I’m typing this in the shade of an acacia tree in Guru-Guru, northern Uganda. It’s midday and nothing will tempt the chickens and goats from the shade; all activity has stopped bar the crickets, yet five years ago this was a war zone. With the village destroyed and the ravages of HIV, former farmers were left dependent on handouts until the arrival of farming charity Send a Cow who have been rebuilding communities through sustainable agriculture here for three years. I’m visiting with one of our harvesters Jon, and Dale who works in quality control at Riverford, to learn how money raised by our staff and customers has been spent.
The backdrop is a depressing one, with widespread and senseless bush burning. Seeing hundreds of mature trees killed and organic matter lost to help hunters catch giant rats for supper has, at times, reduced me to tears. There is also the added threat of Indian and Chinese land grabs lurking in the background. Yet there is also hope, energy and immense determination to rebuild lives through social change and improved agricultural practice. Send a Cow is at the heart of it.
Most farmers, whether in Devon or Uganda, don’t pay much heed to experts. The best way to influence them is to show a farmer like them, on land like theirs, doing better than them, and this is Send a Cow’s approach. There are no hand-outs, only hand-ups; farmers have to demonstrate commitment over at least six months before they receive seeds, livestock and training. I have seen lives transformed by the patient application of composting, water conservation, mulching, integration of livestock management with soil improvement alongside mixed, multi-canopy cropping.
Send a Cow techniques of mulching and careful preservation of organic matter can make a farm from little more than bare soil. Here the beds are prepared, mulched and waiting for the rains. Last year these beds earned £1200; enough to buy a pig, goats and for the farmer Lallam send her children to school.
The results are permanent and being copied by neighbouring farmers. Far from being the net food importer it currently is, with these techniques I have no doubt Uganda could export large quantities of food without a grain of fertiliser, drop of pesticide or single GM seed. The spirit of the people is certainly helping the recovery process too. My favourite story is of a bunch of Indian ‘investors’ who were promised land by central government. They were seen off by the elder women of the village who blocked the road by stripping and baring their arses, and have not been heard of since.