Learning about Sustainable Agriculture in Rural Uganda

There are some benefits to being a part of the Kampala QES Scholars trio that is I, Rachel and Jeremy, one being automatically assumed a passenger in some really cool activities. Saturday these activities included standing on the Equator, visiting a colleague’s hometown and then stumbling upon a camp loaded with crocodiles.

Around 9 am we joined two colleagues from Food Right’s Alliance (FRA) and headed 70 km South on the Masaka-Kampala Road toward our first destination (the Equator). I spent the majority of the long, hot drive gazing at the lush green scenery; taking in the different smells of Sub-Saharan Africa that is moist soil and fresh vegetation interface. Nosed pressed against the window, I was in awe of my surroundings that appeared so different from home.

As we approached a small Subcountry called Buwama in Mpigi District, our colleague (we will call him “G”) pointed to the places where he spent his childhood.  He showed us where he went to primary and secondary school, and where his dad used to work as a teacher two retirements ago. Feeling nostalgic, I could only imagine the same excitement I would feel if I could tour him around my small village of Tatamagouche.

Finally, all but one hour later, we had reached the Equator. We stayed long enough to snap a few photos with a couple of monuments, stand on the yellow painted line stating “0 degrees latitude”, and to be amazed by three water conduits – a “scientific” representation of the north and south magnetic poles. Fascinating.

While that was pretty neat, the best part – although I didn’t know it yet – was about to come. Heading back North again, we took a long, bumpy dirt road toward G’s village. We passed many rural homes where mothers stood outside washing clothes and children played in the yard together. Shortly after, we approached G’s home: a beautiful house made from dried mud, bricks and cement. It was surrounded by lush gardens, fertile soil, and a clear-cut front lawn.

We were welcomed by G’s mother as if we were three of her own ten children. Not five minutes later she was proudly giving us a tour of her gardens and livestock facilities out back. After reading and studying so much about agriculture, the moment I was going to finally see sustainable farming first-hand in rural Uganda was better than Christmas.

Uganda is endowed with a warm climate, ample fertile land and regular rain fall, all of which provides some of the best environments for agriculture production in Sub-Saharan Africa. Given these ideal conditions, it is possible for G’s mother to plant a garden with trees bearing fruit, such as avocados, oranges, sweet bananas, mangoes, lemons, plantain (for traditional dishes like Matooke), and essentially all other fruits you wouldn’t see growing in my backyard in Canada. In addition to fresh fruit, we stumbled upon plants over plants of coffee beans, cassava, potatoes, yams, and other vegetables.

Reaching the perimeter of her garden, I noticed a mixed cropping system of legumes and maize.  Essentially mixed cropping is a type of agriculture that involves growing two or more crops simultaneously on the same area of land. This is not to be confused with crop rotation, which is planting different crops in the same field in different years to avoid wearing out your soil.

It was interesting to see this type of sophisticated farming method being used, passed down from generation to generation through indigenous knowledge and experience. The sustainable benefits of mixed cropping are many, including improved soil fertility, increased crop yields, and acts as an insurance against crop failure in abnormal weather conditions (climate change). In addition to increasing overall productivity, mixed cropping systems are commonly used to keep down weeds and unwanted pests.

In this case, legumes and maize (a main crop) were planted. The nitrogen fixed in the roots of the bean plants in the form of nitrates helps keep the soil fertile, which in turn, helps the farmers to produce more and more crops without the nitrogen being depleted from the soil. In essence, by planting one line of crop, then a line of another crop, both crops can grow better.

In North America we have a similar practise, however it would most likely be done with maize, beans and cucurbits (squash and pumpkin). In effect, the maize provides a stalk for the beans to climb on, the beans are nutrient-rich to offset that taken out by the maize, and the squash grows low to the ground to keep weeds down and water from evaporating from the soil in the heat.

Interestingly enough, the tour was not limited to vegetables and legumes, but also included a mini livestock operation that proved to be both practical and environmentally sustainable. Stables of ducks, sows and coups of chickens and hens all crowded the backyard. A beautiful German shepherd rested nearby in a shelter, serving as a security guard by night. One stall remained empty as a result of selling her cattle for cash the previous week.

Although she had sold her cattle, it was clear to me that it wouldn’t be long before they were replaced. The significance of the cows on her farm for sustainability was remarkable. Just one cow in Uganda can boost a family through sale of milk, consumption of milk at home, and cow dung as manure. In addition to manure, cow dung and other biological waster was converted into energy through a small-scale BioGas digester – in this case an airtight metal reservoir built in the ground – into which cow dung and organic waste is placed. BioGas technology, which converts biological waste into energy, is an excellent alternative for cooking fuel, especially in areas where wood and coal are scarce and expensive. The system appeared to be easy to make, operate and maintain and the by-product is a useful fertiliser for her garden.

From this I could see that G’s mother had almost everything she needed to produce our dinner that evening; grown and picked right from her very own garden. It was a solitary example of the “eat local” phenomena we see blooming all over Nova Scotia. A part from the rice – which was bought from the market – the main dishes of Matooke, beans, irish potatoes, beef stew, and cabbage had not travelled very far.

Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better day. It was a captivating experience to see first-hand all of the different ways natural resources can be optimised for sustainable production. From the solar roof tops and manure BioGas systems, to creating cloth from tree bark, it is unbelievable what people can do to create a sustainable livelihood for themselves.

Thoughtfully,

Shelby

PS – I would go on and tell you more about “Camp Crocs” but we weren’t there very long. Instead enjoy some photos of a 65 year old crocodile!

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