How African Indigenous Vegetables production in Uganda revealed empowered women but struggles in the private sector

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African Indigenous Vegetables (AIVs) are a good source of essential vitamins and minerals including micro-nutrients, supplementary protein, fibre, and calories. However, despite their nutritional value, these vegetables have not been a high priority in food programmes. As a result, adequate resources have historically not been allocated to promote their production and consumption. This compounds the issue of hidden hunger – a lack of vitamins and minerals that often has no visible signs – in Africa.

In 2013, CABI launched a project to promote good seed in East Africa. The project’s key aim was improved access to the African indigenous vegetables and seeds themselves, not only their consumption. Common AIVs in Uganda include: amaranths, scarlet eggplant, African nightshade, African eggplant, spider plant, and pumpkin. An important aspect of the project was providing access to market and a link with seed company, Simlaw Seeds Uganda Ltd, facilitated this.

In Uganda, the project worked with existing farmer groups who were already growing seeds, aiming for balanced groups of women and men. In the end, each of the groups turned out to be around 70% women.

This year, project members from CABI and the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) returned to the farmer groups in Uganda who had been part of this project to grow AIV seeds. What became clear was that previous seasons of growing the vegetables (2014-2017) for seed had been successful for the groups, particularly with scarlet eggplant, known locally as ‘nakati’. Simlaw Seeds Uganda Ltd, had purchased from all groups and profits were shared between members within each group.

Since AIVs are not traditionally a cash crop – unlike Uganda’s big three: coffee, bananas, and rice – many male farmers did not take an interest in growing them. In addition, even if men were keen to grow the crop, the post-harvest processing required for seed cultivation, often wasn’t of interest to male farmers.

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Women of the Kyassuma Kabligagali Twegatire Wamu group in Masaka district. Photo ©CABI

Women’s participation in agriculture is often viewed as a household activity and with a strong focus on the nutritional value of AIVs, women took the lead in growing them. The result was that women were able to profit from the crops, some independently from their husbands.

In many poor, rural communities, although women make up much of the agricultural labour force they often do not have access to as many resources as men. Women have less access to finance, education, land ownership, high quality inputs, and rural advisory services, making it much harder for them to fully benefit.

Almost all the women said that their primary motivation for cultivating AIVs for seed were their children’s school fees. Some women bought livestock or better livestock feed, others were able to make home improvements like corrugated iron roofing. Importantly though, as noted by one farmer from the Kiswa Kwekulakulanya Farmers Group in Mpigi district, reflecting on the profit she had gained from seed sales, “as a woman I never had my own money,” adding that she had kept some aside in case of emergencies, giving her peace of mind.

Aside from the increased income, women reported that farming as part of a group and pooling their resources also brought advantages like being able to get better access to inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, and more than that they spoke about the feeling of togetherness that the group brought to them; working together for shared benefit. Some women were even leaders or in important roles (e.g. treasurer, secretary) for their group, and two groups developed a saving culture that was strengthened by the proceeds from the seed sales. The women are able to: make decisions about agricultural production, access productive resources, control their income, and lead in their community: four out of the five domains in the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) that measures the empowerment, agency and inclusion of women in agriculture.

 

The project did not set out to be focused on women, but with women making up the majority of the group numbers, the results revealed the benefit of female agency in agriculture; highlighting the importance of using a gender perspective across project planning. In this case there was a positive impact but ignoring gender aspects could risk encountering unwanted negative impacts for female participants.

However, as the groups spoke about their yields and incomes for the most recent growing season (season 2, 2018), a less successful picture began to emerge and this time round, farmers had to wait much longer to be paid.

“After selling the nakati seed, for many farmers, it was their first time holding that amount of money in their hand,” said Christine Alokit, a Communication and Extension Scientist for CABI, who worked on the project. “They got very excited and grew a lot more the following year with the view that they would be able to sell the seed,” she continued.

At the time, the seed company had stipulated two AIV seed types from the farmers; nakati and bugga (red Amaranth) and although this was communicated directly to the farmers, a quantity of seed was never stipulated or captured in the contract. In fact, the seed company would only take as much as they could sell and sales had declined as other companies entered the AIV market.

With this expected income missing and the prospect of children being sent home from school for unpaid fees, farmers had gone back to growing other crops such as leafy vegetables and tomatoes.

Eventually all the seed was sold, even the surplus at the seed company. Although the seed company took less than the farmers had hoped at first, the farmers’ surplus actually went on to be bought by other companies and individuals.

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CABI and NARO staff with the Kiswa Kwekulakulanya Farmers Group. Photo: ©CABI

Ensuring the sustainability of project work is complicated. In this case, Simlaw Seeds Uganda Ltd continued to work with the farmers after the project had come to an end, but even this presented a challenge: a reliance on a single company. It is clear that farmers struggle to have a voice in the private sector and more support is needed not only in terms of access to diversified markets but also understanding and negotiating contracts with seed companies.

Interventions need to carefully think about their legacy and sustainability: increased yields and incomes are only part of the picture, and an understanding of the complexities of farmers’ needs has to play a bigger part in project planning and partnerships; from hidden hunger and the gender perspective, through to market linkages and business dynamics.

Further reading:

Funding

The AIV project was funded by Irish Aid, the project ran until 2016. CABI obtained further support from the European Commission through the African Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services (AFAAS) (May to Dec 2017) to advance irrigation facilities to ensure continuous production of seed and build farmers capacity for quality seed production.

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