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Farm schools: Escaping poverty through farming

The majority of people in Uganda live from agriculture. Yet, traditional farming methods no longer produce sufficient yields to feed families. The unvarying cultivation, year after year, of plantains, maize, beans and cassava has leached the soil, leaving many families malnourished. But through mobile farming schools, the Kitovu Mobile Project is showing young people how sustainable agriculture works. After four years, the schools move on to the next village.

Text and photos: Katharina Drzisga / © Kindernothilfe 

Masaka is capital of the district with the same name in southern Uganda. The city, with more than 100,000 inhabitants, lies between Kampala and Mbarara on the main trunk road to Rwanda. The typical urban landscape: workshops for cars and trucks, with tyre dealers lining the streets. Road dust mixes with oil and petrol dripping from passing trucks. The sandy, reddish soil is almost black here. The smell of diesel hangs heavily in the air. A lot of people in Masaka make their living from the long-distance traffic that passes through – running snack bars, repairing trucks, renting out accommodation. Unfortunately, this passing trade has brought more than income opportunities: Masaka still has one of the highest HIV/Aids rates in the country.

In some parts of the city, the infection rate is almost 30 percent. The virus has already cost many lives and virtually no family remains unaffected. Many children grow up as full or half orphans – not an easy life. Although parents often leave a plot of land to their offspring, which they could farm to meet their own nutritional needs, the children and adolescents are often unfamiliar with farming techniques. Thus, the soil, which is actually fertile, produces poor harvests, and countless children are either malnourished or undernourished.

(source: Katharina Drzisga)
(Source: Katharina Drzisga)

A solution to the crisis

For the last twenty years, farm schools have offered a solution to the precarious situation facing many children and adolescents. A situation caused by the AIDS pandemic and broken families. The concept is simple yet ingenious: within the project area, a farm school remains in one spot for a four-year period, passing on skills the young people need for sustainable and organic agriculture. The local community is involved in planning from the outset. Local councils may provide, e.g, a building where block teaching can be carried out and students can live during this period. The community provides food and is involved in selecting the young people who will attend the farm school. The conditions are that they have to be aged between 13 and 19, have not been to school for at least two years and are from poor family backgrounds. “It's important that the community is involved in the entire process,” says Justus Rugambwa, chief executive officer of Kitovu Mobile, Kindernothilfe’s long-standing partner in Masaka. “This means that everyone is acquainted with our approach, and there is no envy. And the locals regard it as ‘their’ project.”

The classroom for the students in the first year is large and simple. It is actually the village assembly hall. And, now, a place of learning. One hundred girls and boys, in blue-green school uniforms, sit on dark-brown wooden benches and listen attentively to what the teacher is saying. She is explaining the production of organic fertiliser. An old water drum, a burlap sack, a rope, cow manure, water – things the young farmers can easily find and put to use. This is crucial, the teacher says, since the young people should avoid incurring debts by buying expensive equipment, chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The walls are decorated with homemade posters illustrating how tomatoes, cabbages and onions are grown. Or, how raised beds are created. And how seedlings are cultivated. Here, the young people learn all the skills they need to grow fruit and vegetables in their own gardens.

John is proud that he can successfully put what he has learned into practice. James in his garden. (Source: Katharina Drzisga)

Successful learning

As was the case with John and James, 16 and 17-years-old, each of them a half-orphan. And in both cases, their houses are a long way away from the nearest main road, at the end of dusty pot-holed tracks, winding adventurously through rolling hills. Yet, behind the family homes, dilapidated, showing signs of wear and tear, a genuine miracle is unfolding: a sea of green, blooming plants! Fields with cabbages, onions, tomatoes; banana trees bearing fruit. The boys have built stalls for goats and chickens and excavated deep pits to be used for composting. And something else can be found in the large gardens: an old water drum, a burlap sack, a rope, cow dung, water. The boys have put all they learned at school into effect. This means their families now have a balanced diet and they can sell any surplus on the market.

Nelson, a former farm student, is now a large-scale farmer and a role model for James,  who successfully grows fruit and vegetables in his garden.(Source: Katharina Drzisga)

Bigger plans

John is proud of what he has accomplished already and that he is able to support his family. But he has bigger plans. “I’d like to grow even more in the future,” he says, “and maybe buy more land, so that I can make some real money from farming”. His role model is Nelson, who attended the first farm school in 1998. Since then, he has built up a large operation, growing everything from pineapple to coffee and leeks, harvesting up to 100,000 pineapples per year. Nelson sells his produce within the region, but also in the capital, Kampala. He is married and has eight children. Five of them were orphans, which he took into his family. He can afford to send all his children to school. “I was lucky,” he says, “that I had people around me who gave me a chance. I always knew what I wanted: to take advantage of the opportunity given to me.” Students from the farm school can visit his farm and learn from his experience.

He enjoys passing on his know-how. Another reason why Nelson has other plans for the future. “I would like to open my own agricultural institute. Where young people, with no future prospects, can benefit from tuition.” He is working hard to achieve this. Alongside his work on the farm, the 38-year-old is now doing his high school diploma. He then wants to go on to study economics. “This would give me the skills I need to run an institute like this successfully,” he laughs.

“Of course, not all of the former farm students become successful large-scale farmers,” says Justus Rugambwa. “And they don’t have to. For, just being able to farm the land they have, makes a huge difference to the young people and their families. Malnutrition is eliminated and, by selling any surplus crops, they can make some money. School fees for their younger siblings can be paid – and the whole process can be repeated. Little by little, step by step, families are able to escape poverty. And through their own efforts. That, after all, is the goal.”