By Maina Waruru

Before 2019, David Obwona was just another farmer practicing subsistence agriculture in Katukatib village, Amoro district of Northern Uganda, where like everyone else he grew maize, millet, soya, cassava, sunflower and rice producing just enough to feed his family, a little surplus for sale.

For a man with a large family, his main preoccupation was feeding and clothing the family, and getting them quality or post-primary school education was a secondary goal and distant possibility.

It is not that quality life for his family including affording them a college education was not a desire he held, it is just that he was being realistic that subsistence farming, also a source of his livelihood could not afford more than the basics of life.

Today, thanks to his interest in improving the well-being of his family through farming, one of his daughters is in college studying nursing, a no mean feat for a smallholder farmer whose source of income is his eight-acre parcel of land.

David Obwona in his rice farm during the interview

The secret to his change in fortune and circumstances lies in his decision to take up commercial seed rice farming, thanks to the knowledge imparted to him and others in his Worbalo KUC farmers group, by the Enhancing Agribusiness Rice Clusters and Market Linkages and Incomes in Northern Uganda (EARMINU), implemented in the region by Gulu University under the  Transforming African Agricultural Universities to meaningfully contribute to Africa’s growth and development (TAGDev).

“There is money in seed rice farming no doubt”, he says, “otherwise there’s no way I will have managed to take my daughter to college by growing ordinary rice like everyone else.”

The TAGDev initiative is a partnership between Kampala-based Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), and the MasterCard Foundation. It aims to intervene in the rice value chain on both the production and supply side, by promoting good agronomic practices and post-harvest handling technologies by offering technical support to farmers in the region, to improve both rice production and incomes.

Obwona’s Worbalo farmers group has a total of 26 members 18 of whom are active, and who farm individually on their farms and collectively on a joint 3-acre plot, sharing proceeds from the latter at the end of every three months growing season.

Since 2019 they have been planting the improved Namche2 and Namche5 uplands varieties that grow in rainwater, unlike the ordinary ones that need a lot of water only growing under flood irrigation.

From his land he is able to harvest at least 18 bags of rice each weighing 100kgs and sell to local farmers at UGX 3000, meaning that each one of them is able to earn a decent sum of UGX5.4 million equivalent to US$1500 average each season.

So far two groups that have been trained under EARMINU have been licensed to engage in the seed rice business, according to project Principal Investigator (PI) Prof Basil Mugonola Senior lecturer and head of the Department of Rural Development and Agribusiness at Gulu University.

Getting licensed by the government is a rigorous process whose requirements the groups have been able to fulfill after training by the project, ensuring they are able to produce disease-free quality planting material, says the PI.

The project facilitated farmers’ access to the initial “foundation” seed which was shared among members and planted also on a communal farm. This however was after more training on how to raise seed rice, plus modern ways of growing the crop.

“One of our major interventions on the production side has been to ensure that farmers are able to access clean planting material of improved upland rice varieties. Farmers have been planting the same seed from the previous harvest each year which compromises quality and lowers yields,” he explains.

To achieve the goal it has enrolled a total of seven farmer groups each with 50 members and has created one cooperative society made up of more than 200 members, who have been taught not only good agricultural practices but also value addition technologies, he said.

Thanks to training by the project and their desire to adopt new technologies and techniques learned, two of the groups have attracted extra support from the government, one of them benefitting from a rice mill.

The technologies include the use of rice husks, often seen as waste and a nuisance, to make clean energy briquettes, and the making of parboiled rice, a method that pre-boils unmilled rice to derive maximum nutrients from the husk while giving it a unique taste and colour, he further explains.

David Obwona displaying some of the briquettes

This was besides training on how to formulate animal feeds from rice bran, a by-product of the produce whose prices have skyrocketed in recent years in the East African region, sending livestock farmers out of business.

For this reason, EARMINU has had to hire an assistant to work closely with farmers linking them with markets, and sharing knowledge and information with them.

“Rice is among the priority value chain crops earmarked for development in the country mainly because of its importance as both a food security and income crop,” the professor noted.

The country’s demand for the grain, he says, far outstrips production, making Uganda a net importer.

“Despite widespread adoption of upland rice varieties, there are still glaring yield gaps at farmer fields compared to research recommended production per hectare, as well as limited access to better markets,” he adds.

It is for this reason that the project which commenced in 2018 to last for a period of 48 months, as its overall objective is exploring mechanisms for market linkages and product diversification for improved food security and incomes, Prof Munogola told Panavisions.

According to James Odong, Secretary of the Pabbo Cooperative Society, a marketing organisation revived by the project after encountering headwinds soon after it was formed in 1992. Some 255 members of the organisation had collectively put over 3000 acres of land under seed rice multiplication farming.

Prior to the coming of EARMINU, the coop’s members were into rice for food production, many consuming nearly all the produce at home, and sparing very little for sale, but not again after the projects trained them and donated new improved varieties.

“We have been growing rice for domestic consumption for a long time, but with the knowledge acquired from the university, we are now into seeds production which is a better venture,” he said.

Thanks to their decision to join together as a cooperative, they have put up a new store for the produce, and the Agriculture Cluster Development Project, a partnership between the government and the World Bank is donating a new harvesting machine to them, he revealed.

As a cooperative, he disclosed, they make as much as UGX100,000 million a season, with each farmer taking home approximately UGX500,000.