Cambridgshire-based journalist Liz Wright talks about her recent trip to Uganda on the IFAJ Exposure-4-Development media tour to Africa.
“When I arrived in Uganda I expected to find a more edgy African country than those I had previously visited, a poor country and I did expect to see donkeys.
“I thought I would bring some agricultural expertise and an insight into the future.
“I found a complex country with many natural advantages, a country where tradition quite literally in the form of the Ankole cattle herders, walked side by side with a more modern outlook and a curiously comfortable country to visit.
“A country as unlike those of other African countries I had visited under similar circumstances as I could imagine – and no donkeys! Well only two in the whole trip! And I don’t think I brought them anything but I took a lot away with me in terms of questions and insight.
“I was very thrilled to be chosen by the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists to represent them in Uganda. The Exposure-4-Development Media Tour was organised by Agriterra which is an organisation for international agricultural cooperation founded by the rural people’s organisations in the Netherlands.
“It offers farmer-to-farmer advice and support to farmers’ organisations and co-operatives. Taco Hoekstra, agribusiness advisor for Agriterra has been working in Uganda since 2012 and he largely put together the very challenging but enjoyable programme.
“Jose van Gelder is Agriterra’s senior communications advisor and she is also a broad member of the Dutch farm writers guild NVLJ and an executive member of the IFAJ.
“The IFAJ has asked Agriterra to organise this tour on their behalf as an annual event and the tours will alternative between Africa, Latin America and Asia. Go if you can!
“My fellow agricultural journalists came from Sweden, Finland, Northern Ireland, Netherlands, Canada, USA, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and South Africa – between them a high level of journalistic and photographic skill and a diverse range of agricultural interests.
“But Africa is my passion and since my first farm tour of Zimbabwe where I reported for Radio 4, I am hooked on the country, the people and their agriculture.
“Although I worked as a grain trader for a UK co-operative in my youth (for I am no longer youthful!), most of my writing life has been spent in the small farming and smallholder sector which makes African agriculture so fascinating for me – smallholding for real if you like – where you have to grow the crops or raise the livestock to survive and you have no safety net. Hardcore smallholding.
“If your crops fail then your way of life fails. Historically here in Britain we were all like that once. Now our links between our food and our farming are less direct and have to be taught.
“In Africa they are all around you – being herded up the roads, clucking around the shops, growing in the lush countryside and being sold on the side of the road to those who live in the bustling cities.
“So landing in Entebbe I tried not to be alarmed as I had not yet found my fellow journo and Guild member Chris McCullough to share a taxi to Silver Springs Hotel.
“As it was very dark, very late and very crowded I was dithering about what to do when thankfully someone tapped me on the shoulder and it was Chris.
“Our taxi snaked through the night taking us alarmingly through industrial estates which didn’t appear to be the way we went on the return journey.
“Arriving in the early hours of the morning to a rather gracious hotel with African style huts my tiredness evaporated and it seemed the best idea to try some African beers before bed!
“That was less of a good idea in the morning as we set off with our driver to a fruit dryers and growers and then to try to catch a glimpse of the solar eclipse.
“It should have dawned on me looking around the fruit growing as it dawned on me later on in the week, that mechanisation is not necessarily the answer to improving their agriculture – or to be more accurate – maybe not our idea of mechanisation but to take on board what place it has in their farming methods.
“For example, crops such as beans are grown underneath fruit trees and it would not be possible to use a conventional tractor in this situation.
“It also gradually became obvious to me that there are ‘women’s crops’ and the more commercial men’s crops – the beans beneath the trees were the women’s while the fruit was the man’s.
“On the second day we visited a market. A simple statement which cannot do justice to the crowded alleyways, the array of produce and food, the jostling, teeming crowd, the colour and the life all around.
“We were given ‘home work’ to find out how much staples cost and to find out how traders operated. The market cost the traders around £50 a pitch per month, a kilo of goat meat sold for £2.40 whereas beef was £1.90 – this is grown up goat as you can read in my article in Practical Sheep Goats and Alpacas this spring edition.
“It was not the kid we eat in the UK! Milk fetched 50p a litre while Mtoke (the all purpose cooking banana) with which I was to become very well acquainted was around £5.00 for a very, very large bunch – enough to feed a family for at least a week.
“I really liked this fruit, used more as a vegetable, which appeared at every meal together with the inevitable goat. It tasted like mashed potatoes and had a similar consistency.
“Getting to grip with retail prices so early on in the week helped us to come face to face with Uganda’s agricultural economy and to see what the farmer received by comparison.
“As we visited dairy co-ops, milk collection centre and a bean bulking and and selling group, the benefits of co-operation and organisation in selling produce became more and more obvious.
“I think we all particularly enjoyed our visit to Rubyerwa Farm where the woman who owned and ran the farm spoke eloquently about their vision.
“As we were to see elsewhere, the use of animal waste to produce bio gas and/or fertiliser was the norm. We could learn from Ugandan farmers not to waste resources.
“For me, the visit to the Igara Tea Factory was very special and magical. I had no idea that the tea plant smelled so gorgeous when drying. I was thrilled to see the factory supplied Clipper Teas, one of my favourite brands and I had not realised the importance of tea in the Ugandan farming economy.
“We visited a tea plantation and noticed the leaves were damaged on the plants (our new found knowledge of tea growing). We were told this was due to hail storms – something they had not seen before.
“But conversely we were told when we visited a coffee union and grading facility, that climate change is a worry with a rise in 2% predicted for Uganda which would stop them being able to grow coffee.
“On the final day we visited an artificial insemination station at NARO but I was impressed by how seriously they valued their goats and I met the indigenous breed, the handsomely black Mubende, and the Boers and Boer crosses.
“As with Rubyerwa Farm, this station had a milking machine, far grander than that of Rubyerwa but as with that one, this too was out of action with no prospect of fixing it. It was an Alfa Laval put in with Italian aid.
“Much of it still seemed to be in place. But as with Rubyerwa, the cattle were quickly and efficiently milked by hand.
“I could only conclude it wasn’t only lack of funds that stopped these machines being fixed but the simple equation of having plenty of labour, labour where the stock man really liked handling cattle and that there was no real point to using mechanisation when man power did the job so well. A rethink of my ideas again.
“So what do they need in Uganda? Respect from fellow farmers like ourselves is a given. But I think the real lack is storage of any kind but especially cold stores meaning that crops are abundant but must be consumed within a short time period. A goat is killed the morning of the market and must be sold that day.
“It doesn’t give you much selling power as a farmer and cuts down food security too. With my grain co-operative back ground, I know that putting a grain store in Fenland where small farmers had no storage gave them security and some cash certainty so with my one week knowledge of Uganda, my vote would go towards storage and ideally co-operative storage.
“I’ve never found that my enthusiasm for grain storage has had a particularly warm reception amongst friends and family and it is not as much fun as buying tractors and Rotavators but having the security to keep your crops in good condition while you distribute and market is good for the farmer and the consumer.
“If the Guild let me have another chance to write for the website I’m going to tackle land-rights in my next missive. That’s a fascinating subject too and a very African one where communal land is common and relied on by so many people yet land tenure also gives a future to those who invest.
“The old Enclosure Acts of England spring to mind as a parallel but let’s hope Uganda can find a compromise so their more nomadic herders can co-exist with a more secure agriculture.
“Thank you again to the Guild for choosing me. I will never forget it and I am putting together a presentation if anyone is interested in seeing it and learning more.”