Mt. Rwenzori Marathon: UNDP Takes Crucial Step Towards Sustainable Development of Uganda's Tourism Sector

September 11, 2023

Ms. Elsie Attafuah, (center), capturing moments with a group of marathon participants just moments before the race begins

UNDP Uganda

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has over the last 50 years in Uganda spearheaded efforts to end poverty and inequality, improve livelihoods, tackle climate change and promote sustainable development by building key partnerships --- and with support from Government, Development Partners and Civil Society Organizations, UNDP in Uganda has created numerous opportunities for Uganda's growing youth population, promoted the conservation of the country’s natural resources, use of clean energy, and fostered digital innovation for socio-economic development.

Uganda, named the Pearl of Africa by the great Sir. Winston Churchill is a richly gifted nation with a diverse cultural heritage, biodiversity and an all-year-round conducive tropical climate that has made it one of the most sought-after destinations for tourists around the world.

 It is home to Africa’s big 5, the spectacular Rwenzori Mountains, the highest non-volcanic non-orogenic mountains in the world. Subsequently, Uganda’s tourism sector contributes 7.7% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) opening new opportunities for women and youth. For instance, before the COVID19 pandemic hit, the sector employed 589,300 people (3.6 % of the total employment). As such, the National Development Plan (NDPIII), Uganda’s current economic framework aspires to make the country one of the top five tourism destinations in Africa by 2025.

The Rwenzori mountain-range, sometimes referred to as the "Mountains of the Moon", spans an area of 996-sqkm and has been at the heart of Uganda’s tourism for decades. It is a host to 70 different mammal species, over 210 bird species including the Albertine Rift endemic and some of the world’s rarest plant species.

A race participant in action, with the majestic Rwenzori Mountain ranges providing a stunning view in the background

UNDP Uganda

Despite these statistics, tourism around the Rwenzori Mountains has fought to get back on its feet since the COVID19 pandemic, struggling to realize its inherent economic potential. Even more worrying are the effects of climate change on its snow-caped peaks.

 In such context, UNDP embarked on several initiatives in the past three years to enable the sector to bounce back and ensure it benefits the local communities who need it the most, while catering to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 13) for climate action and environmental friendliness. In 2021, UNDP joined the Government of Uganda on International Mountains Day under the theme “Sustainable Mountain Tourism” to support national efforts aimed at the recovery of the sector that had been critically hit by the COVID19 pandemic. The project sought to create jobs for the youth, women, and men and to rebuild resilient livelihoods through greener development pathways.

Ms. Lilly Ajarova (left) from the Uganda Tourism Board shares a light moment with Ms. Elsie Attafuah from UNDP while participating in the race in 2022

UNDP Uganda

In 2022, UNDP joined Uganda Wildlife Authority and other key partners in the first-ever Mt. Rwenzori Marathon, which, besides its health implications, was aimed at shining a spotlight on the potential that the ranges harbor for the sustainable development of the country and highlight the effects of climate change plaguing them. The exercise which took place on 03rd September 2022, attracted both professional and amateur runners keen to be a part of Uganda’s evolving tourism journey.

This year, UNDP extended its efforts once again as the second Mt. Rwenzori Marathon took place on 2nd September 2023. As with the previous run, the marathon consisted of a 42km full marathon, a 21km half marathon and a 5km family fun-run.

Highlighting the essence of the marathon, the UNDP Resident Representative, Elsie Attafuah noted the need for a climate friendly eco-system in the areas surrounding the Rwenzori Ranges.

 “Climate change is affecting the Rwenzori Mountains – a UNESCO World Heritage Site - in different ways. The most visible is the rapid loss of glaciers which have resulted in destructive floods coupled with a pattern of less frequent but heavier rainfall. We are convinced that through the Rwenzori Marathon, UNDP is creating awareness on the urgent need for decisive global scale climate action and conservation of Rwenzori Mountain ranges’ unique biodiversity," Attafuah said.

The marathon was also a way to scout out new talent in athletics and provide opportunities for the local population to improve their livelihoods.

To promote greater inclusivity, the race accommodated the participation of individuals with disabilities

UNDP Uganda

Attafuah stated that “As we work with you all to build forward better from these unprecedented crises, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development continues to be our compass in co-creating cutting-edge solutions to development challenges. We firmly believe that tourism - a labor-intensive sector with multiple links across the economic value chain - represents an opportunity to uplift local communities and stimulate socioeconomic growth. This marathon affords us a unique opportunity to broaden meaningful economic participation of the Rwenzori community in the tourism value chain; and thereby advance prosperity and drive inclusive and sustainable development.”

This year’s run attracted up to 2,000 local and international runners across 14 different nations, adding to the relentless efforts by the Organization to the United Nations SDGs.

UNDP runs several programmes across the country aimed at strengthening the resilience of local communities towards the negative effects of climate change. The UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab in conjunction with NEMA and KCCA in March this year engaged communities within informal settlements in Kampala suburbs to design low-cost resilient drainage systems to overcome the impact of floods on their livelihoods. In the last four years alone, UNDP has worked with the Government to restore some 38,941 hectares of degraded wetlands and rehabilitate 6,655 more. Together with the Ministry of Education and Sports, the Organization launched the Greening Schools project in October last year to increase tree-cover in schools and promote use of energy-efficient technologies.

Additionally, UNDP has bolstered the capacity of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to effectively undertake research, monitor conservation areas and prevent poaching of wild game. Through their support in Mount Moroto Central Forest Reserve, they have conserved biodiversity and protected wildlife through nature-based solutions in the Karamoja sub-region.

UNDP staff proudly display the medals they earned at the conclusion of the marathon

UNDP Uganda

On this note, Ms. Attafuah emphasized that Uganda possesses numerous attractive tourism destinations, including the mountains in the rift valley and yet their potential remains a largely unexploited resource.

"We have a shared responsibility to ensure that enormous potential is fully realized. As such, UNDP is complementing initiatives, co-creating and scaling-up nature and technology-based solutions, approaches and tools to accelerate efforts to overcome the disruptions occasioned by the incredibly challenging time of the day and broaden community participation in the tourism value chain whilst tackling biodiversity loss and climate change."

The Rwenzori Marathon therefore added to a streak of ongoing efforts by UNDP, Government of Uganda and their partners, serving as a step in the right direction on Uganda's path to sustainable development in tourism, in the week of September 4, UNDP will also be launching another recreational marathon in partnership with the Joshua Cheptegei Foundation and other key partners whose ideal is to shine a light and showcase the greatness of the Elgon region and how its resources can be preserved, conserved and reserved for the broader sustainable development of Uganda.