And, we’re off! With our first RVO-funded training on Brand Coffee Farm completed, we have officially launched the Mubende chapter of Futureproof Coffee Collective (FCC) Uganda. The lessons, brought to life by the brains and spirit behind RockInSoil, Ruben Borge, focused on equipping producers with the knowledge and practical understanding to produce their own organic inputs.
Over 5 days, 32 participants (12 lead farmers and 20 youth entrepreneurs) learnt the foundations of organic compost, fertiliser, herbicide and pesticide production, through a combination of theory sessions and practical interactive workshops. Incorporating these learnings into environmentally and economically sustainable farming practices will contribute to tackling the FCC’s three core project objectives: ecological degradation, underpayment and gender inequality.
As I stand in the chilly early hours, watching the sunrise burn away the morning dew nestled in the slopes of Brand Coffee Farm, I have a moment to reflect on the past week. It is difficult to imagine that Brand Coffee Farm, now returned to its usual tranquil state of operations, had been so alive and busy only hours earlier.
The use of chemical inputs as the standard means of stimulating crop productivity is steadily devaluing the nutrient value of farming soil, attacking necessary microorganisms and increasing coffee plants’ dependency on external factors for survival. Luckily, standard farming practice intercrops cash crops, like coffee, with food crops, like beans, groundnuts and plantain, which allows for a continuous supply of diverse nutrients in the soil and slows the damage of chemical inputs. Nonetheless, shifts in weather patterns and increasingly inconsistent rains are putting plants under unprecedented levels of stress, consequently increasing the need for inputs.
During one of our many torrential rain-induced lesson breaks, Ruben embarked on a sort of sermon: “We have been taught by commercial farming that nature is something we must fight against and defeat. We see a pest or a weed, and our first thought is: ‘How can I kill it?’”. Chemical inputs have proven themselves exceptional at especially this, aggressively attacking external threats to the coffee plant, but taking beneficial microorganisms as casualties in the process. His lessons shared practical recipes for organic inputs, but what he was really teaching was a new approach to farming, where producers work not against nature, but alongside it.
As a consequence, the participants left with a holistic understanding of how inputs into the earth impact the biological processes and relationship between soil nutrients, plants and the environment. This is crucial in teaching other cooperative members, who did not attend the training, to develop long-term, sustainable farming practices, and understand the reasoning behind changing to organic farming.
During the Phase A risk assessment, insufficient income was identified as a key concern amongst the research participants, with the cost of agricultural inputs ranking highest on average farming household expenditure. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has done even the most superficial reading on the coffee supply chain. Although some efforts have been made on behalf of the Ugandan Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), the occasional subsidy or compost hand-out does not provide a sustainable solution. Furthermore, widespread dependency on chemical inputs has allowed a market for opportunistic scammers selling ‘fake’ fertilisers, diluted with water, to flourish.
Home-production of inputs allows our farmers to know exactly what goes into their products, and Ruben’s recipes even allowed for variations, based on what resources households had available. For the more labour-intensive and expensive inputs, like organic compost, the participants split into subgroups, each with their own ‘communal’ compost heap. In some instances, the costs and work were shared equally, in others a single larger farming household assumed the costs and responsibility themselves, and sold their organic compost to farmers in their vicinity.
In a follow-up chat with Paul Kato, one of the youth entrepreneurs and a community leader, he summarised the financial benefits of homemade organic inputs as follows: “it has reduced the cost of artificial fertilisers” and boosted crop production by “improving soil structures”. Thirdly, “these organic inputs are cheap, which makes them easier to get and make [inputs]”. Lowering the financial bar on entry enables farmers to produce inputs beyond their own requirements, and sell excess to surrounding farmers for additional income.
This entrepreneurial opportunity is targeted especially at the 20 youth participants. Uganda, like so many coffee-producing regions, struggles with a high urban migration of youngsters sceptical of a future in agriculture. In this area, inter-generational relationships are strained due to high youth unemployment and consequentially frequent theft of coffee and livestock. Part of the FCC mission is the creation of youth-led enterprises to encourage the next generation to stay in, and stimulate, the agricultural sector in Mubende. These start-ups will deal with, amongst others, the production, sale and application of organic inputs for local coffee producers. Whilst the financial benefits should hopefully encourage youth to stick around and build the local agricultural economy, creating labour and income opportunities, the co-dependency of older and younger farmers will help mend social ties within the community.
Out of the 32 training attendees, 8 of them were women. Three of these came from the same household, and one 19-year-old was 9 months pregnant (at the time of writing, she has given birth to a delightful and healthy baby girl). These figures alone suggest that men and women face very different realities in farming households. Naturally, the training participation did not reflect the generally equal male-to-female split representation in households, but it did correlate with existing research findings that men are disproportionally more likely to attend agricultural training. Even in cooperatives like Kitenga and Kanseera, both of which have received gender-equality workshops through UCFA, there is still a tendency for male members to represent the household and invest in ‘practical’ upskilling.
However, during the actual sessions, it was encouraging to see equal participation across all genders, with female participants jumping in and presenting their findings voluntarily. In the latter workshops (fertilisers and pesticides) female participants were largely even taking the lead. This might be attributed to the type of practical work required, as these workshops involved the ‘cooking’ of ingredients in large cauldrons, not unlike the preparation of meals at home. It is easy to be critical of such a ‘win’ for gender equality, as it relies on the arguably unequal distribution of household gender roles, but the reality is that this similarity to a women-associated household role enables female household members to enter the post-harvesting workspace and actively contribute to and be involved in farming economics. Only by challenging such gender-specific spaces can gender equality be realised.
Three months have passed since that first training, and we see it is merely the first, small step. The challenge now lies in keeping the momentum ging, turning theory into practice and passing on the teachings to the 900+ members of Kitenga and Kanseera Cooperatives.
The first two have proven surprisingly effortless: since the conclusion of the training in June, the groups have been actively arranging workshops amongst themselves and sharing their progress in our shared Whatsapp group, RockInFarmers Mubende. At the beginning of July, Jim Teergsen, owner of Brand Coffee Farm, and Alex K (coffee farmer, but a first and foremost friend and huge project support) visited our farmer groups to check in on their progress. Since then, Alex K has worked alongside the Youth to help them formalise their business plans and get their first sales of homemade organic inputs off the ground.
The rollout to non-participating farmers has been slow, but steady. Scepticism concerning the effectiveness and long-term benefits of organic, compared to chemical, agricultural inputs was expected, especially in the older demographics. However, Ruben’s comprehensive and creative teaching methods have been a great asset, and hopes are high that those who remain sceptical will be won over when they see the results in person.
Meanwhile, we are already launching our second round of training: Beekeeping and Honey Production. On the 14th-16th of September, Kampala-based Maialka Honey visited us at Brand Coffee Farm to teach 10 of our youth entrepreneurs all the hows and whys of bee cultivation.