irrigation and technology in the desert vs. tropical non-productivity back home


I’VE SPENT two weeks in the desert and I am still unsure how to be useful to Uganda with what I’ve learnt here.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made these observations or put them down in writing to share them. I’m certainly not as influential as a Lee Kwan Yew or Yoweri Kaguta Museveni but even these gentlemen have told us sensible things that we simply have refused to do.

The first time I visited a desert country – not just an arid area of a country, but a Country or State that consists entirely of desert land and that hot, hard weather that defines the desert – was more than twenty years ago.

I was in Israel and didn’t realise it was a proper desert till late in the first week when I started paying full attention during the excursions we went on every day and some nights.

Towards the end of our time there we were driving to a kibbutz and as we were weaving up a mountain road a light patter of rain started dropping onto our bus.

Our guide – an old, friendly Colonel – broke into excited chatter with the driver and they sang a song and said a prayer. They were excited because this was the first sign of rain they had seen in three years! (And besides thanking God they were also praying that the rain wouldn’t cause a landslide to sweep us off the side of that hill they called a mountain!)

I was confused and we discussed it a little bit. And then quite a lot. See, we had heard how Israel had exported something like US$70m (it was more than that) worth of agricultural crops that year. Uganda, tropical, lush and “80% agricultural” hadn’t even recorded a tenth of that in exports.

How were they doing it without rain?!

I was even more beaten when we got to the kibbutz and found vegetables sized more than ten times their cousins I had left back home.

“Irrigation and technology,” said the kibbutz guide, taking us around and showing us everything without bragging.

A few years later I chanced upon an energetic Israeli fellow who had just set up an operation in Kampala establishing greenhouses for people while also exporting tomatoes, bell peppers and other vegetables.

One day, in the middle of a casual discussion, he expressed his dismay at how little agriculture we were doing in Kampala with our fantastic soils and weather. He just stopped short of confessing that the greenhouses he was selling might be unnecessary.

Fast forward to a few days ago when I ventured into the back garden of my host in the desert of Arizona and was stopped short by it.

It’s hard to believe that THIS is a desert, right? Photo by Simon Kaheru

I spent some time complimenting my host, Jether Lubandi, on his gardening skills. But he protested vehemently because he believes he hasn’t put lots of effort into it.

In fact, he said he had put no effort into it besides buying seedlings, putting them into the ground and then installing a fairly regular irrigation system.

At the sight of bright orange fruits hanging off a small shrub I was nonplussed!

If I hadn’t seen this, I wouldn’t have believed it – in the desert! Photo by Simon Kaheru

I went right up to them and checked to ensure they weren’t made of rubber.

Even as I was inspecting them I saw different fruits on the other shrubs.

It didn’t make a lot of sense, yet the irrigation piping was clearly visible to my naked eyes. The desert heat delayed my reasoning and suggested it was all a mirage but the next day I went back out and this time plucked one of the fruits then ate right through it. In the desert.

I ate BOTH of these and many, many more! Photo and Subsequent Eating by Simon Kaheru

I have not eaten tangerines like that in a very long time.

The other trees presented green lemons that would be fat and yellow within three weeks, pomegranates bulging like mine at home in Kampala, and oranges preparing to flourish. Besides that my hosts have a small patch of biringannya and tomatoes. In the desert.

No – for real!

Pomegranates in the desert. Photo by Simon Kaheru

In another home we visited there was even a thick patch of lemongrass! In the desert.

Lemongrass thriving almost more than YOURS…if you even have any! Photo by Simon Kaheru

We have talked about this for years, and here we still are – waiting for the President himself, no less, to tell us about simple drip irrigation yet we have purportedly gone to school and STILL don’t implement that.

It is embarrassing in many ways. My face was burning thinking about it – more than from the harsh desert heat.

To think that my plumber just two months ago was pushing me to instal a “booster pump” at Ushs500,000 so that I could take showers under water at a higher pressure…

I hesitated over his suggestion and then refused flat out, but wasn’t sure why the idea didn’t sit comfortably with me besides the cost. Thinking about that decision while in the desert surrounded by flourishing fruit trees made me ashamed of myself.

I should have rejected his suggestion for the right reasons – that I’d rather spend that money on a booster pump on a farm somewhere so I could get more crops out of it during the hot season.

Which makes me certain that there are people doing this in Uganda – spending money on pumps so they can have stronger showers and NOT spending it on pumps to irrigate gardens so we can make us of our oft-spoken about agricultural potential.

I AM guilty, I confess, of running a small irrigation project in my compound to keep it green and flowery but have also taken advantage of it so I decrease on my vegetable, herb and spice expenses.

But that’s not compensation for what I could and should have done long ago in tropical, lush Uganda where we boast about being agricultural and holding more arable land than any other country in East Africa.

Arizona, the desert I was eating tangerine out of a few days ago, has an agricultural industry worth US$23.2billion, accounting for 138,000 jobs. That desert State is the 3rd largest producer of fresh market vegetables in the United States and the 4th in the country in acres of organic vegetables. In the desert.

What about you and I and this beloved, lush, tropical Uganda?

hon. kasamba, meet safina namaganda and let’s make piles of sweet money out of jackfruit (fenne)


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One of numerous fenne trees at Rwenzori Bottling Company offices (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

IN November last year I shared a story here about a young lady called Safina Namaganda that got picked up in various places high and low. Thereafter I was summoned and asked for her contact details, which I shared variously.

Sadly, I can’t confirm that anything came of it.

I remembered her again this week during a lengthy, animated chat with newly-sworn East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) Representative, Mathias Kasamba, of Kakuuto in Kyotera.

The EALA plenary had just officially opened session and we were taking a break nearby and talking through the opportunities we have in Uganda that his presence in Arusha and beyond would make a reality for his constituents – not just in Kakuuto, Kyotera, but across the entire country.

Kasamba is a straight-talking man; if you have never met him before and experienced his style of message delivery you could easily take offence at his sharp arrows but that won’t save you his marksmanship.

He is rightfully disdainful of very many people who are not doing what we should be doing – including political leaders who have no evidence of leadership beyond their titles; the so-called elite whose priorities make them little better than the ordinary peasants they look down upon; and the energetic youth whose energy does not show itself in anything that doesn’t involve betting shops, football on television, and social media activities.

Throughout the discussion, he kept going back to his pet topic, which I happen to have a keen interest in myself that has ensured it stays on my annual plan every year.

For as long as I can remember, Hon. Kasamba has been talking about planting trees. During the most heated parts of the 2015/16 political campaign period he found it quite normal to interrupt a hard discussion on political strategy with photographs and updates about how his tree seedlings were doing.

He is still the same, and within ten minutes of conversation he had whipped out two gadgets and was showing me photograph after photograph of trees, tree seedlings, and other agricultural projects he has pulled right out of the ground in his home in Kakuuto.

His consistency of messaging is admirable, and I was pleased to be the target that afternoon, as he pointed out the simple mathematics of agriculture that most of us who went to school and own second-hand motor vehicles in Kampala would be shamed to acknowledge.

The speed and confidence with which he reeled off the financials around the investments that go into various sizes of agricultural projects could bamboozle you if you are not prepared. And he went from coffee to mangoes, oranges and passion fruits with the smoothness of my favourite juice – the reason we were having the discussion in the first place.

When he segued into jackfruit (fenne) I offered him a mental standing ovation – and that is when Safina Namaganda returned to the story of life.

“People don’t know,” Hon. Kasamba said, “that if you have jackfruit you don’t need anything else!”

He had no idea he was onto one of my favourite fruits of all time, and I unleashed enthusiasm with my descriptions of its taste and recipe ideas, but he sensed – correctly – that I was underestimating the part of “you don’t need anything else!”

Hon. Kasamba detailed how every part of the fenne fruit is edible – which I agreed with and shared my own anecdotes of eating roasted seeds as a child and feeding the rind to visibly pleased farm animals. But he went further; for him the fenne tree can easily provide an income that stretches into the millions of shillings every year because the trees fruit so well regardless of when and where you plant them.

And, he explained, they don’t get cut down for decades and decades but still keep fruiting. And, most of all, provided he has them dotted all over his farm the farm workers don’t ever go hungry and stall – they gorge themselves on it and maintain high energy levels all through!

Every seed they drop, meanwhile, will give you a seedling if you plant it just days after eating the fruit. I do this often myself, and was about to boast to him that I have developed almost a hundred seedlings this way when he told him his number.

He has 10,000 (ten thousand) jackfruit/fenne seedlings ready to plant. And he is not joking about this. Even as we chatted, he texted me YouTube video links and articles about the benefits of the jackfruit/fenne.

He was amazing!

I took a very low mental bow out of that aspect of the conversation, and put myself in line for a few free seedlings from him as a point of honourable concession.

But not before offering to introduce him to Safina Namaganda; if you recall her story, that was the young lady who did a study into the nutritional values of fenne seeds and created a mixture of fenne seeds and soy that was quite popular but did not get sufficient support to sustain the project – including a consistent supply of seeds.

My fingers are crossed that one day she will have a factory established in Kakuuto, running in partnership with Hon. Kasamba’s farm and producing various branded products made out of fenne – juices, purees, canned fruit, roasted seeds, powdered forms, animal feeds…the works!

meet safina namaganda – how our youth end up in tears, and how to stop this being the usual story


A COUPLE of weeks ago I met a young lady and after two hours of close interaction left her in tears.

Her name is Safina Namaganda, and I haven’t stopped mentally saluting her daily while hoping we raise more young Ugandans like her but without letting them fall back down again – as happened to her.

Safina came to me by way of a friend, James Wire Lunghabo, who did Agricultural Sciences at the University at the same time as I did Journalism, then became an ICT Entrepreneur of note and now does almost as much journalism as I do, while mentoring many Ugandan youth along the way and doing some serious farming and agricultural value addition.

One day during a casual conversation he mentioned a young lady whose bright future in agricultural value addition and processing kept coming to sudden ends because of the usual frustrations we hear youth in Uganda expressing – financing, corruption, inefficiency, bureaucracy…the list runs on and on. 

Her last venture was a fruit juice business enterprise that was promised government funding from as high as ‘State House’ but the persons involved made such awkward noises that she gave up on it. Meanwhile, Lunghabo told me, another guy who went into the same business now has his products on supermarket shelves and employs about 30 people at his factory in Nansana who earned Ushs80million last year alone (his second in business). That success story, Lunghabo said, is even exporting products to Rwanda and Kenya!

“If she had gotten the funding without those (insert bad word here) approaches from that government official, she would also be employing possibly another 30!” he declared. 

He vehemently brushed away any queries about the girl herself probably being at fault and then offered to set up the meeting so we agreed to buy her coffee in Kisementi and she turned up with a friend.

She told me her story starting with her University days when, as a student, she took an interest in jackfruit (fenne) and particularly its seeds. I remembered vaguely that as a child I had tasted roasted jackfruit seeds at various points and liked them quite some.

Her method was even more serious – she found a way of enriching the seeds with soya and spent time studying the chemical properties of the jackfruit and its seed, and tried to add value to the arrangement. Her University project was titled, “Physical Chemical Properties of Jackfruit Soybean Flour”.

She got the stage of actually making the flour and turned it into a porridge mix and started selling it as a University Student. At first, she got the seeds free of charge from fenne dealers in Kampala markets, but when they saw how interested she was they started charging her Ushs1,000 per kilo. She paid the money, made porridge, and sold it. When fenne was out of season, she suffered, but she went on for a while regardless.

Academically, she went on as well, and was supervised by Dr. Hadijah Nansikombi who appreciated her project. More to that, though – in 2010 she became Guild President at the Islamic University in Uganda (I didn’t double check that) and on one of the President’s visits there she told him about her project and he took up a keen interest in it. He offered her a State House scholarship and she happily accepted it (who wouldn’t?).

It couldn’t last without funding and lots of other support, and along the way Safina picked an interest in bananas – particularly the ‘Musa’ species (embidde). Her parents had the variety at home and she knew how to make the juice traditionally, and had seen through her childhood how popular that banana juice was.

“My interest had always been to employ myself, so I thought this would be a good idea. People used to always enjoy drinking the juice so I knew it would have market. My father used to tell me, as a child, to always work towards employing myself rather than being employed. He had only ever had one job and after that decided to employ himself – which he is doing till now,” she says, wistfully.

She is unhappily employed now, because her dreams didn’t last long enough – but she will go back.

She started making the juice and packing it in those see-through buveera, going door-to-door and selling the packs at a neat profit to eager, thirsty, nostalgic consumers.

It did quite well, which wasn’t surprising because she was a student of Food, Science and Technology, a course her father approved of because it would help her achieve self-employment. He, himself, is an Engineer, Haji Mohammed Katongole, and owns a foundry at Mawakato Technical Services, in Najjanankumbi. He insisted, she says, on all his children aiming at self-employment and studying relevant courses to achieve it.

When her door-to-door approach proved popular she decided to go bigger. She met up with a friend, Mahmoud, who was good at production and would ensure they had a quality mbidde product with no added water or sugar, and they went to the Consortium of Enhancing Responsiveness in Agricultural Development (CURAD) for funding. With Ushs3.9million (which they are about to finally pay off, thanks to her current employment which she took up in order to clear the loan when the business met a technical hurdle) they bought equipment and packaged the mbidde in 320ml bottles from a factory in Matugga and went to market.

They did well for a while, and even took part in our biggest Expos here. Her goal, while doing so, was to achieve the Uganda National Bureau of Standards Quality mark…but they couldn’t get there before they got stopped.

Along the way, though, she had met the President again and told him about her new venture – and again he offered support, to get machinery, premises and working capital of about Ushs2billion. For months, they chased that offer while working out of home to pack the juice but it didn’t come to fruit before the authorities understandably told them to stop the domestic production. In April this year someone called Musa contacted them with the offer of helping to pursue the offer if they could cover the costs of Ushs5million – which, obviously, they could not.

Shortly after that, they dropped the business and she went back to work so she could pay off the CURAD loan, while Mahmoud did the same – at a car bond.

I found it admirable that she was committed to clearing the loan for the entry-level equipment they had installed and were using, and sad that she had to drop this locally-made banana juice that could have been employing a few more of her peers, while supporting a couple more businesses such as the bottle manufacturer they bought their materials from; sadder still that they put their entrepreneurial resourcefulness aside to do fairly mundane work.

The actual funding support they need is to set up premises that will pass muster and to get the right machine to squeeze the juice out of the bananas, which is much less than Ushs2billion – but they can’t find that even though many of us spend our millions buying up Range Rovers and very many bottles of tasty whisky every weekend.

Safina and her partner even went to her father and to Musa Body and to the Tamales to get someone to make the right machine but they couldn’t do it – not yet. 

The reason she had tears in her eyes by the time our conversation ended was because she couldn’t believe ANYONE would listen to her entire story and not ask for money…and even pay for her tea while at it, giving her hope that there was a light ahead of this tunnel that she finds herself in.

uganda: let’s delete the word ‘potential’ from our national dictionary


ON Wednesday morning I jumped out of bed as a rainstorm raged on outside trying to make it difficult for the lazy-minded to leave their beds.
I could have done with a few extra minutes of sleep that morning but the night before I had said something on a radio talk show about how unjustified it was for most of us to sleep at all, given the amount of work we needed to do to develop Uganda.
The thought that someone could call me out for spending longer in bed than I had publicly said was necessary drove me to my desk, so I was watching the storm through the window over the top of my computer as I made my day’s plan, thinking how happy the farming community must be about this weather change.
Only three people these past two weeks have spoken to me about the rains having started: My primary farming advisor (who is also my loving mother) , reminding me to make the necessary adjustments; my regular supplier of tree seedlings (@GreeningUganda), making a pitch for increased sales as per our standing arrangements; and the third, a friend’s highly energetic domestic employee, in a conversation.
This robust domestic employee, at a lunch party over the weekend, had me helping him move garden furniture because it was threatening to rain. “But are you sure it’s going to rain?” I asked him, to which he responded with a vigorously confident, “The rainy season has started. It will rain.”
The confidence with which he spoke stayed on my mind all through the sumptuous luncheon, and I thought to myself that this domestic worker must have had an agricultural background – like many of us do.
The neat, sprawling gardens in which we lunched were beautiful and vivid in colour and variety, and seeing this domestic employee flit about to and fro in the foreground of the floral compound made me wonder whether, with his knowledge of agriculture and vast amounts of energy, he would be using the rainy season to grow any crops, herbs, or spices for future luncheons to be had.
The potential of it all, I thought to myself, was massive!
Potential.jpg
Immediately, I mentally slapped myself round the back of my head. ‘Potential’. I am a little fed up of that word, in our context.
It means, my dictionary says, “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future; and latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.
 
An hour or so later, I read an article that underscored why I dislike that word so much these days.
 
Uganda has potential to feed 200 million people – US envoy’, read the headline, followed by: “Uganda’s fertile agricultural land produces a wide range of food products and has the potential to feed 200 million people in the region and beyond,” said (Deborah) Malac.
This figure of 200 million was published by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations in August this year, and we have had tens of thousands other declarations of ‘Potential’ around Uganda.
We need to delete the word Potential from our national dictionary as soon as possible. If we don’t then we’re going to stay stuck at this Potentiality forever and ever.
Why does it irritate me?
Because we never seem to leave the Potential box and keep making headlines out of it instead of, ‘Uganda land deal boost for Centum’, as reported this week about Kenyan investors Centum buying up 14,000 acres of land in Uganda to grow maize and soya beans.
Those Kenyans are not dealing with just ‘Potential’ any more. Back in February 2011, a Centum official talked to a Ugandan newspaper about the Potential in Uganda, and today they are putting money onto the ground.
On the same day the newspapers were talking about that ‘Potential’ to feed 200 million people, I saw a news snippet about food relief being taken to the Kigezi region (for people affected by floods, not hunger) and sighed.
At that point, certain we won’t delete the word ‘Potential’ from our vocabularies soon, I stopped fretting over its existence.
Instead, I picked up my phone and contacted the friend who had hosted me to lunch over the weekend, to advise him to get his energetic domestic fellow to take advantage of the rainy season and plant some food-related things somewhere in the massive space surrounding his beautiful house now that the rains have started.

we shall be known by our fruits, grown from the seeds we normally throw away


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Photo by Simon Kaheru

Having finished a particularly juicy mango some time in December I dilly dallied with the seed even after using my teeth to scrape off all the flesh.

This wasn’t the usual type of string-filled mangoes that agitate me into bursting through my toothpick and dental floss budget.

The mango I had gormandised was the old-school type we used to find everywhere from Kampala through Kyaggwe to Hoima when I was a child. That big variety that didn’t become soft to tell you it was ripe, but when you bit through the tough skin your teeth found the flesh to be hard yet very pleasantly sweet.

The nostalgic feeling it brought me made me hang on to the seed for a few hours, on a saucer at my window sill as I worked the computer (hands all washed). I kept glancing at it thinking about how much I would happily eat one every hour were it not for the sweetness overkill.

This particular mango had come, with a few others, from a visit to a loved one in Ntinda right here in Kampala. During our afternoon chat we noticed that the tree, which had stood there many years, had finally offered up a respectable number of fruits with almost no effort besides patience.

My replenishment plan would involve a few more visits, but that wouldn’t keep me in the endless supply of said mangoes that I craved at that point. Mulling over the problem a little longer, I realised that the drying seed on the saucer next to me was the solution right there.

I have planted many mango trees over the last couple of years, planning to establish a constant supply for my domestic consumption as well as some light commerce in years to come.

Our family consumes so many mangoes, in our small set of homes, that if one of us became a supplier then we would have a cheaper source and also run a mini operation wealth creation.

All those trees came from seedlings purchased at a fair sum but topped off with transportation costs then made bigger by the bulk I have to purchase each time.

The internet, always useful for such purposes, told me quite clearly how to convert my drying seed into a seedling – which my seedling suppliers will not be excited to learn. The internet, being mostly written in climates that are not as friendly and blessed as tropical Uganda, included bits in their processes that made me realise how many more trees I would have grown by now if I had started thinking properly much earlier.

I immediately made a resolution to convert as many fruit seeds as I encounter this year into seedlings with as little fuss as possible. At some point last year I discovered the Butternut Squash, a relative of the ordinary pumpkin, and contrived some recipes so bewitching that I started thinking about the Squash in my spare time.

The problem was that each one cost about Ushs5,000 in regular supermarkets. One day I put the seeds aside, after cutting a Squash open, and planted them one by one in small cups of soil. A couple of weeks later they had germinated and I am now trying to grow my own butternut squash in various places instead of spending Ushs5,000 each in a supermarket.

With the fruit project, it has been three months of regularly consuming avocadoes, mangoes and fenne (jackfruit), allowing the seeds to dry out, then planting them in small cans and bottles. I have been largely successful – more with the fenne and avocado than the mangoes, but successful all the same, to a notable extent. Even the chillis, onions and tomatoes have sprouted something.

While I wait for the experts to tell me how fruitful the seedlings will be when they grow, I recall that six years ago I devised a scheme that should have led me to this point much earlier were it not for an insufficient infusion of lugezi gezi amongst my domestic staff.

At that time, I established a garbage separation system so we could collect our organic waste and use it to create compost, while disposing of the plastic, paper and other waste through the garbage collection companies. It worked for only a short while, after which the people tasked with implementation couldn’t be bothered and the Manager (myself) lost focus on the trees because of the forest.

I am returning my focus to the trees henceforth, and resuming garbage separation as part of my mini operation wealth creation project.

My success shall be shown by my fruits, as the Good Book says in Matthew.