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?