Uganda at 50: The past and future through the eyes of its farmers

Tom Lawson

With Uganda recently celebrating 50 years of independence, Tom Lawson speaks to two of the country’s farmers about the progress made in rural gender equality and how the country’s agriculture can adapt to a changing climate

Since Uganda became independent in October 1962, after almost 100 years of British rule, Helen Kongai has lived through personal challenges of bereavement and poverty. She lost both her husband and son to illness in the same year, and in Ugandan society a widow must return her land to her in-laws. So despite being qualified in agriculture, Helen was left with nothing. Yet, she says, proudly, “I am as old as Uganda – 50 years.”

She has seen great changes in her country, not always for the better. After a military coup in 1971, Commander Idi Amin seized control of the country and ruled for eight years. An estimated 300,000 people lost their lives at the hands of his regime and the country’s economy was left in ruins. The country still faces government corruption and a civil war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, ongoing since 1988.

But there have also been signs of progress. Despite the global economic downturn, the Ugandan economy has grown an average of 6% annually and is now considered one of the most politically stable nations in Africa.

“Despite the global economic downturn, the Ugandan economy has grown an average of 6% annually and is now considered one of the most politically stable nations in Africa”

For Helen, things began to improve when she was approached by Send a Cow (SAC) in 1998. Now, like 80% of her fellow Ugandans, Helen works in agriculture. Although in decline, the sector still accounts for nearly a quarter of GDP and Uganda’s main exports are agricultural.

“I started farming after I met SAC,” says Helen. “They gave me a cow and I had the benefit from its milk, the benefit from its dung and its urine.” Helen now helps train some of SAC’s 104 Ugandan farmer groups.

SAC has run agricultural programmes in Africa for over 20 years, helping people to become more self-sufficient and resilient. It provides livestock, seeds, training and ongoing support, typically working with farmers for three to five years. SAC operates a ‘pass it on’ principle, encouraging families to pass on young livestock, seeds or training to others, to spread the benefit as widely as possible.

As well as training farmers in sustainable agriculture and organic farming methods, Helen also helps with SAC’s social programming, by running training with families on issues such as conflict resolution, health, and gender equality.

In Uganda, women tend to work longer hours than men, between 12 and 18 hours per day, compared to between 8 and 10 hours worked by men. Nine hours a day is spent on domestic tasks, such as preparing food and clothing, fetching water and firewood, and caring for the family. Most girls in poor rural families will drop out of school to help with domestic work or to get married.

Helen, however, claims to have seen progress with the grassroots work that she has been involved with. “Before SAC came in, women had no say in how the farm or monetary aspects of the family were run, they would only look after the home. The men only did things that could bring them money. Yet now, after the training, the women take part in deciding what crop is put where. They now discuss and say ‘Okay, what is our priority? How can we spend the money?’”

“Originally the women did not feel they could do anything. They all depended on the men, but now they are empowered – they have a voice”

The status of women has also been improved at a national level. In the late 1990s the government implemented a series of policies aimed at giving women a more equal position in society, including the 1997 National Gender Policy aimed at improving social, legal, political, economic and cultural conditions for women, and in 1999, the government recognised the link between the lack of women’s rights and poverty after the Uganda Participatory Poverty Assessment.

“In the beginning the men were a little sceptical, but they’re very helpful to women now,” says Helen. “They realised that once the roles are shared that the workload becomes lighter and they get things done faster. It may not be 50:50, but the whole family now shares the responsibility for many tasks.

“It’s been a gradual change for the better in these communities. Originally the women did not feel they could do anything. They all depended on the men, but now they are empowered – they have a voice.”

Looking to the future

Like Helen, Charles is a Ugandan farmer working with SAC. He focuses his efforts on future challenges, in particular, climate change.

“I got involved with SAC in 2005 and I got my first cow in 2006,” says Charles. “I was trained by SAC and now I train farmers in sustainable and organic farming.”

I call Charles at Riverford Organics in Devon, one of the many farms he has visited throughout the UK on a knowledge-exchange programme with British farmers, run and funded by SAC. He has visited the UK every year for the past three years, for one to five months at a time.

Though the climates of Uganda and the UK are very different – Uganda has extreme rainy and dry seasons, whereas the UK’s temperate climate is less variable – the farmers are noticing similarities in the changes they see.

“Climate change is making the seasons very unpredictable in Uganda,” says Charles. “Droughts are frequent, so farmers don’t know when to plant. This year, the rains were late, so they had to plant late. It also means increased pests and diseases, and smaller yields or crop failure.”

“In Uganda people do not use so many chemicals when they grow their own food. Chemicals are very dangerous to the soils and this is why we are trying to promote organic. It’s friendlier to nature”

Similar unpredictability is occurring in the UK, with 2012 beginning with drought but ending up as England’s second wettest year on record. “In the UK some farmers were affected by the rain because they got less vegetables, less yield. Some farmers failed to cut hay in time for their animals because of the weather, which affected the milk yields. In some places sweetcorn failed to come up entirely because of the unpredictable climate.”

As well as differences in climate, there are differences in farming techniques. “In Uganda you have small plots of land; we try to grow more different crops in each field. We also try to use crops which can help each other,” says Charles. “The other difference is the vegetables that are grown here are often not organic, whereas in Uganda people do not use so many chemicals when they grow their own food. Chemicals are very dangerous to the soils and they’re expensive, so people cannot afford them. This is why we are trying to promote organic. It’s friendlier to nature.”

Charles is working with UK farmers to share techniques (companion planting) and varieties that can be used in different and extreme conditions. “We are sharing information. I said they should go back and revise the plants that they are using. They used to have a lot of trees, which are no longer there now. I also think that the government should look into the use of chemicals in agriculture. Some people are just trying to make money instead of looking after the land and nature.”

Charles sees UK farms becoming more diverse, as they are in Uganda. “Some farms I visited in the UK were not very diverse when I first started coming – they only kept animals, but many are becoming more diverse now. Some have started vegetable gardens and are experimenting with planting different things.”

Equally, Charles notes that Uganda can learn from UK farming practices too. “When I go back to Uganda I will set up a demonstration farm using some of the practices I have learned in the UK – the different types of vegetables and the way the farm is organised.”

Although there are still many problems facing Uganda, it’s clear that it has come a long way in 50 years. And with people like Helen and Charles leading the way at grassroots level, the prospects for its citizens to create and maintain sustainable livelihoods for themselves are gradually looking brighter.

Photo title: Ugandan farmer Helen Kongai and her cow Charity

Photo credit: © Send a Cow

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