On a warm September morning, Jessica Otto, 62, was wandering in the backyard of the home she has lived in since she lost her husband, reminiscing on the good times and relief. She is aging gracefully.
Even in retirement, Otto is living her best life. She’s a woman about family. She’s a woman about business.
“I wanted to be free, enterprising and innovative,” she says when I ask why she decided to retire.
Lots of professionals dread leaving their chosen careers for fear of what their life would be like after the job security is gone - but not Otto.
During her illustrious career, Otto went on her work until fate struck when her husband passed on. Born on August 15, 1943, Otto is the first born of 11 children, most of whom she says are in the civil service, while the others are into private business.
Having attended Gulu Primary and Gulu High School, she went to Mulago School of Nursing and Midwifery, where she graduated as an enrolled nurse in 1964, before upgrading to nursing sister in 1972. She started work at Mulago, where she stayed for six months before literally working around Uganda. She was at one time in Gulu, Arua (where she got married to her late husband), Entebbe, Jinja, Bugiri and Kibimba Rice Scheme.
Her mentor, the headmistress of Gulu High School, wanted her to become a teacher for her vocal abilities yet her passion was nursing. “I chose what I loved instead of what others thought I could become. Many people can predict your future but you need to follow your heart if you are going to be happy,” she said.
But in 1992, she called it quits after 26 years following the death of her husband.
Although in retirement for 27 years now, she is showing us that a vibrant lifestyle is there for the living. Retirement, according to her, is not a death sentence. For Otto, it means continuing to live life to the fullest--one adventure after another. In a reflective tone, Otto said: “Life is so precious but everything changes in a blink of an eye.” After she lost her husband, Otto predicted a hard life of raising their seven children and imagined having to raise them on retirement benefits.
“There was no option but to retire from restricted life. If I had remained in civil service to earn a salary, I would still be broke,” she said.
Otto put to use the 10 acres of land her late husband, a former agronomist at the defunct Uganda Grain Milling Company in Jinja, had left at Pudyek village in Acoyo Parish, Koro Sub-county with a shell house.
But she did not have to start from there as this area was a no-go zone at the peak of the Joseph Kony insurgency although her journey begins with a single cow givento her under the Poverty Alleviation Programme on September 24, 1995.
“I opted not to send my children to the army but forge a life for them.” Alongside Margaret Odwar and five other women while huddled in a refugee camp in Gulu, they conceived an idea to form a dairy cooperative. This idea gave birth to Gulu Dairy Farmers Cooperative Society which has since grown to embrace more than 70 members. Otto said the women, as any other internally displaced persons, were desperate to feed their children. Initially, the cooperative had 56 members and one cow provided by Heifer International, a non-governmental organisation that fights to end hunger and poverty.
That was the humble beginning. They continued to add cows to their herd: first eight, then 20 more cows. Gulu Dairy then had a sufficient amount of milk to sell.
She was among the first beneficiaries to get a cow which she says has now produced 17 offspring. This was from the Poverty Alleviation Programme before National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) also added to her herd in 2017. But she maintains her herd at six cows as she sells off most calves. “I keep on selling because I make enough money from calves,” she says, one of the only two surviving founder members.
She currently produces about 50 litres of milk even though she is concerned with the quality of Friesians they are supplied. During the peak, she generates about Shs50,000 per day. She re-invests some of the money in a pine tree plantation but her greatest fulfilment is being able to attend dairy expos around the world as well as being able to send all her children to school. One of them, Solomon Aliker is the district veterinary officer of Gulu.
As an active member of the cooperative, they had a challenge of lack of proper methods for storing the milk. As a result, some of the milk got spoiled cutting into the dairy’s revenues. This is the time they partnered with the United States African Development Foundation (USADF) that helped them build a fully-fledged dairy business.
They opened a business arm producing yoghurt, Mummy’s Pride, and pasteurised milk which they used to sell to local businesses and universities. Otto is a happy woman who has installed a biogas facility at her home.
No to widow clubs
“I have never joined a widow organisation and never will,” Otto says. She says most support groups for widows are for social support but lack a real agenda for financial empowerment.
“I found solace in the cooperative society and there are no regrets because we get a lot of support.” Naads is one of their biggest supporters in terms of value addition to their milk and recently donated a 3,000-litre cooler to the group.
And at 72, Otto still dreams big. After visiting the Brookside Dairy in Ruiru, Kiambu County Kenya, she wants her legacy to be inked in the success story of their cooperative. “This was our dream but after visiting Brookside Dairies (the largest in East Africa), I want our cooperative to grow to such prominence,” she says adding that she cannot sell even a cup of milk to individual buyers at home unless the milk reaches the collecting centre where she currently earns Shs1,200 per litre.