What do the farmers grow that you have taught and CRESS has provided training and tools for ?
Initially CRESS teaches the farmers to grow vegetables organically and sustainably. These are mainly cabbage, onions, tomatoes, spinach and kale. We try to increase the variety of vegetable crops grown such as carrots for their high vitamin A content and others such as aubergine, red/green/chilli peppers, and beetroot. Training therefore involves how to cook the unfamiliar vegetables whilst retaining their nutrients. Increasing the variety of vegetables grown means that crop rotation is easier and more effective.
Training then involves the planting and management of fruit trees. A number of different fruit trees are distributed such as mango, orange and jackfruit but the most popular are pineapple and papaya as they mature within 18 months, which is more in the time reference for refugees. These are planted in and around the vegetable gardens and help protect them.
When do they harvest ?
There are two raining seasons in northern Uganda starting in May, which are the main rains, and in October, so vegetable harvesting takes place about 2-3 months after this. Therefore vegetables are usually harvested in July and December.
Harvesting vegetables from the group gardens is a real joyful occasion and the agriculture officers, Julious and Yunia, love to be there with the groups when this is happening. The groups come together for worship and discipleship as well as for work in the group gardens. With the agriculture officers there with them, the groups learn about good harvesting techniques such as chopping up and leaving all the nutrient rich harvesting residue on the vegetable beds to be mixed in with the soil for subsequent crops. They also learn about and discuss marketing options and ideas together with good methods of storage of the harvested crop, especially important for the more perishable varieties.
What difference does it make to their families the harvest ?
The twice yearly harvesting of vegetables makes all the difference in the world to the group members trained and their families. We can see the difference it makes to them by comparing our groups that were trained in the agriculture programme only 4 weeks ago to those that were trained 4 years ago! The regular reports from the field give us an idea of the difference it really makes.
It starts with relief and thankfulness with an improved diet so that they can start eating more vegetables and more regularly twice a day. This not only increases the variety of their diet, which as a refugee can become monotonous, it increases their and their families’ health with better nutrition.
About 3/4 of the harvest from group gardens and 1/4 from individual gardens is sold. This income, however small initially it may be, helps families enormously and is always used at this stage for school fees and vital medicines.
Once these immediate expenses are met group members then usually start building or renovating their houses, and start investing in their small businesses. Income from these businesses then supplements income from vegetable growing and gives a level of financial security.
It is here that their confidence seems to grow markedly, and their testimonies given during the regular group conferences they hold show this. This is not only confidence in their newly acquired skills and level they have achieved, but also having confidence in their future and in their ability to care for their families.
The vision of CRESS has always been to develop sustainable and self-sustaining communities and this is what we are seeing here. There is something else which is happening also. About a year ago UNHCR stopped altogether the food distribution to the camps. The refugees became entirely reliant on the food they could grow and harvest themselves. Reports and feedback from the field suggest though that our farmer groups and their families are responding well and not falling back into food insecurity. The skills they have developed from their agriculture and savings training has meant that they have managed to stay relatively food secure. This is quite an achievement, especially given the prevalence of food insecurity throughout East Africa. What this shows is that they are developing not only self-sufficiency but also a degree of resilience. Resilience means that, through their faith and skills, they are able to respond better and quicker to any future challenges they have, which as refugees in Africa they surely will. Having the resilience to respond to challenges will enable them always to bounce back and have the confidence in their future that they will be able to do this.
What are their biggest farming challenges?
Their biggest farming challenges are land availability and climate change.
The north-east of Uganda where the refugees stay is a high population density area with relatively low quality soils. The best soils are obviously used and settled by the Uganda host population. The soils that the refugees access are therefore of low quality and of limited amount. The refugees are given a small plot to use but are then left to liaise with the local communities to rent further plots which can be difficult.
One way round this is to help them to make better use of the land they can access, and this is what CRESS tries to do. This involves initially learning about organic and sustainable agriculture techniques such as composting and making organic fertilisers and organic pesticides. It also means we promote more intensive use of smaller areas with the use of agroforestry and soil and water conservation.
The other biggest farming challenge is of course climate change. This is brought about by local deforestation through the cutting of trees for woodfuel and building, but also through global influences as well. The effect of this is to produce more erratic and extreme weather such as drought and floods. We help here also with our agroforestry and soil and water conservation in order to ameliorate the effects of climate change and so ensure a level of climate-smart agriculture.
We believe though that, through their faith, skill and developed resilience the CRESS farmer groups and their families are now well prepared to meet these and future challenges.