Planting the seed

Okukuza Amagezi has been getting busy over the last few weeks with the projects moving along well. In this update, I’m going to write a few notes about the fruit and veg initiative that’s been bubbling away recently. Our brilliant team of volunteers have been working their socks off and have managed to interview around 70 local farmers one-on-one over the last couple of weeks, sussing out what they grow, when they harvest, what they used to grow, other useful info and working out possible opportunities for a fruit and veg cooperative for the community.

Handwritten English-Rukiga invitations beautifully put together by the team quite a few times now (!) were distributed via stretcher groups and amongst villages along southwest Bwindi’s borders. Basic posters were also dotted around relevant trading centres inviting farmers interested in this potential coop to meet and discuss with Big Beyond about what they farm. I think some volunteers could be missing Outlook Calendar mass meeting invitations – or not?! So we’re back to basics and old school communication has been quickly embraced.

This week was the first group meeting for Big Beyond volunteers and farmers to come together, share findings and discuss the next steps. Discussions were pretty heated at times and everyone demonstrated genuine motivation. They all seem extremely eager to get their hands on new seeds and work towards building a transparent organisation. Now ideally. We’ve had to encourage them to take this a little mpola mpola (slowly slowly) and not rush into everything until they’re sure about how much of each crop to aim for, how to extend the seasons with a solid planting plan amongst them and make sure expectations can be met. And that means they need have their model in place, clearly. As it’s planting season now we’re going to try and work with them as quickly as possible to move things on.

In the past a couple of veg coops have come and gone around here – according to the farmers in the meeting, that was mainly because someone had embezzled the cash, there wasn’t proper leadership in place or in some cases they were given seeds for free and then the organisation that handed out the seeds forgot to advise them where they could actually sell their produce, so they stopped. Usually there was very little planing behind them too about what’s needed. We definitely want to do things differently.

So where are we? Right now there’s no collaboration between the farmers in the area at all, very little diversification from cabbages, beans, sweet and irish potatoes, and the distribution system around the local area is highly disorganised.

The soils are fertile here, damaged slightly over the years (and that’s something they want to work on improving), but still good. The climate is excellent for agriculture with lots of rain and sunshine. It’s all small-scale farming as land ownership has become very fragmented over the years, and in terms of farming methods and produce, nothing much has changed between generations. People generally grow a limited range of produce to feed their families, and sometimes, a little extra to sell. There’s a small market once a week in the local town, a 10km walk for many people, and a lot of available produce is brought in from the faraway urban areas rather than locally which isn’t very efficient. The tourist lodges do the same. There’s a couple of basic shops offering a few items of fruit and veg on other days, also mainly sourced from the nearby towns.

It’s been very interesting this week because whilst we first started looking at the tourism market as the coop’s core opportunity, we’ve now realised a seriously glaring gap in the local market too! It looks like there are some great opportunities on the horizon for the farmers with a bit of organisation. That could potentially be really big.

The great news is, the farmers are not totally stuck in their ways anyway, they’re eager to pick up their hoes, want try new crops and improve their methods. Most seemed very aware about the need to improve the local supply of fruit and veg too and are sure there will be the demand. Some were aware that there could also be opportunities to sell to lodges. Ultimately they want to build on their skills to generate an income from farming and are keen to work together to make it happen. They’re not sure how to go about it, or it would have happened already, but they’re certainly super eager to find out. They’re confident they can grow new crops if given access to seeds and shown how, but have no idea about reaching markets or where to source seeds. And they want help in getting organised as a sustainable coop, business – or whatever the model will be.

We’re still busy researching the supply and demand to ensure a good match. We’re not working for the farmers, they’re also not working for us, but we’re planning on working with them on the same team. We’re not giving out seeds but are helping to source good quality varieties and are developing a non-profit seed bank for the farmers to purchase from. They’re keen for that. We aim to establish a profitable, transparent and sustainable organisation that can become a role model to others in the community.

The goal of this initiative is a little like the coffee one in some ways, to join the dots between small-scale farmers, generate enough volume of good quality produce and help create better distribution to the local and tourism markets. And crucially, build their capacity to run the whole thing by themselves.

The fruit and veg project is expected to run over four phases. Phase One to work with existing crops and design a bit of an innovative distribution plan – more to come on that. Phase Two is to plant fast growing crops in demand such as salads and herbs. Phase Three is to work on the slower growing crops, and Phase Four is to look towards value addition such as preservatives, dried food and other lovely produce to market.

At the end of the meeting we talked about one the fast growing crops that the lodges would be good buyers of and introduced the concept of the simple lettuce leaf! We planted some seeds together in the demo farm to finish off the meeting and planned another rendezvous for next week. Next week we’ll talk more about the local market, explain what farmers markets, organic food stalls and veg boxes look like at home and discuss their organisational model in more detail. In the meantime the volunteers are busy building and analysing the data, speaking to the lodges and getting their creative hats on for distribution ideas.

The design of the demonstration farm has evolved too so we can start experimenting with growing different fruits, vegetables, useful plants, and also teaching organic farming methods, sharing tricks to improve soil quality, identifying intercropping options, encouraging diversification and ultimately helping make real use of the favourable climate and existing culture for agriculturally based enterprises, whilst simultaneously boosting health through nutrition.

The farmers even made use of the tippy tap which was a nice subtle bit of sanitation education on the side for our health volunteers ; ) That’s also the aim of Okukuza Amagezi – we’re going to be integrating nutritional info, developing a clean and healthy demo kitchen in the coffee roasting area and dotting tippy taps around the site for handwashing. Our health volunteers are being stars too and achieving some really great things for the community so I’m looking forward to explaining what’s been going on with that really soon too. But for now I’ll leave you with the farming initiative update… exciting times.