Nuts about farming

We come across Byarindaba Robinah sitting in her field, hard at work harvesting ground nuts under the full glare of Uganda’s hottest midday sun. Her flowery sleeveless blouse is damp with perspiration and her skirt is rucked up under her on the dusty ground but her eyes are quick and intelligent.

“The rains have been very poor this year,” she tells me, tilting up a full-cheeked smile, as her hands continue busily stripping peanuts from the dry weeds. “In a good year, I can get 20 bags of ground nuts from this acre, but this year I think I will just get 3 or 4 bags.”

Each bag of nuts will net her around 100,000 Ugandan Shillings (US$53 or £33), although this year the pice is down, so she’ll just make around USh 80,000 per bag – losing more than 80% of her harvest is an expense Robinah can ill afford, and yet she smiles and shrugs her shoulders. “The rains are getting worse and more unpredictable every year – we don’t even have proper seasons anymore – but I will persevere with farming for as long as I can. It is a noble kind of work to make food for people,” she explains.

Robinah, 35, is new to farming. She and her husband used to work as teachers in Massindi, a town in the northwest of Uganda, but they found they couldn’t make enough money to support their four children through school. “Schoolteachers’ salaries are very low and the schools are terrible, so we wanted our children to be educated privately,” she says. The couple bought a 3-acre plot of land in Kyakamese village, about 20 kilometres outside Massindi, built a house and began farming. Nobody in Uganda is really ‘new’ to farming. In a country where more than 90% of the population is employed in agriculture, most people grow up tending a vegetable plot at least. Robinah’s parents were tenant farmers, working other peoples’ land, until they died – her mother of “stomach pains and sickness” before she was 40 (Robinah was 15); her father of a bicycle crash a year later – leaving her an impoverished orphan who had to quit school to work. Average life expectancy in Uganda is 51. After marriage, Robinah’s father-in-law (another farmer) supported her through teacher-training college and it was he who also helped the family out with loans to buy their plot, which cost USh 300,000 an acre.

The fields that she sits in should be more than enough to provide for the family – to put her children through boarding school in Massindi and pay the USh 20,000 per month childcare for the youngest, who is just 9 months old. “But the climate is changing,” she says. Rainy seasons that used to be predictable, allowing farmers to plant and harvest at well-defined times, are now so sporadic that no one knows whether the rains will last weeks or disappear in a couple of days – whether to plant at the first sign of rainfall or to wait and test its consistency, risking missing out on what little water there is. There is almost no irrigation in Uganda, or in East Africa in general.

She had been planting fields of bananas and maize, but this year she moved into more drought tolerant crops like cassava, sorghum and ground nuts. What about improving the yield with fertilizers? “I’ve never used fertilizers, they are just too expensive, but I may try next year,” she ventures. Labour is another difficulty – she has no oxen and so the field must be ploughed and harvested using hand-tools. “It’s hard to find any labourers to plough or help harvest, and they are very expensive,” she says. “And then animals come in and eat my crops or destroy them.”

Robinah buys her seeds from the local market for about USh 100 per cup, which comes to USh 10,000 per acre. She knows that she could buy better seeds from specialist shops, but there is a high incidence of fake-quality seeds on the market and anyway, good seeds cost too much – maize seeds, for example, are USh 20,000 per kilo, and she’d need at least 2 kg for an acre. In order to improve her yields, Robinah would have to spend money she doesn’t have on seeds, fertilizers and pest-control, in a gamble that relies on the increasingly unpredictable rains returning to reliability. Robinah is comparitively wealthy and she can’t afford it. Last week, Stanbic Bank Uganda, Alliance for Green Revolution and Kilimo Trust pledged a US$25 million fund for loans for small-scale farmers. I ask Robinah whether she would apply for such a loan and she shrugs in response: “It would be up to my husband.” Women are not allowed to own land or property in Uganda, even though studies show that they are responsible for 75% of the labour.

So is this better than teaching? “My children’s education is the most important thing. I need to give them the best education so they can look after themselves and they’re not dependent; so they don’t become thugs and thieves and they can help to develop our country,” she says. And what if they finish university and decide to become farmers like her? “That’s fine,” she smiles. “Farmers are the backbone of Uganda.”

But she admits that if she suffers too many more poor rains, she will be forced to abandon farming and seek employment elsewhere.

Robinah’s plot, like so many others across the region, would benefit enormously from an irrigation system. Unlike some other, very dry areas, which need some sort of water catchment or rainwater harvesting, she has a bountiful water table within a few feet of her plot. But, until a few months ago, even acquiring drinking water was a big problem.

She shows me a filthy, cloudy pond of fetid water, about 2 metres in diameter, which was used by animals and people alike for drinking and washing. Earlier this year, her village applied to the Busoga Trust for assistance in building a hand-dug well with a pump. The village comes up with the labour, the cost of the bricks, sand and hardcore; the Busoga Trust (a British NGO) supplies the pump, cement and technical help. That way, Busoga coordinator Ned Morgan explains, the villagers feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the pumps and they help to maintain and protect them from damage.

Within three weeks, their pump was operational. The skin rashes, diorrhea and stomach pains the community suffered from using filthy water disappeared within 2 weeks. Malaria incidence has plummeted because nobody uses the open pond to gather water and wash anymore.

Of course, providing potable water is something the Ugandan government should be doing, not an NGO. And in some areas it is installing handpumps, but the Chinese-made ones the government provides are easily dismantled and stolen for scrap metal by gangs. Unlike many other NGOs working in the country, the Busoga Trust is not duplicating efforts of other agencies and charities – it’s doing an impressive job that improves lives almost immediately. I visited four or five different villages with Ned, a lovely, earnest 26-year-old from Boston, whose fair complexion and freckles ill-prepare him for his long hours outdoors in rural Africa. In each village, the eay-to-blush Ned is welcomed as a kind of pump-delivering water-god. The villagers enthusiastically demonstrate the pumped water for me, which, testing shows, has no e.Coli, unlike the open sources that held hundreds or thousands of colonies per 100 mil of water. They ask for more pumps, and Ned explains that most villages are many kilometres across, so what makes easy collection for some villagers can involve hours of walking for others. But the waiting list of pump applications is more than 100 villages long. Robinah’s village is lucky.

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