Ugandan smallholder farmer John Opio has dedicated his life to helping his fellow farmers in Katine, eastern Uganda. As well as running his own family farm growing a range of crops including cassava, millet, maize and ground nuts.
John works as a Field Extension Officer for the Katine Joint Farmers’ Cooperative Society, a local farmers cooperative set up by Farm Africa with support from funds raised by Guardian readers.
Thanks to a scholarship from Marshal Papworth, John and seven other agricultural specialists from across Africa have spent 10 weeks in England attending the tailor-made Marshal Papworth Short Course at Shuttleworth Agricultural College.
The eight students who attended the Marshal Papworth educational course are: John Opio – Uganda, Bahiru Asfaw – Ethiopia, Doni Tufa – Ethiopia, Domnicus Thuma – Kenya, Lorna Akeyo Oketch – Kenya, Alioune Fall – Senegal, Modou Ndao – Senegal and Shadrack Yoash Nyugua – Tanzania.
Agricultural experts have taught John and his fellow students a wide range of practical skills and practices in livestock, crop and agribusiness management. Here he talks about some of the key lessons he is bringing home to share with his community in Katine:
“The first thing we learnt was about how you have to understand farmers’ needs before you can teach them. This is very important because otherwise you may focus on something that doesn’t fit their situation. First you have to do a detailed assessment so that you can be sure to deliver the right training. It has to come from the farmers themselves which enterprises they want to build.
“It will take time to change peoples’ perspective on what are the best ways of doing things, many have not previously had much support on practical aspects of agriculture so have stuck to their cultural ways of farming. There are different types of people: the innovators will see, learn and adopt and then others will follow. We need to think about how to deal with people who don’t want to change. This is an issue as older people are often slower to try new things than the young. The old guys are inquisitive, they ask lots of questions and analyse the situation well before they act. I have to take time to get to know them and work with them to accept new things: they learn by seeing and touching. If they see the value from the market, then they will change. That is how old men and women learn.
“Agriculture is the backbone of Uganda. It sustains the whole country, everything we eat is from the soil and whatever developments we make are through agriculture. But the practices are not up to date, we have to use our backbones to clear the land with very small tools like hoes. Finance is key. With soft loans, farmers can use the money to increase production – loan it, save it, loan it, save it.
“Older people ask me lots of questions on what the interest rate is, how many repayments there are, and the consequences on what happens if they aren’t able to repay a loan. I have to counsel them about how they can repay with the money they earn from their increased production. They don’t want debts but I tell them if they take loans, they can afford quality seeds and increase their yield, then we can deduct the loan payments from the crops they deliver.
“Environmental protection is also important. Across Africa you’ll find many forests being cut and the Sahara is moving down. But farmers are not informed of what is happening, they need early warning systems so they can get prepared. Throughout the Marshal Papworth scholarship we have learnt about climate change. It is affecting our soil and risking our food security. We need to let people know more about good agricultural practices and help them adapt so we can become more resilient.
“I have learnt lots of practical things such as health and safety practices, the identification of weeds and diseases in crops, and issues around livestock such as types of feed, processing silage, and animal welfare. Another important thing is about soil testing. At home, testing costs much and takes a long time to send away for the results. If it is time for planting a farmer may dream what they are going to plant without knowing what is best to grow where. That means our farmers are sowing crops without knowledge of what is best suited and how much fertiliser to use. Marshal Papworth has given us soil testing kits so we will be able to advise what is appropriate, this will be a huge help.
“But the most important thing of all is that when I return to Uganda I will lead by example. I know the challenges smallholder farmers face because I am also a farmer. I have learnt many things on the Marshal Papworth course which I will share with those I work with in Katine and it will bring us closer as I will be able to help them. On my farm I will implement what I’ve been trained on and will demonstrate to others what is best practice – when people see the positive results the impact will spread.”
Farm Africa is a leading international development charity that reduces poverty by unleashing the ability of farmers across eastern Africa to grow more, sell more and sell for more. Applying practical approaches to development, providing inputs, tools and expertise to enable farmers to double or triple their yields.
Farm Africa helps farmers to become more resilient to the effects of climate change and to access markets so they can increase their income and build sustainable businesses. Farm Africa work closely with communities, the private sector and governments to make sure we’re finding the most effective ways to sustain natural resources, increase food production and help end Africa’s need for aid.