Patrick Opwonya sat in the eye clinic at Gulu Regional Referral Hospital with the thought of blindness lingering in his mind.
He wanted the doctor to say an improvement had been registered after agreeing to a surgical procedure on one eye to treat the glaucoma affecting his eye.
However, when he learnt that nothing had changed, he declined an operation on the second eye.
Opwonya had seen day and night for 33 years. He had built a life filled with action in town. For six-and-a half years he had provided services to a number of organisations including American Refugee Committee.
There he was, keenly aware of the difficulties that loss of sight would present.
He felt abandoned by those he had called friends.
“It is hard to accept to be born with clear sight and then you abruptly become blind. I was about to commit suicide because I did not know where to start from. How would I look after my family?” he wondered.
He decided to resign and start a different life in Lagum village, Omoro District, about 40 kilometres out of Gulu town.
“I stepped aside because security guarding needs your eyes to be fine,” Opwonya says, “I started to follow up my benefits with National Social Security Fund (NSSF) in 2012. That is when I could not do any work such as writing any report.”
His programme officer let him have a letter to present at the Fund’s branch in Gulu and his doctor provided support documents.
Then, the NSSF doctor examined and confirmed Opwonya’s ailments. As he waited at home, he doubted he would receive the money but the story turned different.
“I was very happy when they said the money was there in my account. It is true that the Fund is making our lives better,” he remembers thinking.
Opwonya received Shs2.94m as invalidity benefits and chose to share the news with his wife. Together, they decided to buy two oxen, an ox plough and a cow. There was still more they could do with the Shs1.3m balance on his account so they ventured into bee keeping in 2013.
“I chose bee keeping because it is not time consuming. It requires a small piece of land. Once the hives are set, you only check regularly for pests and bee numbers. I am blind now so in a day I can check two times, I would not manage another business,” he says.
Six years later, Opwonya smiles through his tears. His eight children can now access basic services such as medical treatment and education. The bee hives are a source of food. There is income from honey and propolis, a raw material for products such as shoe polish.
He even believes he harvests more crop from the surrounding gardens, thanks to the pollinators.
“I got Shs1.8m in the last season, out of selling honey and propolis,” he says.
A good season brings him between 120 and 200 kilogrammes of honey and yield better without insects, bats and rats.
Another obstacle to his higher profit is most people want to buy his products cheaply.
“Getting the market is a problem, I cannot get someone who I can supply whenever the honey is ready. My wife packages the honey and sells it in the market,” he says, “a kilogramme of propolis costs Shs20,000. The honey costs between Shs5000 and Shs25,000.”
At 40 years and still blind, Opwonya employs four caretakers on two different farms that shelter 36 and 44 bee hives respectively.
Tilling the ground for food will forever be his wife’s life now that she has oxen.
He plans to be a lead bee farmer in northern Uganda by operating at least 1,000 hives and believes that NSSF Friends with Benefits contest he is participating in is part of how he will get there.
If he wins the Shs30m cash prize, he will immediately expand his farm and explore value addition.
“The machine for picking bee venom costs over Shs700,000. I am not in position to have a candle making machine or one to process the propolis but I will have them in future when I get more capital,” Opwonya says.
Pay out:According to the current data from NSSF, there has been a 29 per cent increase in the amount of money paid in benefits to qualifying members from Shs278b in 2017 to Shs360b in 2018. The number of beneficiaries also increased from 19,027 to 23,665.
Focus areas of submitted stories: The stories submitted touched most of the benefits the Fund offers which include age benefit given to a member who has reached 55 years, survivors benefit, withdrawal benefit, invalidity benefit, exempted employment paid to members that join employment categories that are exempted from NSSF contributions and emigration grant paid to a contributing member who has been working in Uganda and is leaving the country permanently.
About “Friends with benefits”
Encouraging the savings culture: The NSSF “Friends with benefits” campaign, now in its third year, is a TV show designed to encourage a savings culture in Uganda as well as impart financial literacy among savers, by showcasing stories of NSSF beneficiaries who received their savings and did something life-changing.
The show profiles former NSSF members who received and invested or used their NSSF benefits to improve their lives, those of their families and even the communities they live in.