Uganda’s Rhino Athletics Club, in partnership with Sports Uganda and the Umoja Conservation Trust, is in the midst of a national tree planting campaign with an audacious goal: To plant 60 million trees in 2022 in honor of the 60th anniversary of the country’s independence from the British Empire.
GreenSportsBlog spoke about the campaign and more with Andrew Byekwaso, founding member of Rhino Athletics Club and now the UK-based CEO of SportsUganda Ltd., Noelle Chemtai Mutiso of Rhino Athletics Club— who had to climb a tree to join us because of balky wifi — and Bryan Toshi of Umoja.
GreenSportsBlog: Andrew, let’s start with you. Talk about your background and how you came to start Rhino Athletics Club.
Andrew Byekwaso: Well Lew, I was born and grew up in Uganda. I played many sports from as far back as I can remember…football, basketball, running. I loved it.
As I became an adult it was obvious to me that the sport in Uganda was on a negative trajectory…
GSB: Why do you think that was the case?
Andrew: That goes back to the time of the British rule here before independence in 1962. Of course, independence was necessary, but we’d seen some good things from British era, especially in terms of organization. After independence, over time things became disorganized in Uganda, including when it came to sport.
So, the idea of an athletics club that would be run the way it should be — with gender balance, with good coaching, with respect — was born in the 80s and the Rhino Athletics Club was formed and registered in the early 90s to change the trajectory of sport from negative to positive! Build a proper sporting infrastructure, with opportunity for all, including the elite athletes, of which there were and are many. Basketball was the main sport at first.
You know, we can moan about how bad things are or we can do something about that. We chose the latter. So, we built the club with chapters in Kampala, our capital and now spreading throughout the country, producing winning basketball players, some of whom got scholarships to play at U.S. and universities. One kid, Mandy Juruni, who joined Rhino at age 13 ultimately became head coach of Uganda’s national basketball team!
Andrew Byekwaso of Sports Uganda (Photo credit: Andrew Byekwaso)
GSB: That’s a great accomplishment. Why Rhino Athletics Club?
Andrew: Rhinos live very long lives and the club plans to be around for a very long time. It is also an endangered species, needs to be conserved and needs to have a habitable, stable climate in which to thrive. So too do humans, in Uganda and elsewhere.
This is why conservation and climate have long been core values for Rhino Athletics Club. They really stepped up, starting in 2018, with tree planting and cleanup initiatives. And I know you will talk with Noelle and Bryan about where things have gone from there.
GSB: I’m looking forward to that. You’re now in the London area and started SportsUganda. What brought you to the UK and what is SportsUganda?
Andrew: I left Uganda for the UK about 20 years ago to teach mathematics. The time was right for me, and new leadership was needed at Rhino Athletics Club.
As mentioned earlier, African nations for the most part didn’t have the same governance, accounting, and management standards as in the West. So, I launched SportsUganda in 2019 to provide a structured National Sports Development Program that increases sports participation in the country. One of our partners is Rhino Athletics Club and we are excited to help them make good on their contribution to the 60 million trees-planted commitment.
GSB: How will Sports Uganda help do that?
Andrew: First, we must note this fact:
Youth in Uganda are the youngest population in the world, with 77 percent of its population being under 30 years of age. Sport must play a role in positively developing the talents and drive of this incredible asset.
SportsUganda exists to drive Uganda into the competitive world of sports, games and recreation as a united and transformed sector. We aim to:
- Get as many Ugandan citizens regularly accessing sports, games and recreation activities as possible.
- Develop a transformed sports, games and recreation sector within the economy Create an integrated, efficient system of enablers who support efficient, effective, and profitable delivery of sports, games and recreation
- Use sports, games and recreation as a mechanism supporting government priorities.
We will do this by helping to frame a competitive and demographically representative sports, games and recreation program based on the following values: equal opportunity, fairness, just actions, equitable resource sharing, empowerment and affirmation.
GSB: To talk about how Sports Uganda and Rhino Athletics Club can positively impact the youth of Uganda, let’s bring in Noelle Chemtai Mutiso, Project Manager at the latter, who I understand has climbed a tree to be on the call because of wifi issues. How are you doing up there? And how did you get involved with this work?
Noelle Chemtai Mutiso: I am doing OK, thanks for asking! My apologies about the wifi. I’m from Kenya originally and always loved sports, football and running in particular. In fact, the name ‘Chemtai’ is from a tribe that is known to run for Kenya, the Kalenjin.
Anyway, I moved to Uganda in 2017 to take a certificate course in biblical theology. I volunteered with Word of Life, a Christian fellowship organization, in sports activities. My role was to lead 350 students from seven years old to university age through morning workouts and in team building exercises. Over the next couple of years, I added sports administration intern to my job description.
Then I met the Rhino Athletics team in September 2021 and joined at that time as projects administrator. Everything was shut down because of COVID. Unfortunately, the Ugandan government was not that concerned with reviving youth sport nor with addressing social issues that came up as a result of COVID 19 such as teenage pregnancy and poverty. For instance, young girls were getting impregnated at high rates and a Ugandan professional boxer had no money for rent or food. Rhino came in to fill these gaps.
Noelle Chemtai Mutiso of Rhino Athletic Club (Photo credit: Noelle Chemtai Mutiso)
GSB: How so?
Noelle: Rhino Athletics Club worked to help in both cases, providing a safe space for the vulnerable girls and sourcing financial support from some of our supporters to assist the boxer with his survival needs.
In addition, Rhino came up with the Satellite Primary School Program that created an entry hub for communities to address issues such as teenage pregnancy, poverty, and adolescent health issues. Through the hubs, sports brought kids together and it is through those avenues that the social issues were addressed.
It is very important to note that our cornerstones are UN Sustainable Development Goal #4 — Quality Education and SDG #13 — Climate Action! Both are of course of challenging, and those challenges are even tougher to meet since schools just re-opened after two years; sports are only now beginning again.
A young rugby player trains with Rhino Athletic Club (Photo credit: Rhino Athletic Club)
GSB: You have a lot on your plate! What is your role with Rhino?
Noelle: My role is to find funding for our six hubs throughout Uganda to make sure 100 kids per hub get the proper training each weekend. And these kids will play a leading role in the tree planting project. You should talk with Bryan Toshi of the Umoja Conservation Trust about that!
GSB: Will do, Noelle! In fact, we’ve got him on the line now! Bryan, how did you come to Umoja and the Rhino Athletics tree-planting project?
Bryan Toshi: Well Lew, I was born in nature in Uganda!
Did you know that 78 percent of our country was forest but that almost 70 percent of that forest cover has been lost since the early 1980’s due to unsustainable development and destruction? While we believe that development and nature must live together, the former has had the upper hand for too long. There has been massive clearing for plantation agriculture, destruction for oil refineries and an East African oil pipeline.
Bryan Toshi of Umoja (Photo credit: Bryan Toshi)
GSB: Yeah, I read about a new $3.5 billion pipeline project with the French fossil fuel giant Total Energies that was approved by the Ugandan parliament in January. Terms were kept secret but what is not hidden is that the pipeline will cut through high-biodiversity areas and displace thousands of people. People have been and continue to protest. I know it’s not easy, but more people need to be rallied to stand against this and other similar projects.
Bryan: The Umoja Conservation Trust is working to help! I’m a founding trustee. By the way, ‘umoja’ means togetherness in Swahili. The organization works to use the power of sports to build support for conservation among wide swaths of the population, as well as for social and economic transformation.
Ugandans protest the Total pipeline in January (Photo credit: Thomas Lewton/Mongabay)
GSB: Thinking and acting big; I love it! How are you going about delivering on them?
Bryan: We are a small entity with big ideas, Lew! And we have an incredible and diverse board of trustees to help turn those ideas into action. Most are PhDs in conservation. Many are women.
So, a big part of our agenda is to make conservation profitable for rural women. And to achieve that, ‘sports for conservation’ is an imperative that cannot wait.
Therefore, our goal for this year is big — 60 million trees planted in 2022, the 60th year since independence — and beyond that, our target is 100 million trees planted annually!
GSB: How do you and Rhino Athletics plan to get there? I mean, that’s a lot of trees!
Bryan: Funding is of course the biggest challenge. We were referred to the Microsoft Benevolent Fund and have approached MTN Telecom, Africa’s largest telecom provider, several Ugandan banks, and Shell Oil…
GSB: …What are your thoughts about having a fossil fuel company, the source of a huge share of greenhouse gas emissions, as a funder for the tree planting? Are you concerned about charges of greenwashing from other potential sponsors?
Bryan: It is a concern but is easy to be idealistic. There are several powerful sides to the issue besides greenwashing.
One is the perspective of grassroots beneficiaries. They are families that survive hand-to-mouth off the land, whose lives are upended every time it rains a fraction more or less than normal; for them, every intervention counts.
At Umoja Conservation trust, we work to positively impact the environment the lives that depend on it. We understand and respect the potential donors and supporters who may be put off by having their brand alongside a fossil fuel company. Others will see a different, bigger picture and will be OK with it. We do the best we can with what we have and work to make a positive difference in people’s lives and on the environment.
GSB: There certainly are many layers to the greenwashing issue — that could be a separate interview! Beyond the funders, who else will play big roles in the tree planting? And how will sports figure into it?
Bryan: We are rallying grassroots Ugandans from all over the country with TV, radio, and social media advertising. With sports, our partnership with Rhino Athletics Club (RAC) has resulted in a program in which every goal scored in football at all levels will result in two trees being planted in the area.
One example is the RAC Satellite Primary Schools Program of Mini Leagues at the Hubs. Funded by SportsUganda Ltd (UK) and diaspora RAC alumni, a model is being built at the hubs where up to 10 SME’s are identified and approached to fund the local events in terms of water, medical care, food, and transportation. Roofings Group Uganda Ltd, a housing construction company has pledged to support our tree planting with saplings from their nurseries.
We’re setting up nurseries with our planting seasons being March-April and August-September.
GSB: Will you have funding to plant this month?
Bryan: We still need funding but in addition to Roofings Uganda and SportsUganda, we are approaching many other companies in Uganda, but COVID has of course impacted these organizations’ ability to contribute. But we press on with the spirit of Umoja!
Photo at top: Ugandan forests like the Bugoma pictured above are under threat from development (Photo credit: Thomas Lewton/Mongabay)