BY JOHN OKOT
Early last year when an over length drought hit Karamoja region hard, there was a severe food crisis in Roger Lochole’s home in Modokony village, Kotido district, north-eastern Uganda..
Lochole’s situation worsened even more when the fall army worms ravaged his remaining two-acre sorghum garden, including other farmlands in the region. The migratory pests had originated from neighbouring western Kenya.
Many crops were destroyed and granaries emptied; as a result, hunger brought Lochole and others down to their knees.
Lochole had nowhere to turn to. He could not rely on his few animals which have since been dwindling in numbers (from 60 to 10 ) over the years due to disease attacks while some had been stolen by nomads from neighboring Kenya.
“My hands were tied last year—we had nothing to eat,” says Lochole, 23, a father of two.
“I also had to raise my children’s school fees yet I had nothing in the garden”
To remedy the situation, a Chinese millet variety, known as the Foxtail, was introduced as part of the Chinese technical assistance under the South to South Cooperation— a United Nations (UN) platform for developing countries initiated to exchange technology, knowledge and resources.
This was under a pilot project, introduced in 2016, where Chinese agriculturalists were jointly working with district local governments in Karamoja region.
Since 2012, China had sent over 30 experts to Uganda to provide technical assistance in crop production, horticulture and agri-business to fight insecurity in sensitive areas especially northern and north-eastern Uganda.
The idea, under this project, was that affected farmers like Lochole harvest this millet variety, thirty percent of it would be given to new recruits.
So Lochole was among the 50 farmers chosen as pioneer beneficiaries of growing Foxtail millet.
Foxtail millet did wonders: it flickered a ray of hope before the eyes of many frustrated farmers who began calling it ‘the miracle seed’ due to its drought tolerant and fast maturing nature.
This yellowish millet variety, named after its colour resemblance to the tail of the fox, takes two months to grow, compared to the traditional brownish finger millet that takes three months.
The first harvest was huge for Lochole who reaped six bags of Foxtail millet from five kilograms of the seeds he had planted in his garden.
“I could not believe what I saw in my garden,” Lochole reminisces with fondness.
“My millet had matured. I was able to replenish my food stock and my situation improved for some time”
But amid all this bliss, Lochole’s cause for celebration was short-lived.
At the onset of the rainy season this year in March, farmers who had planned to grow Foxtail millet again, missed out on their first rains because they were waiting for their cultural elders to flag-off planting the first season.
Lochole was among the farmers left in dilemma yet food shortage was still looming in many homes.
“We could not do anything but wait for our elders to direct us,” Lochole explains.
“We sat silently and watched as the rains passed away but we could not lift a finger,”
Among the Karimojong communities, some cultural elders are regarded as traditional ‘weather forecasters’ of sorts, with powers to dictate when farmers should plant their crops.
Failure to obey their instructions would lead one to punishment, which is then followed by a ritual cleansing known as ‘Amedo’ where a bull is slaughtered to prevent a bad omen as it is believed.
And so, by the time the cultural elders gave a green light to farmers to plant their crops two months later in June, unfortunately there was a ‘pseudo rainy season’.
Lochole says: “It was too late for us to grow because the rain took long to fall,”
“Our seeds were washed away and crops failed to sprout,”
However, as this tragic incidence continued to unfold, something ironic happened.
Farmers who had disobeyed their elders were punished but their attitudes came with benefits: they ended up with harvests while meekly farmers like Lochole had to bite their lips and suffer silently.
Adapting to climate change.
A 2018 World Bank report, titled ‘Developing the Agri-Food System for inclusive Economic Growth’ notes that Uganda needs new policies on irrigation and seeds to overcome structural challenges like ‘agricultural productivity and resilience of agricultural systems and rural livelihoods to weather and climatic shocks.
And these challenges have been rampant in Karamoja which experiences one short rainy season that is highly erratic, unreliable and inadequate—averaging from 350 mm to 1,000 mm per annum.
Karamoja has always been continuously stalked by hunger, sometimes famine, thus causing food crisis over the years.
A 2016 report prepared by USAID Office of Food for Peace indicates that 53 US million dollars was sunk into funding food security activities in Karamoja where 50 per cent of the people are still food insecure.
Since 2010, government has been moving away from having people to rely on food relief to more sustainable solutions. Some NGOs, like Economic empowerment and Support, have also been sensitizing communities on the value of growing drought tolerant varieties like the Foxtail millet.
District local governments in Karamoja are planning to train local farmers on modern farming methods as they gradually move away from solely relying on pastoralism to agro pastoralism in order to remain food secure.
The farmers will be trained with fact based modern farming through our extension workers, says Benard Obin, Kotido District Agricultural Officer.
“These workers will act as ‘change agents’ in the communities that are struggling to adapt to the changing weather patterns,”
Obin adds that the program is also aimed at driving away locals from relying on superstitious beliefs when farming.
But while such plans are still in offing, an initiative is already ongoing.
Mark Tony Ochen is an agricultural officer at Panyagrara Sub County, in Kotido district, who has been training farmers on modern farming methods and conducting sensitization activities on climate change.
Ochen began this initiative in 2015, after completing his internship at National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) — an autonomous government agency in Uganda which addresses agriculture problems under the Ministry of agriculture.Unlike NAADS, which is funded by government, Ochen works on a voluntary basis.
“I began by training six model farmers who are also teaching 30 people. My target is to reach 3000 farmer by next year,” says Ochen who has been distributing Foxtail millet after receiving training about the variety from Namulonge Agriculture and Animal Research Institute this year.
Some of the agricultural skills that Ochen teaches are; water conservations methods to harvest rain water in semi-arid zones; how to grow drought resistant varieties like Foxtail millet, crop rotation to retain soil fertility and control floods.
This training is structured in line with Uganda National Climate Change Policy objectives which calls for, key among others, the need to promote value addition, improve management systems in order to ensure food storage and food security at all times.Farmers like Lochole are already benefiting from these classes.