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?

spice up your life & the economy

One morning this week I arrived early at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel and decided to walk through the lower gate opposite Speke Hotel, just to test their system.

A pleasant faced askari readily unlocked the gate, checked my bag and let me through with a little banter and I wished him a nice day – but only verbally where he probably hoped for more.

I climbed up the staircase with that early morning vim and vigour of a man addressing a mountain trusting in the presence of a large prize at the top – in this case, my first fruitful meeting of the day punctuated by a good hotel breakfast.

A few metres into the climb I stopped, breathless; not because of what you would suspect if you saw my numbers on a weighing scale, but because of the sight that caught my eyes just then.


That staircase has been in existence probably from before my childhood and has always had a strip of garden running down its middle. I can recall the sight of some of the flowers in that garden from way back then

I have taken more to gardening these days for a number of reasons, and last year had a very disappointing experience with a packet of marigolds that sprouted massive stalks that bore absolutely no flowers.

Here, in that Sheraton strip, I saw a bunch of healthy marigolds and wistfully touched one for a few seconds when I realised what was before me and that’s when my breath caught in my throat.

Next to the marigolds were a couple of fennel stalks, and some lettuce, and coriander, and a type of cabbage, and above that some mint…

I was a little confused yet felt a tingle of excitement; some time in December I stayed over at a vineyard in South Africa where they had a spice garden that looked exactly like this! And I spent a couple of evenings there breathing in the air and inspiration to work harder at my own.

And now here I found that my own Sheraton Kampala had implemented the very same! On closer inspection, I noticed that some of the spices and vegetables had been snipped the way my own at home are because I frequently pick bits for use in the kitchen.

As usual, my thoughts were on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook within minutes, and some people declared that this had been going on for a year and was the pet project of the hotel chef (not the despicable fellow of the Matooke Revolution of a while back!)

I doubt that the hotel’s entire spice and vegetable supply comes from this very garden but if it did then how revolutionary that would be! You see, in Uganda we can grow almost anything anywhere, but spend a lot of time whining all over this fertile soil.
Three weeks ago as I drove through Eastern Uganda in the blazing heat and dust I kept noticing a strain of a plant we call omujaaja (a type of mint) all through Busoga, Butaleja, Mbale, Kapchorwa, Soroti and further. It took me a day to pluck up the courage to throw some leaves into a flask in my hotel and it WAS omujaaja or similar! In Soroti they call it emopim and everyone I asked found it quite unimportant.
From the images on the internet and descriptions, this emopim is most probably a variety that is commonly called Catnip, one of six hundred (600) varieties of mint out there.

Catnip in North America

“Aaah! Even the goats don’t like it!” declared one chapI asked on the ground.

I was flummoxed, and could not even begin to explain how there was wealth amid all that dust, considering that simple internet searches put 250grammes of Mint Tea at close to US$20!

Minutes after his goats and emopim comment, the same fellow lamented to me about how hard his life was, and I couldn’t blame him because obviously nobody was telling him about the value of herbs and spices.

Ironically, countries in the harshest climates of the globe grow the bulk of the world’s spices – India, Bangladesh, Turkey and China are top of the list – yet we can do much, much, much better with our soils using little pieces of land.
One research paper I checked put the global spice and seasonings market at US$12billion last year and reckons it will grow to US$16.6billion by 2019!
And even here, in all the urban centres of Kampala, the price of herbs, spices and vegetables is quite dear…yet a lot of them are STILL imported from other lands.
What are we doing?
Whining while standing on top of this soil.
Seriously, unlike the lamentations put forward to me by some young (they claimed) chaps this week, we don’t need to each own massive tracts of land in order to engage in gainful agriculture. Of course it is always better to go large scale and fully commercial, but even a chap in an apartment could cultivate enough herbs and spices in buckets on his verandah to make a nice little income supplying a couple of restaurants.
I’ve started my own experiment at home and strongly believe we won’t be buying coriander after a couple of months. And I will take the savings from that and pile them up to replace another plant…like that, like that as I spice up my life!