Pulses can upgrade food systems in Northern Uganda, with unique benefits of peace and prosperity, healthy diets and healthy soils
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
In my previous function as business development manager for the N2Africa project (www.N2Africa.org) in Uganda, I worked extensively with a number of women’s farmer groups on expanding the cultivation of pulses. The results were promising and showed enormous potential for increasing the cultivation of pulse crops – namely beans, soybeans and groundnut. Major bottlenecks were availability and access to the inputs needed to increase production (basically, improved seed, rhizobial inoculants and small amounts of fertilizer) as well as knowledge and information on production, markets and other business development services like credit and crop insurance. I now continue my work as a PhD student registered at Wageningen University, conducting field research in Northern Uganda to connect food systems thinking with local needs and opportunities.
I work together with a local ICT provider M-Omulimisa and a group of village-based agents to facilitate access to information and link farmers to input and output markets. M-Omulimisa is an ICT company using a web-based mobile phone platform that provides a virtual space between farmers and an extension officer to provide knowledge and agricultural information as well as facilitate access to inputs, outputs and other related services. The piloted mobile-enabled Village Agent Model uses farmer networks, partnerships and a network of village agents to provide a bundle of agriculture-related services, including facilitating access to inputs and output markets.
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 Apac and Oyam are closely linked to Lira, an emerging city, through flows of knowledge, food, agricultural inputs and products. Lira is a major market for pulses which are processed, sold locally and shipped on to Kampala and into Kenya
Members of a women's soyabean cooperative in Oyam, northern Uganda
Connetie in the field with her team and farmers
The Apac and Oyam districts are located in the Lango sub region, Northern Uganda, an impoverished part of the country. These districts are neighboring the Lira town, the rapidly expanding business hub for the region which has historically faced the consequences of violence and conflicts within and across its borders, previously due to the Lord’s Resistance Army and more recently from a massive influx of refugees from southern Sudan. The populations of both districts combined amount to slightly more than 700,000 people. Most of these are youngsters, adolescents and young adults (<30 years) living in urban areas or any of the hundreds of villages scattered over the sub-region. Most of the people have a religious faith, primarily Christians and Muslims. Subsistence, rainfed agriculture and animal husbandry are the main economic activities and commonly grown crops include millet, sorghum, cassava, rice, sesame and pulses (beans, groundnuts and peas). Only 2% of the farmers fall into what are described as commercial farmers who are highly mechanised (for example, using tractors, ploughs etc.) and with access to national and international markets for their produce. Medium-scale farmers with 5-15 acres of land often cannot afford machinery but instead use oxen power for land cultivation. They proactively participate in projects and crop demonstration trials, and can afford to buy improved seeds and apply new management practices. The third category of farmers are the small-scale farmers who represent about 75% of the total farming population and own land of less than 5 acres. They commonly use hand hoes for land preparation and weed by hand. On a general note, across the region there are low levels of literacy, limited access to improved production inputs as well as poor road networks that hamper access to markets. However, a number of recent initiatives have seen many farmers now belonging to a group or cooperative, eager to use new production technologies and inputs if made available to them.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Africa’s population is growing rapidly and will double to 2.5 billion by 2050. Population growth rates are extremely high in Uganda which has the lowest median age (15.2 years) of all African countries. Farmers face limited access to education and information resources, as well as technical inputs (seeds, inoculants, fertilizers). Farmers often achieve only 10-20% of the potential yield of their crops. To improve production, farmers need access to quality seeds of nutritious crops (particularly pulses) and other inputs, including rhizobial inoculants. Access to information, moreover, is crucial for farmers to achieve better prices for their harvest. In addition to food, nutrition security is another key issue. The challenges facing African food systems require not only increased agricultural productivity but also an overturn of the production system to ensure food security for the burgeoning population through sustainable agricultural mechanisms.
The rise of urbanisation is putting pressure on marginalised smallholder farmer communities, necessitating ’smart’ solutions to cope with growing scarcity of labour force and decreased interest amongst the youth in taking on farming as a profession. Unless technology can provide farmers with resilient crops, the means to ensure yields, quality, safety and income, and ways to make farming an attractive business for the younger generations, climate change will put further pressure on the agricultural system, with consequences for the viability of livestock husbandry and crop cultivation.
Agricultural productivity in Apac and Oyam remains far below its potential, with inputs being used scarcely and with limited capacity. While farm land is expanding, soil degradation is widespread. Farming remains largely a subsistence activity for hundreds of millions of farmers. Low wages and poor livelihoods continue because the mechanised or digital technologies that would boost productivity are rarely applied. They lack awareness of the technologies that have emerged from research and are poorly connected with markets. Food purchased on the market is rapidly replacing the consumption of meals made by the household, with key gaps in the consumer diet compared to recommendations for a healthy diet such as meat and eggs. While food markets work increasingly well for consumers in rural areas, most smallholder farmers remain poorly connected to farm inputs, value chains and markets. A novel route for investment in local integrated food systems is proposed to address this challenge.
In a setting of weak rural-urban linkages as described above, the rise in food demand that comes with expanding urban income and purchasing power does not naturally deliver opportunities for rural development and improved livelihoods from farming. Africa’s cities have been increasingly integrated with world markets through corridors linked with sea harbours. Food import bills are growing rapidly for food, feed and agricultural inputs.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
A central focus is to diversify the farming systems from reliance on staple grain crops such as maize and sorghum to grow nutritious pulse crops – beans, soybean and groundnut. Pulses provide the opportunity as both cash crops for income and, as pulses with favourable protein profiles, to serve as nutritious crops. The pulse crops are attractive because they have inherent features of regenerative agriculture due to their capacity to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. This is achieved through the symbiosis of soybean and other pulses with soil bacteria – rhizobia – which reduces the need for N fertilizer in the cropping system. The rhizobia are introduced on the seed in a coating of inoculant which is a cheap, locally produced biological product. This is a technology that is readily adopted by farmers who often refer to the inoculant as a ‘magic black powder’. Environmental sustainability is thus guaranteed given that deforestation will not be an issue in the semi-arid and arid cropping areas, but enhanced production will be in existing farmland.
As it is crucial to ensure these ICT technologies reach smallholder farmers, we will assess farmers’ understanding and help to adapt the tools to address the farmers’ needs. This method ensures that educational measures are continuously improved and is geared towards ’nudging’ the farmers into adoption of ICT technology by understanding what factors are decisive to win them over. In addition, ICT technologies themselves can also be exploited to raise the likelihood of farmers being aware of other agro-technological innovations (e.g. improved legume seeds) and market developments.
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.
The Pulse of Africa is a vision for sowing and reaping with the people of Apac and Oyam
- The pulse crops soyabean, groundnut and cowpea are promoted in the cropping system by community-level activity of women in Apac and Oyam. Pulses bring diversity in the fields and fuel entrepreneurship among smallholder farmers.
- A platform of ICT services delivers much-needed access to information, on everything needed by farmers, from farm inputs, farm management practices, weather forecasts, and market prices.
- Access to affordable farm inputs such as seeds and inoculants, better use of inputs and better management boost growth of the pulses and increase yields.
- Better growth of the pulses is fuelled by increased fixation of nitrogen from the air, leading to fertile soils and boosting yields of other crops. Reliance on nitrogen fixation mitigates global warming, keeps soils healthy and fertile with reduced dependence on mineral fertilizer.
- People in Apac and Oyam secure a “living income” through a reliable and abundant yield of pulses which boost development of local value chains and create employment on-farm and off-farm.
- Value chains thrive, propelled by the ICT platforms which foster efficient brokering between farmers and market buyers. Quality pulses meet specifications of feed and food producers. Imports are reduced.
- The eating cultures of rural and city dwellers change to a healthy and sustainable diet based on pulses which are protective foods. Healthy people are more resilient and productive. As pulse cultivation is primarily a women’s activity this generates income and employment.
- Pulses feed an urbanizing Africa. Our vision is located close to the city of Lira, now 100,000 people, which grows rapidly in population and prosperity. Modernised agriculture with high-quality technology creates more employment and less out-migration.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
By 2050, only 30 cropping seasons from today, agriculture and food systems in the Apac and Oyam districts will be on a fundamentally different footing, fostering peace and prosperity in the Lango subregion (13759 km2) which has by then transformed into a densely populated garden town. I envision that widespread introduction of pulse crops and access to technological information and other services to farmers via mobile phones will become a major driver of change. In the 2020s, together with the Ugandan ICT company called M-Omulimisa we will have developed a service-based ICT platform in enhancing technology adoption among smallholders by disseminating and delivering information on technologies, markets (inputs and outputs), credit, insurance and others via mobile phones. Because of this, farmers will readily adopt new technologies and improve their production of nutritious food for both the rural and urban population. We focus in two districts but the impacts of our work will extend more broadly to impact the whole of Lango subregion with a rapidly-growng population from 2.5 million inhabitants today.
Technologies - The Pulses and the Platform as game-changers
Pulses are nitrogen-fixing legume crops such as soyabean, groundnut and cowpea. These crops are present in the current system of Apac/Oyam but are relatively unproductive and cover a small area as the old varieties used are susceptible to pests and diseases and a grown on infertile soils.
The M-Omulimisa hybrid is an adapted model from the existing extension-based platform to include bundled services. These bundled services include access to seeds and other inputs through a network of Village Based Agents (VBAs) who are young entrepreneurial men and women who provide services in their own villages. These on-ground, local support services have played an important role in disseminating the new techniques. The use of local languages, moreover, makes the platform highly compatible with Uganda’s heterogeneous lingual landscape in a country with over 56 indigenous languages.
- Information on technologies that the farmers can use, such as the newest quality-certified seeds of legumes, which are provided in collaboration with local seed companies, as well as inoculants and other inputs where needed such as fertilizers and plant protection.
- Weather and other satellite information. This is an important feature, not only for the rain forecast for the rain-fed agriculture widely practiced in Apac and Oyam, but also to monitor for unwanted pest & pathogen infestations in the crops, which can eventually result in mycotoxin formation, for example.
- Information on how to tap into markets that are willing to pay the farmers high prices for their goods.
- Credit and insurance services are arranged through local providers.
- A link to urban markets to provide nutritious locally produced foods, that are protective for the consumer and that stem from healthy soils and inclusive farming systems.
Impact on the Places of Apac and Oyam
The local environment
• Expanded production of productive pulses will restore and regenerate degraded soils
• The regenerative rotation schemes and agricultural systems align with market opportunities with soil conservation and agroecology
• Enhanced biodiversity within croplands together with increased productivity reduces pressure on expansion of cultivation into sensitive areas such as wetlands, preserving natural biodiversity.
The local economy
•As soyabean, groundnut and other pulses are versatile and valuable sources of protein and micronutrients, smart production forms the basis for market returns in outlets for food and feed.
•Doubling smallholder productivity is the starting point for gradual evolution of the typical low-input family farm structure into outgrower schemes and other contract arrangements
• Farming with a living income in farm households, and agri-service jobs provide off-farm work, sustain livelihoods in the Longa subdistrict reduce the push for labor migration to Kampala and other metros.
• New markets: Whilst the primary focus of the vision is on the improvement of local conditions for African smallholders through ICT and agricultural technologies, enhancement of the African production system in terms of quantity and quality also opens a window for trade and other exchange with foreign partners.
• We envision that protein-rich African pulses and legumes will actually provide emerging markets in Asia, for example, but also in Europe. Europe increasingly suffers from a ’protein deficit’ for its livestock and many Western countries are looking for protein alternatives to replace meat, dairy, eggs and fish products, contributing to ethically and environmentally responsible alternatives in these markets as well.
•Organising successful pulses production through the “smart innovation hubs” will be a vehicle for raising resources, trust and collaboration between farmers and other actors in the food system
•A doubling of crop yield curbs the need for expanding land to meet rising food demand and ensures that the expansion of Lira and Apac and Oyam settlement areas does not compromise food security
•Stronger policy coordination between the governors of the fast-expanding town of Lira and its neighboring agricultural production centres is governing food systems in a context of polycentricity
•By becoming part of African networks for food policy coordination in cities, Lira or the subdistrict learn from experiences in other cities and are able to innovate with maximum chance of success.
Impact on the People of Apac and Oyam
Diets and local food and nutrition security
•Pulses provide the basis for adding affordable yet healthy food options for the people of Apac and Oyam as well as the urbanized consumers in Lira and surroundings, raising the platform to curb the prevalence of malnutrition in all its forms in the Lango subregion
•Processing beans and other legume crops into consumer products and organizing value chains for healthier food choices (e.g. school canteens) supports health benefits and local value creation
•As prosperity rises, health and education services for the community are ramped up, giving further impetus to greatly improved public health in African rural and urban communities.
Gender balances and local (food) culture
•Gender-balancing the new opportunities in food and agriculture through women entrepreneurship
•Modernizing the rapidly urbanizing food cultures in and around Lira town with novel products adapted to local preferences, while pushing back against traditional choices becoming obsolete
Our common vision
In conclusion, The Pulse of Africa is developed on an existing technological and agricultural innovation, currently sown. It is envisioned to have, through virtuous cycles of reaping and sowing again with the people of Apac and Oyam districts, the power to fundamentally change the place and the livelihoods of the people. As a matter of fact, food systems and livelihoods in Apac and Oyam will anyway change dramatically over the coming decades under the influence of changes in the politics, demographics, the environment, culture and the economy. The Pulse of Africa is there to guide this process of change, and steer it to the benefit of the people.