Standing strong with a positive attitude: interview with Esther Nekambi

April 6, 2020

By Evelien Vleeshouwers, Communication Officer for the Women@Work Campaign at Hivos Global Office.

Under the Women@Work Campaign, where we strive for better labor conditions for women workers at flower farms, we join hands with frontrunner business, civil society and other actors from the floriculture industry. By bringing together all relevant stakeholders, we want to bring about decent work for women. In this interview Esther Nekambi, Director of the Uganda Flower Exporter Association (UFEA), sheds some light on the challenges women workers face and how an organization like UFEA can help.

“Life is a journey of learning; but above all, it’s about standing strong with a positive attitude.” Esther has lived exemplary by her own words. When she started out at her first flower farm, she was encouraged to go back to school and obtain a bachelor’s degree in Management. “I had attained both “O” and “A” level certificates and a diploma in business studies when I joined the workplace, but I did not have the opportunity to practice what I studied. My career path had to change.” She was encouraged to go back to school, and the farm where she worked even paid for her education. Now, as one of few women, she has climbed her way up from Export Coordinator  to the Executive Director of Uganda Flowers Exporters Association

UFEA was established in 1993 and has been a partner of Hivos since 2017. Its mission is to promote and support the development of Uganda’s floriculture industry by working with and through its members. It has been quite successful in achieving this mission; Uganda is Africa’s third largest flower exporter. Contributing factors are its favorable climate and good flight connection, especially since the majority of the farms are based in Entebbe, where the international airport is located.

Women in the Ugandan floriculture

Just like Esther, many of the workers in the Ugandan floriculture are women. Esther knows what challenges they face. “The majority of the women in the sector have not completed 0-level, the minimum level of formal education”, she explains. “They thus join at the lowest level of employment, just to earn a living. Many are single mothers who must work to support their children, so the thought of going back to school to further their education is unlikely.”

The reason that most workers in flower farms are women is partially because women labor is being seen as a more reliable and inexpensive source of labor. Also stereotypes come into play: women are considered more dexterous, and therefore would be better equipped to deal with a delicate product such as flowers.

Blooming workplaces

One of the projects under the Women@Work Campaign in which UFEA is involved is the ‘Blooming Workplaces and Communities Project’, which is being implemented together with the National Organization of Peer Educators Uganda (NOPE), Uganda Workers Education Association (UWEA) and the Uganda Horticultural Industrial Services Provider and Allied Workers Union (UHISPUWA). Aim of the project is to promote a workplace and community culture that is responsive to addressing HIV and AIDS as well as sexual harassment. Especially on the latter much work has been done by UFEA, which has proven to be an important but difficult issue to tackle. “The myth and cultural beliefs, coupled with the burden of proof challenges the definition of sexual harassment,” says Esther. The burden of proof of which she speaks has been indeed very challenging and may have hindered survivors from reporting and getting justice.

Luckily, UFEA has accomplished a lot in the past couple of years. “It started with the management of seven participating farms accepting the fact that sexual harassment exists at their farms, and that it should be controlled. They allowed the formation of Steering Committees at their farms with an HR Officer as a focal point,” Esther explains. These Steering Committees are the first point for handling sexual harassment (and HIV/AIDS issues) at the working place.

UFEA also trains the workers themselves, which is a great passion of Esther. “I love mentoring. I have mentored many women who have been promoted.” The training done by UFEA provide a space to workers to share their own experiences and opinions. “Listening and guiding the groups is a more transforming approach to people than imposing what I think is right for them.”

Continuous learning

Even though she is the Executive Director of UFEA, Esther does not think her learning path has finished yet. “I am still learning and growing. I am doing online courses on a variety of topics, and in 2017 I completed a 2-year capacity building program in biosecurity, where I am now an associate fellow in the African Plant Biosecurity Network.” The former Executive Director gave her opportunities to further develop herself through on-the-job mentoring, guidance, the opportunity to attend short courses, exposure, networking and meetings. “I encourage women to come for sector-organized training. Some of these have exams for which you can earn a certificate. This is a great opportunity for development. Many of the people attending such training are promoted to senior positions.”

Esther’s advice to women is to make the most out of every opportunity and bring the right attitude to the table: “Growth starts with self-determination to grow. You need to have the right attitude in what you are doing, and work to excel in any task that is given you. Take opportunities and go for training, even short course opportunities.”