Keep Your Distance! Village Folk Tell Donors

In a bid to cut down the syndrome of small scale subsistence farming, which is prevailing in Uganda and most African countries today, farmers in Busitema, Busia in Uganda have adopted in a block farming system, which is cheaper, more advanced and reliable. This method involves farmers coming together, in a joint effort to produce crops on a large scale for commercial purposes, under a structured management by the farmers themselves and a technical supervisor, with more expertise and experience in farming. Derived from the common saying that "unity is might,” the method was introduced by a group of farmers in the region to improve agricultural production at the grass roots.

In the method, large chunks of vacant land are identified or even hired, divided into blocks, sub-blocks and manageable plots in form of acres per individual. The farmers contribute an agreed amount of money depending on the price for hiring the land. The blocks are then allocated to particular villages for purposes of proper co-ordination. Different villages are also encouraged to participate on the same block but partitioned by sub blocks to show the various villages cultivating in the block. Amalgamation of different villages in the same block enables farmers to share ideas and compete effectively. These divisions are headed by block and sub-block leaders under the general farm manager, who is supervised by the chairman of the group management committee.

Ploughing is done using oxen or tractors, and costs are met jointly but at reduced amounts compared to when done individually. It costs an individual farmer well over Ugshs 20,000 to plough an acre, for example, yet a group of farmers contributes only about Ugshs 12,000 to complete the same task in the same measure of land Dates are set for planting seeds, weeding and spraying the crops. Each farmer is given a deadline whose failure to honour would brand him a non- performer consequently risking to lose his plots to others. The insecticides are bought jointly at reduced costs and farm managers, who are the technical people, take farmers through training sessions on crop protection right from planting, through to insecticide spraying and careful harvesting. When the cotton is ready for harvest, they identify the market and negotiate for high prices for the farmers in conjunction with the committee members. The cotton is then ginned, seeds collected and the clean cotton sold to different individuals.

Solidarity: A group of farmers spraying cotton in a block

Harvest: Farmers sorting cotton.

Hannington Ssegawa, who is currently managing the Busitema cotton block farm, says that the system is organised, well co-ordinated and highly suitable for the typical low resource African farmer, since the costs are met jointly and the yields are higher compared to subsistence individual farming. He particularly recommends the method for crops like cotton, which are delicate and require extra care and attention. For other crops that require relative management, he says the system works out even more effectively.

"I would like to see my countrymen adopt this type of farming in large scales to realise increased production and in turn acquire wealth. This method of farming can also reduce the issue of land disputes that come as a result of high population densities and struggles for small inherited pieces of land," he says.

Hannington asserts that in practice, the system brings about proper planning, which is suitable for decision making and time management. It encourages farmers to understand seasons well, compete effectively amidst themselves, acquire technical knowledge through field supervisors and carefully make effective emergency decisions in the advent of certain eventualities. With a combination of all these advantages, the farmers realise increased output and fetch good money given that the market is also organised.

Steven Egesa, a participant and beneficiary of Busitema Cotton Block agrees with Mr. Ssegawa. He says that since he joined this system, production from his share, which is about two acres of land, is increasing.

"Though at times the prices that the government sets are low, we have the power to jointly negotiate for better prices because at the end, if we have all agreed on certain price, there is no way a group member can decide otherwise, since we all speak jointly through the committee and farm manager. I have known the best time to plant cotton, the proper spacing, a variety of pest and diseases that disturb the crop, how to identify them, the best methods of controlling them, spraying techniques, what time and age to spray, when and how to weed, picking, sorting and bagging the crop. I can call myself an expert without fear. All that I need now is life and energy".

From Steven’s proceeds, he has acquired oxen hence reducing the cost of ploughing and quickening of cultivation. He is also in the process of putting up a brick walled house for his family.

“I believe in knowledge, hard work and solidarity. I am going to be a powerful farmer. With a combination of all these; I pay my children's school fees on time these days and am even rearing some goats, cows and chicken at home, which gives me additional income to cater for my family. As a group, we got a loan from the bank and constructed a large store, where we keep our produce before sale".

He notes that the system has instilled a lot of confidence in the farmers; they all strive towards increased production. Many try their best to avoid being out done because the lazy farmers, who do not measure up at the end of the day loose their plots to energetic and better players. The "shame" factor also works in favour of the system because many a farmer gets ashamed if he/she is having a pest infested garden and yet the neighbor’s plants are healthy and disease free. The system discourages laziness and emphasises hard work because all the members aim at meeting their personal demands and the group objectives. The production results usually have encouraged more farmers to troop to the group.

Hannington estimates total productions to a tune of over 1000Kgs of cotton seed in a sub-block with proper mobilisation, planning, hard work and sensitization of the participants at the initial stages. Marketing is usually done wholesomely and transparently because it's the most sensitive. Unsatisfied farmers discourage others if the process is not made clear to them. The management committee usually identifies the best buyers and bargains for good prices accordingly in co-ordination with the farm managers. This is done prior to harvesting hence the market situation is clearly made known to the farmers, preparing them for any fluctuations that may occur in the market.

In Arua district situated in north-western Uganda, this system of farming is seen as a means of generating income and consequently eradicating poverty. Many farmers are growing groundnuts, which is produced twice a year and has stable prices. For example, a kilogram goes at Ugshs 1,200. On average, an individual group farmer produces up to 14 bags every harvest. In Manibe County, a farmer group reaped over Ugshs 14million from the sale of groundnuts, while other groups managed well over Ugshs 10 million. In Kabarole, a group of farmers have taken to garlic farming as a potential money making venture. They produce over 18 tonnes of garlic every harvest and transport it in bulk for sale at the markets like St. Balikuddembe and Nakasero in Kampala, shop rite, garden city supermarkets and several embassies.

Despite all this, Mr.Ssegawa cites some challenges. The system requires proper checks and balances to be put in place. Introduction of new crops in the system require much time in enabling the farmers to understand the required agronomy for the crop. In certain cases, nepotism breeds among the leaders leading to the partition of plots among family members instead of villages. Family problems like divorce, sickness in homes, can lead to farmers absenting themselves without prior notice. This disrupts the entire process and brings activities to a temporal standstill.

He attributes some occasional drops in production to natural calamities but also emphasizes that the farmers' never loose hope. "This system is highly effective compared to many others for farmer empowerment, enterprise development and profitable farming,” he adds. Through this system, farmers in Busia are beginning to embrace farming as a business.

The groups are becoming bigger associations enabling farmers to produce and market crops in large amounts, mobilise more resources and access better services. This would otherwise have been expensive. African farmers should trust each other, join hands and cultivate their way into self sustainability, improved livelihoods and ultimate development.