry will cater for the interests of Teso and went ahead to observe that the sub-region had gone through a lot of problems, including cattle rustling, natural calamities and civil war by UPA and LRA. He said the ministry would take care of development and rehabilitation programmes. The Ministry for Teso Affairs should lobby for the rebuilding of the railway from Tororo to Pakwach to provide cheap transport for goods and people. The Iteso should come together and lobby to ensure that the Ministry for Teso Affairs has funded programmes and does not become another white elephant like the Ministry for Luwero Triangle.

As is usually the case with problem prone areas, there are several NGOs and charities operating in Teso sub-region. These include TEWDI Uganda with a main focus on health, education, and safety of women and children; Teso Development Trust that is involved in child education, provision of clean water, supporting internally displaced persons (IDPs), providing emergency relief, restocking and agricultural training; Vision Teso Rural Development Organisation (Terudo) which focusses on education, poverty alleviation and health; and Friends of Teso which focusses on mobilising donations and support for local development projects. These NGOs and charities need to be coordinated if their intervention in the sub-region is going to have sustainable impact and also to avoid duplication and wastage of the scarce resources. No country or region in the world has ever developed as a result of donations, and so the interventions of NGOs and charities should be limited to certain areas and not opened up to key areas of the economy of Teso.

There are several untapped or under-tapped sectors key to the development of Teso but I will highlight a few here.

  • Proposed Interventions in the Various Sectors
  • Social Services (Education and Health)

We need to focus on the whole spectrum of education (nursery, primary, secondary, vocational and tertiary education). Iteso either singly or in joint ventures need to set up quality private education institutions across the education spectrum in Teso sub-region. There is need for Teso sub-region to come together and put in place a master plan for provision of quality primary, vocational and tertiary education to its people.

The government needs to revamp some of the existing institutions (such as Teso College Aloet (TCA), which was established in 1953; Ngora High School, which was established in 1914; Soroti Flying School and Serere Agricultural and Animal Production Research Institute among others) into centres of excellence. Soroti Flying School should be upgraded into a modern flying school to regain its place in the region and train pilots for the regional and international markets. Pilots are some of the highly paid people. Government should transform Serere Agricultural and Animal Production Research Institute Serere into a centre of excellence in the region.  Serere Agricultural Research Station was established in 1920. It was initially established as an experimental station for ox-cultivation technologies which were charged to support cotton production in Teso. After the 1st world war, it hosted one of the first two cotton breeding stations; the other one was established at Bukalasa in Buganda. It pioneered research study on cotton, livestock and other animal traction technologies to emphasize quality output. Serere Agricultural Research Station was later upgraded into The National Semi – Arid Resources Research Institute(NaSARRI), one of the 16 Public Agricultural Research Institutes of National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) established by the National Agricultural Research Act 2005, which was later renamed Serere Agricultural and Animal Production Research Institute (SAARI) in 1992. This institute that sits on over 1700 acres can well be placed under the neglected institutions.  Its dilapidated and most if its departments are dysfunctional.  Despite all this, its struggling to remain relevant as evidenced for example by the release of new millet variety for use in brewing beer in 2014.

Also the recently established Soroti University should be transformed into a centre of excellence in areas relevant to Teso sub-region. Soroti University is the 9th Public University in Uganda which was gazetted on 16th July 2015 under statutory instrument 2015 No 34. The university is located in Eastern Uganda, 7km from Soroti Town on Moroto road. The strategic mandate of the University is to offer knowledge and carry out research in fields of Health Sciences, Engineering, Technology, Applied Science, Science Education, Business /Entrepreneurship disciplines and Value Addition courses.

There is need to integrate health service delivery with university education through ensuring/ transforming hospitals such as Soroti Regional Referral Hospital, Moroto Regional Referral Hospital and all district hospitals in Teso sub-region (such as Ngora Hospital and Kumi Hospital) into teaching hospitals for health programmes offered by Soroti University. This would enable the hospitals in Teso sub-region and neighboring areas to access highly trained medical doctors and other health professionals and hence improve health service provision in the region.  The government is urged to continue to upgrade the health facilities in the sub-region. Likewise, the private sector is equally urged to invest in the setting up of hospital (s), clinics, pharmacies and standalone laboratories in Teso sub-region.

Engaging Visiting scholars at Universities and hospitals; engaging the best university students in primary and secondary school teaching; engaging Iteso diaspora community through short visits, e-learning and tele-medicine programmes will go along way in improving social services provision in Teso sub-region.

In 1986 the Iteso were most likely better than the Bahima in terms of level of attainment of higher education as much as both (nilotic groups) focused on livestock farming as their major activity. Today, almost every Muhima homestead has at least a degree graduate from one of the best universities. Some attribute this level of achievement among the Bahima to the famous State House Scholarships. In the same vein, the Iteso should ensure that every poor but bright Iteso accesses quality education right from primary to University through accessing scholarships funded by ‘’ Iteso Education Fund’’ where the main contributors are Iteso.

  • Modernisation of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Forestry

Government is promoting Teso sub-region agricultural livelihood and is committed to the Recovery of Teso sub region through Agriculture Mechanization. Since 2013 it has been providing ox ploughs, Hydraform machines, constructing boreholes, constructing water jars, and constructing cattle crushes among others. http://www.gou.go.ug/topics/government-promoting-teso-region-agricultural-livelihood.

Uganda should adopt the use of technology in agriculture and animal industry just like Israel and The Netherlands to improve productivity. Also Teso sub-region should benefit from water reservoirs and valley dams funded by government.

  • Livestock Industry

Iteso and Bahima are some of the tribes in Uganda that are culturally cattle keepers. Today the Bahima have modern farms. There is need for government to restock and compensate Teso population with improved cattle breeds, which have high meat and or milk yields. Teso people should undertake everything possible to revive their culture of cattle keeping with or without government’s support. To boost the beef production potential in the region, a meat processing plant was established in the early post-independence days that for long had been the pride of Teso. The plant was established during the Obote I regime, and ranked second largest in Africa then with an installed capacity of 2,000 animals per day. The Obote government had also set up ranches around the Lake Kyoga basin to ensure constant and reliable supply of animals to the plant. Government then knew Teso had a great potential for beef production in the region and that is why the factory was established. The NRM-O government has given out cattle to some households across Teso under government initiatives like the National Agricultural Advisory Services, Northern Uganda Social Action Fund and the National Agricultural Livestock Improvement Programme with the objective of revamping cattle keeping and beef production in the region, but not much has been achieved from these interventions. So the Iteso need to take lead in turning Teso again into a cattle farming region.

  • Tree Planting

On the vast hectares of land that used to be used for livestock farming, its possible to practice mixed farming and have trees, livestock, crops and other agricultural activities on the same piece of land.  In this case, its important to focus on planting trees of high commercial value like those used in construction, mangoes, avocado etc. These will also help minimise environmental degradation and the effects of climate change like floods, landslides, prolonged drought etc.

  • Food and Cash Crops

Beyond the food handouts from government, there is a growing realization that the sub-region needs a long-term sustainable solution to the problem of famine. Vision Terudo, in collaboration with another organisation, Pearls of Change, believes they have the formula. Most people in Teso have zeroed down on four crops that can be used as cash crop and are friendly to the environment. They are ginger, red pepper, avocado and jackfruit. These can be grown alongside the common food crops such as cassava and maize.

The Iteso either singly or jointly are urged to use the vast amounts of land in the region to engage in large scale food production for local consumption and sell the surplus. Also engaging in large scale cash crop production should be explored.

  • Industrialisation and Job Creation

Teso is geographically well positioned with neighbouring sub-regions (Acholi, Karamoja, Lango, Bugisu, Bukedi, Busoga, Buganda). Several jobs can be created along the agricultural value chain. The natural resources including minerals can be exploited from Teso and neighbouring sub-regions.

Teso, which previously had several industrial establishments (including ginneries, milk processers and Soroti meat packers) lost all these establishments. These need to be revived by government to support agro-processing in the region. In 2008 the government of Uganda pledged to construct a UGX 10-billion citrus fruit factory in Uganda Investment Authority’s industrial park in Arapai sub-county in Soroti district, Teso region. The Teso Tropical Fruit Growers Cooperative Society was registered in 2010 by the trade ministry in order to enable farmers acquire shares in the fruit factory. Uganda Development Corporation (UDC), on behalf of the Government, would own 80% shares, and the farmers 20%. The Chairman of UDC in 2011 stated that the factory would be in place before end of 2011. Now its 2017, the factory is still not in place.

The private sector needs to interest itself in the untapped or under-tapped agro-processing and other ventures that are likely to lead to job creation within Teso and economic development of Teso sub-region.

  • Culture, Truth and Reconciliation

Every region of Uganda has a cultural tradition handed down from past generations that must be preserved. As a matter of fact, a cultural leader acts as a focus of regional identity, unity and pride; giving a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognising success and excellence; and in some cases supporting the idea of voluntary and community service. The Iteso need to unite like the Baganda, Basoga and Bakiga when it comes to matters of Teso sub-region and speak with one voice regardless of political affiliation. The Iteso will not achieve much if they continue to act in a divided manner along district lines. The Iteso as a block should have one voice and politicians shall listen to their demands.

The Iteso have a culture and value system that makes them different from other Ugandans and these should be preserved. Also all secondary schools in Teso should make Ateso compulsory in senior one and two and also teach Iteso culture in all schools in Teso. This is already being done in Buganda for Luganda and Buganda culture.

Uganda has gone through several civil wars and conflicts that have left it divided. As a result, some communities like the Iteso community had to settle in internally displaced camps for some years, which destroyed family structures among others. There are still unanswered questions on who actually participated in or aided cattle rustling in Teso? Also there has been ethnic tensions and perceived marginalization in many parts of Uganda, Teso inclusive. So for Uganda to move forward as a united nation, we (religious leaders, cultural leaders, and politicians) must demand for a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look into all issues including the Teso issues and forge a way forward as a nation.

  • Partnerships and Collaborations

The Iteso have a lot of commonalities with other nilotic groups like the Lango and Bahima and it is important to forge collaborations in areas of mutual interest.  There are also Iteso across the border in Busia county in Kenya, that should be involved in the development programmes of the Iteso community in East African Community.

  • Regional Governments

There is need to devolve powers from the central government to sub-regions (West Nile, Acholi, Karamoja, Lango, Teso, Sebei, Bugisu, Bukedi, Busoga, Buganda, Bunyoro, Toro, Ankole and Kigezi) to improve governance and resource allocation and utilisation. Devolution brings about equitable development as resources and powers are decentralised from the central government to the local units (sub-regions). When budgetary resources are allocated to a sub-region, the sub-regional executive instead of the President would have control over the resources. This would reduce political marginalization and reduce the powers of the President. The current districts are too small and too many to effectively handle devolution.

In accordance with the Fifth schedule of the current constitution of Uganda, Uganda shall be governed under a federal system of government where the above sub-regions will be governed under 5 regions (Central, Southern, Western, Northern and Eastern Regions).

  1. Concluding Remarks

Teso region should take advantage of its people, land, infrastructure in the railway and roads, the lake to catch up with regions such as Buganda and Ankole. There is need to take advantage of the geographical location of Teso, Soroti University, the upcoming fruit factory, and Soroti Flying School/ airport. There is need to promote networking, collaboration and partnership among international organisations operating in Teso. Finally, Teso should forge mutual partnerships and collaborations beyond its borders.


Professor Venansius Baryamureeba (www.baryamureeba.ug) holds a PhD in Computer Science from University of Bergen, Norway. He served as the 1st (Founding) Vice Chancellor of Uganda Technology and Management University (UTAMU) from September 2012 to September 2015. He also served as the 14th Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, Kampala from November 2009 to August 2012. Before becoming Vice Chancellor, he had served as Dean of the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology and Director of the Institute of Computer Science at Makerere University from 2001 to 2009.

Professor Baryamureeba has also served as Chairman of the Inter University Council of East Africa, Chairman of the Research and Education Network of Uganda, and has been Chairperson and/or member of several boards/councils. He has won several national and international awards and recognitions. He currently serves as the Chairperson of COMESA Innovation Council, Chairperson of Uganda Business and Technical Examinations Board and Chairperson of Makerere University Business School Council, among others.