"Smallholder farmers are some of the poorest people in the world...
...Tragically, they are also those who often go hungry."
Despite the fertile soil, sufficient rainfall and a favourable climate, 37.7% of the population of Uganda lives below the poverty line of $1.25 a day, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
More than 70% of people in Uganda work in agriculture.
The country has more than three and a half million family farms, and many of its smallholder farmers are among the poorest people in the world. Ironically, and tragically, they are also the people who most often suffer from hunger.
More than 90% of the 570 million farms in the world are run by an individual or a family and depend mainly on family labour.
Family farms produce more than 80% of the world’s food in terms of value, which confirms the central importance of family farming to global food security both today and for future generations.
The vast majority of farms in the world are small or very small. Farms of less than two acres account for 84% of the total but control only 12% of all agricultural land.
Koppert, partner in Resilience Food Stories, supports a number of local aid organizations in Uganda through the Koppert Foundation. They are organizations that focus on training and the implementation of sustainable agroecology projects for farming families in the west of Uganda. The agroecological interventions made by the aid organizations are intended to help the most vulnerable. Thirty groups of farming families have so far been given practical training in sustainable organic farming techniques.
We left Kibale early in the morning for the long trip to Kamwenge, where we were to meet Allen Byamaka, director of COSIL, and Enock Ayenbale, its head of agricultural production. Together with a small staff, they run the COSIL project.
After hours of driving along dirt roads, the COSIL office took a bit of finding. There were no gleaming Toyota Landcruisers parked outside, and the building and its interior testified to frugal overheads.
Allen and Enock are both likeable men, driven by the impact that their interventions have on the lives of the farming families who participate in the project. Allen gave a presentation about the work of COSIL, its vision and its mission, and plans were made for us to visit several of the families. Enock, who studied agriculture and was a smallholder himself, told us about that experience.
COSIL develops and implements a sustainable teaching and agroecology project for farming families.
The project focuses on 750 farming families in the Kitagwenda district in the west of Uganda. Based on the concept of food sovereignty, agroecology goes further than simply the sustainable production of good food. It challenges the deliberate efforts on the part of the food industry and its proponents to concentrate all thought and action purely on the production of food. Agroecology will enable many smallholders farmers, most of whom are women, to lead a dignified life when conventional agricultural inputs (seeds, artificial fertilizer and chemicals) fail to meet the challenge of the effects of climate change, such as drought and floods. The use of agroecological practices will allow farmers to withstand such changes by growing crops from a variety of adapted, traditionally preserved seeds of small grains, a wide range of legumes and leafy vegetables.
“When I’d just got out of university, they were teaching us that if you want to improve agriculture, you can do so only by practicing the conventional methods, which were called the improved methods of farming.
‘But actually, when I tried to practice them on my farm, it was a mess. I ended up destroying much of my land. The soil was no longer productive, and I experienced hunger in my own home – even though I’d come out of university with a degree in agriculture. Really, it was so bad; a very bad experience.”
Before Dinavence started taking part in the project in January 2022, she was already growing various crops to feed her family. She used the conventional farming methods that are known euphemistically in Uganda as ‘the improved methods of farming’. She objected to the use of chemicals, and she had seen a large proportion of her harvest going to pay for all sorts of inputs: agrochemicals, artificial fertilizer and seeds.
Dinavence (61) is a widow who has a four-acre piece of land in Karubuguma in the west of Uganda. She is one of three and a half million Ugandan smallholder farmers, and one of the 750 who are participating in COSIL’s agroecology project.
She has become an important ambassador for the community and she enjoys showing and demonstrating her newly acquired knowledge.
The results are spectacular. On the small quarter-acre plot where she grows beans, she has seen yields increase from 50 kilos in previous years to 250 kilos this year.
Her daughter-in-law Pheamah Nantume, who grows vanilla and supports her, lives nearby.
It’s not really a pesticide at all but a kind of repellent that deters all kinds of insects that threaten the crops. It’s harmless for humans and plants, and even for the insects.
Insects stay away because it has a strong taste and smell that they find unpleasant.
The recipe is simple. You will need:
*Phytolacca leaves (pokeweed)
Chop all the ingredients fine and put them into a bucket of water. Let the mixture ferment for a week and then pass it through a sieve. Add soap and then leave to ferment for a further three weeks in a dry, dark place.
Use one part repellent to three parts water.
Contrary to a widespread perception, smallholders using sustainable farming methods can be extremely productive.
A large study found that when sustainable agriculture was adopted, average crop yields increased by 79%. Furthermore, sustainable systems were found to be more diversified, with yields often made up of more than a dozen crops and various animal products, thereby raising productivity per hectare. Higher yields mean increased household food security and higher household incomes, especially when money is saved by using less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.
COSIL encourages communities to address the problem of cooking on wood or charcoal (the three stone method), not just by planting trees but by supporting the building of energy-saving Lorena stoves. Over the past year, 700 Lorena stoves have been put in to use. This simple, cheap device saves 60% of the wood and prevents the emission of smoke and soot.
Wood is scarce, charcoal is expensive, and collecting wood is hard, time-consuming work. For lack of wood, dried manure is used as a fuel and sometimes valuable fruit trees are felled to make fires for the preparation of corn porridge. During the rainy season, access to firewood is harder still, and the preparation of meals for a family becomes an even greater challenge.
The meals of about one in three people worldwide (2.4 billion) are prepared on fires of wood or charcoal. It’s one of the world’s biggest sources of pollution. Wood fires emit as much CO2 globally as the world’s entire aviation and shipping sectors combined. Forty million people die prematurely from inhaling smoke and soot, and many fruit trees that provide food and incomes fall prey to fires lit to make corn porridge.
"Firewood was not readily available, because the boys in the village kept cutting down every significant tree they saw, to burn as logs or to make charcoal for survival."
"At one point, my grandchildren used to bring plastic bottles and we would use them as fuel."
“Smallholders are the key to feeding the world”
Nahoniwe Specioza (48) is a single woman who lives with her four daughters, her son and her granddaughter in the village of Karubuguma in the western region of Uganda. In front of her house she has a small piece of land, half an acre, enough to provide the seven people of the household with a varied and healthy diet.
On that half-acre she grows beans, maize, bananas, coffee and nuts, and on the vegetable plot various leafy vegetables.
She also has several pigs, which provide the land with manure and are great as ‘piggy banks’. Since 2021 she has participated in the COSIL project and seen the productivity of her land increase spectacularly. She realizes that even on a tiny piece of land a family can grow a variety of food sustainably to feed the household.
"After only one season of using organic fertilizer, my coffee production shifted from 10 bags of green coffee to 60 bags on 4 acres of the farm."
Imelda lives with her husband, three children (the third of whom is adopted) and two male staff in Kapapali Village, Nyakacwamba parish, in the west of Uganda, where she runs a small coffee plantation on six acres of land. She is patently responsible for running the business and has clearly expressed opinions. Imelda did not believe in organic farming and instead adhered to the ‘improved methods of farming’, which involved the use of a lot of chemical pesticides and herbicides, and artificial fertilizers.
The agronomists at COSIL managed to persuade her that with her ‘improved methods of farming’ she was affecting her neighbours’ harvests with chemical spray drift from her farm and short-changing herself. They got her to take part in the programme. In fact they convinced her that to become a leading farmer she must follow every step of the training in agroecological farming techniques.
In November 2021 she began to make the switch. Within just two seasons the results were spectacular. Encouraged by her increased yields, she is now the most important ambassador for the application of the agroecology programme in the community.
Winston Churchill once called Uganda ‘the pearl of Africa’, first of all because it was more compliant than other British colonies. But he was impressed above all by the beauty of the country.
It is difficult to believe that this land with its overwhelming beauty and abundant nature, fertile soil and favourable climate could be unable to feed its people.
It’s possible to point to many causes and reasons: a failing government, a troubled history, the patriarchy, but above all the dogmas of ‘improved methods of farming’ and the underhand practices of Big Agro.
Hilal Elver, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, is the most important advocate of agroecology at the United Nations. She speaks with the authority of her UN role, but also as a respected academic. She is research professor and co-director of the Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at the University of California.
The 2009 global food crisis signalled the need for a radical change in the global food system. New scientific research increasingly shows how agroecology offers far more environmentally sustainable methods that can still meet the rapidly growing demand for food.
Modern agriculture, which began in the 1950s, is extremely resource-dependent. It relies on fossil fuels and the application of artificial fertilizer. A shortage of resources, a growing population, the declining availability and accessibility of land, increasing water scarcity and the depletion of the soil are forcing us to think again about how we can best use our resources for future generations.
The Bazira family lives in Karubuguma, farming a four-acre piece of land. They grow coffee, beans, pumpkins, ground nuts, bananas, sweet potatoes, fruit trees, oranges, guava, mangoes and pawpaw, as well as keeping goats and pigs. The focus is on sustainable coffee growing as a source of household income, on saving water, agroforestry, successful coffee-growing practices, the integration of animals on the farm, and the use of organic manure and plant-based pesticides.
Agroecology is a traditional way of farming, using methods that are less resource-oriented and that work in harmony with society.
"Agroecology is more than just a science, it’s also a social movement for justice that recognizes and respects the right of communities of farmers to decide what they grow and how they grow it."
Quote: Professor Sergio Sauer, National Rapporteur for Human Rights in Land, Territory and Food
"Agroecology is related to the way you relate to land, to nature and to each other. It’s more than just organic production; it’s a sustainable livelihood."
Violet is proving what many studies have shown: with the right agricultural practices, people like the Mukandejje family can increase their yields and income enormously. Violet has seen her coffee harvest increase by 50%.
There is a geographical and distributional imbalance in who is consuming and producing. Global agricultural policy needs to adjust. ‘That entails recognizing women’s role in food production – from farmer to housewife, to working mother, women are the world’s major food providers. It also means recognizing smallholder farmers, who are both the most vulnerable and the most hungry.’
On a three-acre piece of land in Karubuguma, Precila grows coffee, beans, pumpkins, vegetables and bananas. The positive effect of the organic approach, which costs nothing has improved the productivity on the farm, and motivated her to continue along that path. She has seen an increase in coffee production from three to seven sacks from her one-acre coffee plot.
Source: Hilal Elver, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food
"Women face structural, cultural, legal, economic and ecological barriers in their fulfilment of the right to food."
If women farmers were to have the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20-30%, lifting 100-150 million people out of hunger. Women are the quiet drivers of change towards more sustainable production systems and a more varied and healthier diet.
Scientists described agroecology as “a well-grounded science, a set of time-tested agronomic practices and, when embedded in sound socio-political institutions, the most promising pathway for achieving sustainable food production.”
Quote: FAO former Director-General José Graziano da Silva
"Achieving gender equality and empowering women is not only the right thing to do but a critical ingredient in the fight against poverty, hunger and malnutrition."
In Uganda, as elsewhere, there is often talk of the absent husband and father. Women in Uganda have an average of 5.8 children, and as well as caring for their offspring they often have to look after their parents. Alongside all their household tasks, they grow, harvest and prepare the food, while a large part of the working day has to be reserved for the gathering of wood on which to cook the main meal.
The paradox of the big family is that if you have a large number of children, you will have more hands to help with the work on the land and with fetching water, or gathering firewood for the cooking stove, but with those hands come many mouths that need to be fed.
Emancipation and education are key to gender equality and food sovereignty. KAWODA’s mission is to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality by enhancing women’s capacities, so as to ensure human rights and health education for sustainable socio-economic development.
I photographed the poster ‘Strength of a Woman’ in Medius Nyabriongo’s office. Medius is the director and founder of the Kyenjojo Association of Woman Development Actors (KAWODA). The poster painfully illustrates the real situation of millions of women in the Ugandan countryside (and worldwide). Uganda has more than three and a half million family farms on which women do the majority of the work.
It was supposed to be a half-hour drive from our hotel to Mugisa and Angelica’s farm, but the last six kilometres run steeply uphill. It had rained hard in the night and Wilson, our guide and driver, struggled to get his four-wheel-drive car through the mud. It’s the road Mugisa and Angelica’s children use daily on their walk to school.
Not today, though. Mugisa had phoned the head of the school to ask if the children could stay home for a day, since a film crew from the Netherlands was coming to film their farm. The head naturally granted his request, so on our arrival the children were standing waiting for us, dressed in their best clothes.
Mugisa is a proud man, and he told us how he’d developed the plan for his farm with the help of KAWODA. Diversification is key to the agroecological transition, which aims to guarantee food security and nutrition and at the same time preserve, protect and improve natural resources. He explained the importance of a balanced diet, telling us what the family eats and how many meals they have each day.
Mugisa and Angelica Tadeo live with their six children on a family farm in the settlement of Murongando in the Kyenjojo district. They share the land with Mugisa’s father, who lives on the 12-acre stretch of land with six other family members, as well as his brother.
A day spent visiting this family is an extraordinary experience: no mobile phones, no radio, no computers to play games on, no TikTok, no YouTube, no washing machine to throw dirty washing into, no fridge to raid, no room to withdraw to at homework time.
Shelling beans, peeling bananas, picking coffee and gathering firewood are this family’s daily occupations, and every member participates, harmoniously.
A tree. Was this one already dead? If so it’s a great source of the wood needed for the fire to prepare the meal. Or has this tree fallen prey to the need for wood, at the expense of the fruit that was once plucked from it? It illustrates the huge problem of cooking on wood or charcoal.
The tree that produces food, or fuel for the preparation of food.
COSIL and KAWODA have installed hundreds of Lorena stoves. COSIL alone installed seven hundred of them in 2022. That merits a deep bow, and we take our hats off to it too, but when you think that in Uganda there are three and a half a million of these family farms, it’s clear there is still a long way to go.
It’s the big sister who feeds the youngest in the family a bite of fruit. Such a thing by no means went without saying in this family for a long time. Basic knowledge of healthy nutrition is lacking in many farming families, since elementary dietary knowledge is not commonplace. A mashed banana with a bit of mango can be an eye-opener.
Whereas the dried manure used quite often to serve as fuel for the stove, it is now the most important input for the crops. Whereas a large proportion of the paltry income from the harvest used to go on artificial fertilizer, agrochemicals and expensive hybrid seeds that had to be bought every year, the family’s newly acquired farming knowledge facilitates considerable savings on inputs as well as ensuring higher yields.
Mugisa and Angelica have a cow, a pig, a goat and a few chickens. The cow provides not just the calcium the family needs but a wonderful fertilizer for the crops in the form of manure.
Here in her kitchen, Angelica, just like the children, has put on her most attractive outfit for the occasion. They are proud to be able to tell and shows us what they have achieved, how their lives have improved, how they can now give their children a varied and healthy diet, and how their crops are more productive. Together they dream about the next phase of the project, the implementation of the Vision plan.
But the working days are still long and tough. They get up at five to prepare food for the children, who have to leave at six sharp to walk the six kilometres to school, along the road that our driver Wilson couldn’t manage with his four-wheel-drive.
Then Mugisa and Angelica begin their long day working on the land.
The Tadeo family
Before Mugisa and Angelica Tadeo started participating in the KAWODA programme, the farm was not organized in any way and there was no integration. The family could barely feed itself and the diet was monotonous and unhealthy. The few vegetables they produced were fed to the livestock.
There was not enough food for the family, even if they ate only one meal a day. The income from farming was insufficient, and the maize yield was steadily declining. At one point they harvested only 700 kilos from the acre of maize they grew, far from enough to sustain the family. A larger and larger proportion of the income from maize and other crops had to be spent on costly hybrid seeds, and on the increasing amounts of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizer they needed to apply.
Most of the family’s income went to the men. Despite doing the majority of the work, the women had almost no say.
In 2020 Angelica, Mugisa’s wife, was identified by the community as a potential leading farmer and community facilitator. She discussed the proposition with her husband, who was enthusiastic, as were all the other people living on the family farm. The switch to agroecology was gradual, relying on learning by experience and the demonstration of best practices.
Our visit has made a great impression on us. First of all because of the loving way that the family lives simply, in harmony with themselves and the environment, enjoying life and looking after one another. We’re also impressed by how agroecology has proven to be the most important means of escaping poverty.
So we end this story with a call to arms by Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.
"Food policies which do not address the root causes of world hunger would be bound to fail."
Modern industrial farming methods can no longer feed the world, because of the overlapping environmental and ecological crises connected to the availability of land, water and resources.
UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization fao.org
Kyenjojo Association of Women Development Actors (KAWODA)
Community Sustainable Initiatives Link (COSIL)
In 2014 Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, called on governments to switch subsidies, research and finance from agro-industrial monoculture to small farmers, with the help of agroecological methods. A billion people worldwide are suffering from hunger. Elver appeals to governments to support the transition to a ‘farming democracy’ that will make small farmers in rural areas stronger.
Only small farmers and agroecology can feed the world
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