Agriculture being the backbone of Uganda and providing a livelihood to more than three-quarters of the population and mostly to small-scale farmers. Agriculture and its related industries depend immensely on climate. Crop production and livestock are the largest global food industries that are highly sensitive to climatic change effects. Increases in temperature, changes in rainfall patterns often significantly affect food production.
Bugisu and Sebei areas located in the Eastern Region depend on farming for food and income but these have especially been vulnerable to climate change effects. Farmers now depend on predictable rainfall patterns and are harvesting lower yields due to poor soil quality, pest invasions, droughts, floods and waters are drying up in many communities.
Climate change has caused unpredictable weather patterns, such as floods and droughts, threatening the livelihoods of farmers in these regions where farmers are counting losses after continued rains devastating harvests. Mbale district received heavy rainfalls on July 30, 2022 where more than 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of crops were destroyed according to media reports affecting food security. Oxfam (2008) reports that in the last 20 years, Uganda has experienced seven droughts with regular incidences of extreme temperature, seasonal shifts and reduction of rainfall.
However agroecology returning to the global spotlight, as one approach to bring farmers closer to meeting these challenges. It emerged as a science which supports food security and sustainable agriculture. In the 1960s, it was studied as the interaction between crops and the environment. In short, it can help us understand agriculture’s impact on our natural resource base.
As agroecology has evolved, it has promoted farming systems that are beneficial to producers and society, as well as the earth’s ecosystems has become a central theme, prompting the concept of it to become synonymous with outcomes such as resource use efficiency, optimizing external inputs and improving soil health.
However small scale farmers in the Elgon region are yet to embrace the practices fully as a solution to their rural poverty, hunger, erosion, agricultural pollution and greenhouse gas emissions attributed to industrial agriculture.
Yet land degradation is a severe problem in the region and across the country accompanied with poor farming practices such as monocultures, overgrazing, and deforestation are compounding the problem. Inadequate or non-existent systems for harvesting limited resources like rainwater mean they are in short supply. These areas report heavy rain causing floods and run-offs that erode the soil and damage crops, an issue that agroecologists know they can resolve through sustainable land management.
In Mbale district, Isa Mafabi 53, owns an acre of land where he does his farming. Says that if they did not use fertilizers, farmers like him would not be able to get such abundant crops from small areas of land and soils that are poor in nutrients.
Isa Mafabi, a small scale farmer in Mbale district. Photo by Sharon Muzaki.
He however agrees with using natural fertilizers but due to circumstances, may seem impossible. “I have used local manure like cow dung but it is not enough because I don’t have enough livestock to support me though it is hard to harvest lately without using fertilizers and with the growing population where we need food, we end up using fertilizers, ” he said.
Rose Nabirye the Mbale district Agricultural Officer says farmers and modern industrial agriculture generally rely on the usage of considerable amounts of fertilizers in order to achieve more profitable crops.
Fertilizers play an essential role in today’s agriculture especially here in Bugisu where farmers grow most horticulture crops like tomatoes, cabbages among others. Farmers and plant growers use fertilizers to obtain plants that produce faster and better harvests, as well as to reduce the risk of the occurrence of a number of diseases caused by the deficiency of particular nutrients in the soil.
“Although chemical fertilizers can have negative effects on the environment by polluting groundwater and rivers, we as well encourage our farmers to consider natural fertilizers that can be used without adverse effects,” she added.
But not everyone agrees. Some farmers believe that going back to traditional practices, indigenous materials and non-chemical approaches may not always deliver the best results, and that pesticides may be needed at times, not least when critical crop yields are threatened.
Biryomumaisho Bruno Mugisha, director mystery Gorilla Foundation looks at why agroecology may still continue to be a little known amongst farmers in Uganda. With alarming rates of food insecurity alongside the growing crises of biodiversity, climate change and increased risks of disasters, ecosystem collapse, and extreme weather events. These challenges may make it hard for most farmers to practice agroecology processes.
Current national policies and development funding are largely unfavorable to food systems based on small-scale farming and are much less forthcoming with the kind of additional support needed in difficult environments, such as the rural countrysides in which the small-holder farmers are located.
“While small-scale farming communities continue to evolve, innovate and in many cases even still thrive using traditional and locally adapted practices to provide for socioeconomic and environmental resilience and food sovereignty, the spaces for this have become more and more marginalized and difficult to maintain in contexts that have emphasized trade and corporate profit over food security, food sovereignty, and human rights,” he added.
Not forgetting the rise of food prices in the Elgon region and across the country yet it is a food basket to the surrounding areas like the northern districts. The prices of matooke and other crops have risen exponentially, and are projected to jump further. Severe rain is worsening the situation.
Ms. Nyaribi Rhoda, Mbale City Senior Environment Officer says the price of Irish potatoes is costing 2500shs which had never been before including the beans and other food stuffs. she attributes this to poor farming practices but encourages the farmers to do terraces in the highlands and mulching to be able to secure food in these times of calamities.
This shows how food insecurity is now a big threat across the country. The climate crisis and destructive farming practices are challenging farmers’ ability to produce enough healthy food. The seasonal rains on which farmers depend now fail to materialize or fall in heavy storms that wash away soils and seeds.
While the country is yet to recover from the compounding effects of the Covid scourge. Conflicts have aggravated the crisis and we are starting to see the genuine impacts of climate on the food systems.
Africa is projected to overtake South Asia by 2030 as the region with the greatest number of hungry people. An alarming 264 million people in Africa now suffer from “undernourishment,” the U.N. term for chronic hunger. If policies do not change, experts project that number to soar to 433 million in 2030.
Robert Guloba the programs officer of Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Uganda has asked farmers to consider agroecology to be better than any current farming methods because it engages with small-scale farmers in longer-term, bottom-up processes, which can bring about viable positive impacts in various ways. Socioeconomic impacts are visible as improved and secured access for smallholders to natural resources and land, healthy and balanced diets as well as increased monetary income, together with strengthened networks, empowerment and social equity.
With respects to its practical effects and advantages, the alternative practices used in agroecology and its related approaches lower the need for external inputs (particularly seeds, fertilizers and pesticides) and can thus contribute to both increased income and lower energy use.
According to Guloba it can support enhanced livelihoods and incomes for farmers, as increased use of low and no input ecological processes decreases the need to buy inputs with the possible exception of labor though it can require greater labor, which can be a positive in terms of boosting local employment, but must be approached based on local context.
Agroecology and food sovereignty also place high importance on addressing issues of gender inequality, although the inclusion of gender empowerment cannot be taken for granted and work remains to ensure its centrality in agroecology. Recent studies, however, have shown its power that properly incorporates gender empowerment: participation in the Kabale Farmer to Farmer Agroecology project was correlated with large reductions in food insecurity, and “strong evidence of change in gender relations between men and women,”
Guloba also highlights it’s importance and impact on environment where production practices such as intercropping, traditional fishing and mobile pastoralist, integrating crops, trees, livestock and fish, manuring, compost, local seeds and animal breeds are based on ecological principles like building life in the soil, recycling nutrients, the dynamic management of biodiversity and energy conservation at all scales. Environmental impacts can be achieved in terms of soil fertility, reforestation and increased (agro-) biodiversity.
Dr Gerald Eilu from the Department of Forestry, Bio-Diversity and Tourism says farmers should reduce on the use of chemical fertilizers and look at ways of maintaining biodiversity to enhance crop production.
According to Eilu, this presents a powerful challenge to industrial agriculture since it’s approaches recognize the need to radically transform the current global food system to benefit people, animals, and the environment, restoring ecological and economic wellbeing to food production with regenerative agricultural practices, Indigenous food customs are systemic solutions with positive health and nutrition outcomes.
While meeting the needs of the growing population, we have to safeguard natural resources, improve animal welfare, and mitigate climate change will require food systems redesigned for intersectional benefit. Food production must be sustainable, compassionate, resilient, culturally and ecologically appropriate, and universally accessible. As a strategy for returning control of food chains to local populations, promoting food sovereignty, and strengthening local ecosystems, agroecology will provide a robust framework for the food system in Uganda.
Uganda government and policy makers should support small farmers for agroecology farming practices in terms of finances and knowledge to increase food production for their families and income earning, instead of opening Uganda to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
For example farmers can be able to grow a single crop without using imported chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides. Yet these aggressive methods are expensive, high risk, and dangerous to the health of farmers and consumers. Longer-term, they lead to broken ecosystems, infertile soils and reduced resilience to climate hazards. This collection of stories from the ground demonstrates the benefits of agroecology, a more thoughtful, more holistic, more natural way of farming, working with nature not fighting against it. Communities can revive infertile land, conserving indigenous plants and wildlife, and recreating a balanced, thriving ecosystem.
A number of international organizations say Ripple Effect and African NGOs like ESAFF Uganda argue that agroecology should be the future of agriculture on the continent. But broader adoption requires training and support for farmers to embrace the approach, instead of relying on the short-term convenience of expensive chemical inputs.
“The benefit of #Agroecology is that you utilize whatever is available , you don’t need to go and buy artificial fertilizers because they are even very expensive”- Wali Christopher, small scale farmer, Mukono district
— ESAFF Uganda (@ESAFFUG) January 3, 2023
Its techniques can improve the resilience of farming systems by increasing diversification through poly-cropping, agroforestry, integrated crop and livestock systems, and the use of local varieties. This resilience can reduce the risks of pests and diseases and the costs of seeds. The management of soil fertility through rotations, cover crops and manuring can increase soil water retention or drainage, offer a better response to droughts and floods, reduce the need for irrigation, and help avoid land degradation. Moreover soil quality is improved with higher levels of organic matter, which helps mitigate by sequestering carbon in the soil.
The benefits of agroecological practices cover multiple aspects such as financial conditions, land tenure and food security of smallholder farming (linking to the SGDs: no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing). Adopting agroecological practices can therefore also strengthen the community and social dynamics amongst smallholders, by enabling them to make informed decisions and create sovereign food systems. The crucial point is that the process should be participatory and based on an increased availability of information and tools.
The Wider Benefits of Agroecological Farming in Sub-Saharan Africa. A 2008 UN study on the productivity performance of organic and “near organic” agriculture in Africa found that average crop yields increased by 116 percent (128 percent in East Africa specifically), with a corresponding increase in household food security.