With a child strapped on her back, Grace Anena works an electric sewing machine with ease as she whistles gleefully.
Anena, who was formerly abducted by Lord's Resistance Army in 2003, until 2005 when she escaped from captivity, specializes in sewing bags at Invisible Children (IC) in Gulu municipality. She is among the staff members currently working at IC.
"I can also make other items like animal dolls, purses, and beauty accessories," Anena boasts of her skills, her face beaming.
Anena's bags are part of the items that IC exports to the United States of America under their project, Women Entrepreneurship Network Design (Wend). Wend is a new project that replaced Mend - a social enterprise project that was geared towards improving lives of war-affected women in northern Uganda--in 2013.
IC, which was known for its advocacy to bring warlord Joseph Kony to justice, saw a drop in funding support from when the war against the LRA petered out.
As a result of this, Anena's earnings dipped since her employers (IC) could not get support from donors. Her standard of living declined and she could no longer cater for most of her family's basic needs.
"With Shs 300,000 that I would earn, at least my children would eat well, go to school with all the scholastic materials, and my husband and I would save our remaining finances for our future," she recounts.
At the moment, Anena is paid on commission because the organisation cannot afford to pay her a fixed salary. She earns between Shs 80,000 and Shs 100,000 every month, which, according to her, is meagre.
Judith Okot, a financial officer with IC, says that due to the financial crisis they encountered when their donors left, they were forced to slash on the number of their staff and also scholarships to their beneficiaries.
"We used to give many sponsorships but now we can only offer eight," she adds.
IC has supported many victims of LRA in northern Uganda through promoting education, economic empowerment, and sanitation since 2002. The organization shot to global prominence in 2012 after it aired its controversial war documentary titled - Kony 2012.
PLAN TO JOIN AGOA
Okot notes that they are now looking at the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) as an alternative to export their items to buyers in the US.
"We believe that with AGOA, we will expand our products so as to increase our income and pay our workers well," Okot says.
AGOA is a US trade legislation which allows access to the US from selected sub-Saharan countries, with Uganda being one of them. Uganda is one of the 38 African countries that were authorized in 2000 to be eligible for tariff-free and quota-free access to the US market for 6,500 products under AGOA.
At the moment, Okot says they can only export their products using international courier delivery services (each kilogram is about Shs 400,000) and membership to AGOA is renewed annually (about Shs 1.5m).
"Sometimes when one of our staff is traveling to the US, they travel along with our products but still they charged the extra cost of luggage for that," Okot
After every three months, IC exports at least four bags of its products to the US.
"Some states are rich, others are not so rich. That is why our prices vary accordingly but it can go as low as Shs.2.5m per bag," Okot adds.
Emmy Andruville, a co-founder of Wend project under IC, revealed that their attempts to join AGOA have borne no fruit due to 'endless bureaucracies' that have continued to hinder their registration.
Mark Moro, the regional director of the Uganda National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Northern Uganda, called for the need for adequate sensitization of local NGOs about the benefits of AGOA.
"Many local NGOs are ignorant about AGOA. They need to be taught about the initiative and how it operates," Moro said.
Suzan Muhwezi, the senior presidential advisor on AGOA and Trade, however, advises interested NGOs like IC to maintain quality and consistency in the volume of the products they make if they are to be registered for AGOA.
"NGOs should meet us for registration at Workers House in Kampala. We will check the quality of the products and see if it can compete internationally," she said.
Asked how she intends to help local NGOs located upcountry on how they can be easily assisted without moving to their main office in Kampala, Muhwezi said:
"For now, we have been engaging in a countrywide sensitization of grassroots communities about AGOA. This time we are coming to northern Uganda because we are done with western and eastern Uganda."
According to data from the ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives, Uganda's performance under AGOA has remained low, with exports under the initiative dropping from $3.331 million (about Shs 11 billion) in 2010 to $1.15 million (about Shs 3.9 billion) in 2014. This was before Uganda's AGOA membership was renewed in 2015.
Muhwezi added that they now have proper infrastructure for their work, adding that they have hired consultants from the East African Trade and Investment Hub, who will equip them with trade skills to be competitive like other member countries.