Bouncing down red dirt roads, watching endless trails of banana trees, coffee bushes, and jack fruit pass by, the lush vegetation and blue skies almost make it easy to forget how hard life can be for rural Ugandans. In the Rakai district, HIV and AIDS have orphaned swathes of children, leaving them in the care of elderly relatives and creating many child-headed households, which often forces children into labouring work. Without the time to develop agricultural skills - in a country where some 83 per cent of the population live in rural areas and rely on subsistence agriculture - the prospects of developing food secure communities can be low.
Life before Send A Cow
Standing in the hot midday sun with a shovel in hand, farmer Kiwanuka Gastus speaks to us about how he came to care for his brother’s three orphaned children, as well as caring for his own six biological children. His brother passed away in January 2016, after learning that he had contracted HIV (a story that is all too familiar in Rakai district). Gastus told us what life was like before Send A Cow: “We had to buy everything, all kinds of vegetables. Children frequently had diarrhoea because of poor hygiene and sanitation. They couldn’t wash hands after using the toilet, which resulted in high expenditures on medical care.”
People having to labour in neighbouring villages to pay for medical bills leaves little time to tend to their own subsistence, and the lack of time and resources to create a functional homestead takes the greatest toll on the least resilient members of the community – children and the sick.
Send A Cow’s Hand Up
Despite the name, and commonly held belief, Send A Cow do not fly cattle from temperate Devon to the tropics – a cow is sourced in the country where it’s needed. But this is only a small part of Send A Cow’s holistic hand-up approach. At the core of Send A Cow are the direct benefits from the cow itself: milk for drinking and cheese making along with sales of surplus milk; cow dung for organic fertiliser and as a component of construction materials; cow urine for treating banana wilt, a soil-borne disease that affects banana trees (a staple of the Ugandan farmer).
However, in addition to receiving livestock, agricultural training, and seeds, beneficiaries of Send A Cow learn about nutrition, health, and accounting/record keeping. Send A Cow have developed an array of simple, easy to construct solutions for many of the problems faced by people rural Uganda.
Gastus proudly shows us a ‘double dig’ gardening bed he is constructing, designed to enrich growing medium and increase water retention for vegetable growing in drier months: a four-foot by six-foot bed is dug out and layered with organic matter (cut grass and other waste greenery), before layering over the top with compost and soil. We take a walk down the road to visit his agroforestry plot – a food forest containing coffee, banana, maize, groundnuts and bee hives – to help harvest coffee.
As we push banana leaves out of the way, ducking under coffee branches and being careful not tread on newly-planted saplings beneath us, Gastus points to the contours he has dug across the slope - “these contours control soil erosion and allow us to harvest water during the rainy season” - and motions to show us where he now applies manure and home-made compost at the base of his banana and coffee plants. These techniques represent just some of the organic farming practices and soil conservation techniques being utilised, as a result of Send A Cow’s influence.
Back at the house, we are shown the devices that Send A Cow has taught people to construct to help with hygiene and sanitation, including a ‘tip-tap’ (a tap where you can use your foot to pour water for handwashing), a plate rack which allows plates to be stored and dried without being left on or near the ground, and a fuel saving stove built out of clay.
But like many of the Send A Cow farmers we visited, Gastus is innovating, using his own creativity and knowledge to go beyond the teaching of Send A Cow: two large beehives constructed from cow dung and tree branches sit nestled in a hedge close to the kitchen garden. We cautiously approach, with the buzz of the hive increasing as we listen to how Gastus started selling honey at the local market.
Once he had made enough money to save for 10 new wooden beehives, his honey selling really took off: “It is the best honey in the area,” he says, “it is not tampered with like others, where sugar syrup is added.” His honey sales are a large portion of what allows him to pay for all nine children to attend school. Gastus and his wife plan to educate their children to university level, by increasing their income through developing their apiary, selling milk and expanding coffee production.
Gastus and his family’s story is just one example of how, when given the chance (or a ‘hand-up’), people can flourish – despite the harsh realities of battling HIV/AIDs and a distinct lack of governmental support, they have gone beyond the subsistence that Send A Cow initially teaches and are pursuing their commercial and social ambitions. They are reaping the rewards of the rich soils and climate that Uganda provides for growing and leaving as small a footprint as possible in the process.