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UGANDA: Information Technology Helps Farmers

Joshua Kyalimpa

WAINHA, Uganda , Apr 6 2010 (IPS) - Mayuge district has 31,000 farming families served by just nine agricultural extension workers. In Wainha village, an internet centre run by the Busoga Rural Open Source and Development Initiative is more than filling the gap in assisting farmers.

Farmers trade advice with each other - and the world - from the internet centre in Wainha. Credit:  Joshua Kyalimpa/IPS

Farmers trade advice with each other - and the world - from the internet centre in Wainha. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa/IPS

Joseph Wangolo is still mesmerised by the computers, six years after he first saw one. “That thing is so clever it will give you information about anything. It knows even our village, can you imagine?” he says.

Comparative advantage

Not long ago, 56-year-old Wangolo was haggling with produce buyers who were offering him only 200 Ugandan shillings – about ten cents U.S. – per kilogramme for his maize. Not convinced by the offer, he went to the Busoga centre where he found that the going price 110 kilometres away in the capital, Kampala, was much higher.

“I just chased the buyers away! Can you imagine, those people were paying me only 200 shillings and yet the price of maize in Kampala was 800 shillings.”

At the internet centre run by the Busoga Rural Open Source and Development Initiative (BROSDI), smallholder farmers of all ages, male and female alike, sit rapt before the rows of screens.

Some are already master web surfers, while others sit on benches in the corridor waiting for basic assistance ranging from help opening an email account to a hand looking up when the current rainy season will end, or how to improve soil fertility, or for ideas for small agribusinesses.

Most farmers here agree that the centre has opened a window on a world of useful knowledge.

Virtual and actual interactions

But the wonders of the world wide web are not the end of it. Edna Karamagi, executive director of BROSDI, says by facilitating knowledge forums where farmers interact directly, they have discovered that there is a lot farmers can learn from their peers within the district.   “You find that these people are experts in their own right, but this information has not been tapped,” she says. Farmers gather regularly at the BROSDI centre to exchange ideas and ask each other questions.

Listening in is Sophia Nyenda. Nyenda started working at the centre three years ago during her holidays, and is now a student at nearby Busoga university.

She has notebooks filled with stories from farmers, taken down in Kisoga, the language spoken in the area. With the notes that she and her counterparts in all 17 districts take down, pamphlets in both local languages and English are prepared and distributed to BROSDI-affiliated farmers through a network of 340 “knowledge brokers” who also help farmers implement practices where they may be unable to read.

Tips and suggestions are also sent out to farmers by SMS.

Nyenda enjoys the respect of villagers much older than she is, who respect her for her education in an area where literacy levels are very low. The respect is mutual: she says many traditional farming techniques are not widely-known, yet they offer effective and practical solutions to farmers’ problems.

“I did not know that the local herb mululuza can kill pests on tomatoes,” she says.

Nyenda’s work of listening and transcribing is a key part of the Collecting & Exchange of Local Agricultural Content (CELAC) project documenting traditional farming practices. It is proving a successful combination of indigenous knowledge, smart creation of networking opportunities, and newly-available information and communications technology.

Tangible impacts

The effect of the BROSDI centre’s work is easy to see. Alice Naikoba, a farmer from the nearby village of Bukhooli, was struggling on barren land which produced poor quality bananas. At one of the knowledge-sharing forums, she learnt that the type of bananas she was concentrating on is not suited for her soil.

She was advised to plant another type of banana locally known as endiizi. Since making the switch, her yields have quadrupled; better yet, she got the idea to brew waragi, a local beer made from bananas, to increase her earnings.

Advice she gathered at BROSDI has turned Naikoba and her family into a miniature whirlwind of production: bananas and beer, alongside the sale of produce from her vegetable garden, and from raising goats and chickens, enabled her to buy building materials to construct a new house – with her five children laying bricks – and move out of her thatched-roof hut.

The initiative begun here at Wainha village with support from the International Institute for Communication and Development, Canada’s International Development Research Centre and Dutch donor agency Hivos has spread wings to other parts of Uganda helping farmers share, access and implement good farming practices.

Agriculture minister Aggrey Bagiire – member of parliament for Bunya West constituency, where Wainha is found – says the agricultural potential of this area is high, but it has to be carefully managed to be sustainable.

“An increasing population and demand for food has put pressure on the available land. Soil erosion, over-cultivation and the cultivation of wetlands of Imanyiro, Baitambogwe and Malongo is degrading the land, causing declining yields.” says Bagiire

By giving the districts’ farmers ready access to the best of both local knowledge of farming and international research and best-practice via the internet, this corner of rural Uganda would seem to have been offered the best possible chance of securing a sustainable future.

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