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Growing New Roots: Horticulture and Forest Foods Create a Booming Marketplace for a Once Marginalized Community

The once marginalized Batwa in Uganda live in a self-designed, community that supports an adaptive, culturally integrated food system

Photo of Lauren Masey
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Development In Gardening (DIG)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

DIG will act as the lead organization with various stakeholders involved some of which include: local Batwa community leaders, United Organization for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU), Global Livingston Institute, Adventist Development and Relief Agency International (ADRA) and various local government ministries, including the Community Development Officers, and District Officials responsible for the wellbeing of their citizens. Additionally, DIG is currently an implementing partner of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Farmer Field Schools who will both amplify and advocate the model on an international scale.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Southwestern Uganda is home to over 54 dispersed Batwa communities. The total land area of the four districts that they live in is 3,680km^2

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

During a 2008 site visit to Uganda, DIG was introduced to the Batwa; their culture, their extreme landscape and the history of their traumatizing displacement from their forest home. Their story exemplified a growing global concern rooted in scarcity and a fear-based belief that conservation and humanity are adversarial. DIG wanted to challenge this construct and create a new paradigm protecting human dignity, indigenous knowledge and the environment. DIG was able to come alongside the Batwa in 2016 with a co-developed model to restore food sovereignty for this complicated and often exploited indigenous community. Our Team Lead built lasting relationships with the Batwa and neighboring tribes. She lived in the community for nearly three years working closely with stakeholders and local leaders. Her commitment to hiring Batwa staff and listening to and learning from the local voices helped DIG establish trust. This trust turned into a powerful long-term partnership. It has allowed us to better account for the impact of the Batwa’s broad and divisive stigmatization, the systems that have created their current situation, and the shifts needed to catalyze change. By co-designing DIG’s localized programs and mapping a path for holistic development, DIG is not only learning how our model can most affectively serve this unique community but we have seen the Batwa’s own agency and voice ignited. They are more equipped to deconstruct their fear of exploitation, abandonment, and abuse and are savvier in evaluating opportunities. Today, DIG’s work is fully endorsed by the local communities and is led by an all Ugandan staff. Our intimate relationship has allowed space to hear and observe ways in which individual and communal change can occur. We have seen that empowerment is first built by trust, then innovation. Innovation then leads to immeasurable transformation for both individuals and the larger community.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The beautiful yet tragic story of the Batwa begins deep in the equatorial rainforests of central Africa. Home to the last of the world’s mountain gorillas, these forests once sheltered and provided for both man and beast. The Batwa (formerly known as pygmies) of southwest Uganda were the first inhabitants of these forests with accounts of their presence being recorded as far back as 4,000 years ago. The Batwa once thrived as traditional hunters and gatherers where they sustainably co-habitated with the world around them. With encroaching farmland and poaching threatening the survival of the gorillas, pressure mounted from the international community to seize and protect the remaining forests. In the early 1990s the Batwa were forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation. Today, there are less than 6,200 Batwa left, with estimates as low as 3,463, making them less than 0.2% of the total Ugandan population. They are deeply marginalized and hold no representation in the Ugandan government. With a life expectancy of only 28 years old, it is questionable if this culturally endangered community will even survive. Due to their livelihood shift, from hunter-gathers to landless squatters, the Batwa have experienced tragic social outcomes. Stripped of their way of nourishing their families, the Batwa have slowly been resettled on marginal, low quality mountainsides, far away from road networks, rural community centers, and social services. Set aside from the rural informal economies and forbidden to enter the forest, the Batwa have little in their toolkits for economic and social survival. The Batwa now exist amongst the neighboring tribes, the Bakiga and the Bufumbria. Due to the cold climate and poor soils, the Bakiga have built their agrarian society on farming irish potatoes. Their potatoes are exported nationally; providing them with a consistent market but little incentive to diversify their crop production. This monoculture comes at a cost to the environment and the health of their community. The homogenized cultivation of potatoes requires intensive farming practices, which takes place on steep slopes and leaves soils bare and unstable. As intensity of the rains increase due to climate change, the threat of landslides becomes exacerbated, threatening harvests and human lives. As the Batwa have slowly and reluctantly adopted the livelihood activities of the neighboring tribes, they face a loss of culture, diet diversity, and sense of purpose. The challenge is to bring these communities together and establish a regenerative agriculture practice that celebrates cultural diversity and inclusion, promotes climate resilience, and bolsters health while also restoring the health and fertility of the soil and the environmental integrity of the region.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

In Uganda, technologies pushed at the national level, have encouraged homogenous growth to increase the quality of agriproducts and exports. While yields have increased, diverse food systems have been replaced with homogenized ones. Policy in Uganda currently supports out-grower schemes, large seed corporations, and the use of inorganic fertilizers. Smallholder farmers turn towards government programs to access inputs at low up-front costs. This has replaced supply-side inputs in the marketplace favoring fewer crops and more chemicals. Yet many subsistence farmers still struggle to make-ends-meet and access the inputs. In the name of market efficiency, policy changes favoring large agro-dealers have shuttered smaller companies. In the four districts, horticulture seeds are only reliably found in town centers and limited in variety and quality. While technology is sweeping across Africa, the Batwa and those at the bottom, are often left behind. Uganda has quickly transitioned from a traditional communication system with human-based local networks disseminating information, to a system where SMS communication is predominately used to inform farmers on inputs, technologies, and best practices. These wide-scale ICT initiatives typically disseminates information in-line with national policies, failing to account for variabilities or unique contexts. In 2050, we hope the Batwa access cell phones and web-based technology but envision technology needing to have a bottom up approach. The Batwa, Bakiga, and Bufumbria live in a mountainous region with colder climates. As populations increase and familial tracts of land are further divided amongst younger generations, communities face increased challenges to produce sufficient food on shrinking plots of land. Previously fallow land is put into annual production without time for regeneration. This intensive cultivation threatens sustainable land management practices, leading to landslides and poor-quality soils. It also increases the application of chemicals and hastens climate change. Government policies and corporate interests have diminished the demand for diverse crops and homogenized local diets. Growing staples like potatoes and cabbage for a fluctuating market, often means farmers rely on their unsold bounty to feed their families. This has shifted diets from healthily diverse to starchy, nutrient poor ones. For the Batwa, their cultural heritage was lost the moment they were evicted from the forest. Forced to adapt to a shockingly new landscape and unfamiliar livelihood, their banishment meant they could not pass down the traditions or life skills that once defined them. Traditions like hunting, foraging, and constructing forest dwellings also provided opportunities to share fables, stories, and family history with the next generation. Reconciling who the Batwa were with who they will become will be critical element for their future survival.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision aims to address the unique complexities and barriers to a self-sustaining food system for the culturally diverse Batwa, Bakiga and Bufumbria by working together towards solution building and mitigating obstacles for community-driven restorative solutions. By relying on biodiverse local seeds and food, the co-designed new food system celebrates the Batwa’s cultural heritage of self-sufficiency. Their bountiful gardens will be fully designed and owned by them, creating a demand for their restorative agricultural knowledge and harvested products reversing the stigmatization that currently threatens their ability to thrive. By emphasizing diverse horticulture crops, indigenous leafy vegetables, and forest foods the current homogenized food system will be revitalized. The unique agro-ecology of the mountains of Southwest Uganda will prove capable of growing a variety of vegetables to both enhance local diets and ensure food security. By 2050, the Batwa and their neighbors will supplement the diets of the entire nation. Likewise, they will maintain diverse seed banks and community seed sharing networks. In the forest, ecological balance was crucial to the Batwa’s survival and defining in their cultural identity. Our vision applies this core value to their new agricultural practices outside the forest. Those practices will regenerate the landscape, increase climate resiliency, and reduce greenhouse gasses by sequestering carbon in the soil and reforesting mountainsides. The Batwa will leverage existing technology to build a web-based seed marketplace to support the growing demand to access their seed banks and libraries. This marketplace, assessible through the phone, will match indigenous and resilient seeds vendors with buyers based on location and seed preference. The technology will propagate appropriate seeds and bring farmers together to exchange knowledge. At the point of sale, farmers can share best practices establishing a long-lasting vendor/customer relation that reinforce the Batwa’s value within the wider community. The new marketplace will create an economic incentive for improved road networks and other infrastructure development within the mountainous region. These road networks will enhance access to seeds and crops for farmers within the region and will increase distribution channels. Policy in Uganda is shaped by two pathways; one is driven by the government’s role to fill gaps left by short-sided market-based solutions, the other is to support and implement policy that piggybacks on recognized successes in the marketplace. Future policy around farming and national agro-systems will be shaped by the Batwa’s success in diversifying production, developing horticulture markets, and improving social outcomes. Using the Batwa as a case study, the government will advocate that staple crop out-grower schemes will be supplemented by horticulture programs.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Empowered Batwa farmers have created a new identity for their people elevating their voice within the broader society. By amplifying their core values of environmental stewardship, they have established a new system of restorative farming that has transformed the way agriculture is practiced throughout Southwest Uganda. With this transformation, nutritionally dense produce has become a highly valued product from the region, and together, the Batwa and their neighbors have developed a robust value-chain market that supplies the rest of the country. This emerging market gained the attention of the Ugandan government and has led to improved road networks and social institutions such as hospitals and schools. The new horticulture market is being used as a case study to re-analyze agricultural policies. In Southwestern Uganda, they’ve reduced homogenized out-grower schemes and have implemented a robust seed library system to provide affordable seed to farmers in need. A growing community is using SMS-based technology to increase input and market information sharing around horticulture crops. The Batwa and their neighbors are using a web-based application that acts as a seed marketplace, connecting unique seed vendors to buyers.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The Batwa’s new restorative food system evolved from their cultural identity as hunters and gatherers. While living in the forest, maintaining the delicate balance of the forest ecosystem was paramount. This stewardship and respect for the land will continue to define their cultural narrative and inform their biodiverse agrarian approach. Building on their historical knowledge of nutrient dense biologically diverse foods, and honoring their committed protection of the Earth’s natural resources, the Batwa have created a system in which culturally celebrated foods can thrive outside of their forest. They are growing foods like edible forest bamboo, leafy greens, and honey. Their growth and cultivation of these culturally significant crops has increased as has the intergenerational knowledge shared through storytelling. Batwa elders are able to impart their history, traditions, and fables during their time in their gardens. The younger generation values this expression of their culture and celebrates that culture with other ethnic groups in social gathering situations. The Batwa’s platform to share their culture and grow outside of the forest has restored social governance structures. They are proud to find ethnically similar life partners and elect community representatives. The Batwa representatives meet monthly to share, discuss and drive community development applying community governance skills from their farmer field schools. The Batwa’s success has pressured the Government of Uganda to honor their commitment to compensate the Batwa from the earlier eviction. Reparation promises of land have been replaced with reconstructed road networks and social institutions such as schools and clinics. The Batwa people and their culture is now fully recognized and celebrated in Uganda. This act has healed the Batwa and their relationship with the Government of Uganda, bringing long-lasting peace. Under five malnutrition and maternal and child mortality has ultimately decreased in the four districts because of improved diets. Having availability, access, and the knowledge to eat daily, balanced diets, the Batwa, Bakiga, and Bufumbria are the healthiest in the country. The Ministry of Health and health-related organizations are currently using the region as a case study to solve national nutrition-related diseases, such as malnutrition, obesity, and diabetes. Health workers from headquarters are interviewing farmers, families, and health workers to understand the linkages from food to wider health outcomes. The life expectancy for the Batwa has risen from 28 years to 68 years. In addition to improved diets, the Batwa are growing traditional herbs and medicinal plants that they once used in the forest and are practicing holistic modern herbal medicine, to supplement the health sector. Landscape-level restoration has been achieved in the mountainous region of southwestern Uganda. A fully transformed region was created by restoring individual parcels of land and creating a contiguous, resilient landscape. Heavy rains are absorbed into the landscape and provide yearlong growth. The cold climate also promotes yearlong growth of niche crops that can be exported for high value. Farmers use a mobile platform to predict upcoming rains and suggest planting dates based on sub-regions. Finally, the shift from inorganic fertilizers and pesticides has created healthy, microbe-dense soils that provide sufficient nutrients for crops. The Batwa, Bakiga, and Bufumbria have kickstarted a farmer driven, web-based knowledge sharing and seed sharing marketplace that extends to neighboring districts. The farmers are being contacted from farmers across the nation to provide advisory services in crop disease, nutrient deficiency, varietal selection based on environment, resiliency techniques and more. These farmer advisors receive a mobile money compensation for their services. Further, these farmer advisors advertise their unique seed varieties and can easily match with farmers seeking inputs. Customer-client exchanges have established long-lasting relationships where in-person advising, and exchange can occur. This region-wide web-based technology is currently in the process of scaling to other regions, and countries, bringing together farmers and supporting farmers to receive a fair and direct payment for their knowledge and products. This emerging marketplace for horticulture and indigenous crops has prompted major economic and policy shifts throughout Uganda. The regional economy in the four districts is booming due to their horticulture and indigenous inputs and product marketplace. Income levels of the average farmers household has risent by 200% and is being used to increase standards of living at the household level. Houses have evolved to have solar systems, household water saving systems, and multiple bedrooms. Economic increases are seen beyond the household level and have improved overall social institutions and gathering places because of the stimulation of disposable capital. Marketplaces that sell school supplies, clothes, household items have been built. The community continues to be the voice within the marketplace and because of their overwhelming contribution to the economy, middlemen and other predatory capitalists have been kept out of the region. Farmers and other community members safeguard their sustainable practices within the business industry, and no person is left behind. With stigmatization and poverty as a recent memory, the Batwa, Bakiga, and Bufumbria are actively managing a social service fund that provides philanthropy and services to those who are still working within the system. Those in need such as the elderly, people with disabilities, and orphans are being cared for by the community. The region has gained enormous attraction because of the positive social outcomes that have been driven from the bottom up. The region receives attention from the Government of Uganda and other international actors who are using the region as a case study for responsible, sustainable development. These collective stakeholders have developed policies within the agriculture and business sector to foster this bottom up development, recognizing the national budgetary benefits that these reduction in social service requirements has. The Government of Uganda is devising a strategic plan to integrate this grassroots designed food system that will reduce long-term health costs, agricultural subsidy programs, and other welfare costs.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Conference/event
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Attachments (2)


This slide deck gives a visual presentation of our vision.

Development In

This video gives an introduction to DIGs human-centered design approach to develop unique garden and food programs that enable vulnerable communities to thrive.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Cortney Ahern

Hi Lauren Masey  welcome to the Food System Vision Prize Community!

Thank you for submitting your vision for a culturally integrated food system for the Batwa in Uganda.

Make sure you have reviewed your final submission through the Pocket Guide to support you through the final hours of wrapping up your submission. This will give you the most important bullet points to keep in mind to successfully submit your Vision.
Here is the link to the pocket guide:
Look forward to seeing your submission finalised by 31st January, 5:00 pm EST.

Thank you!