After our first attempt belly-flopped, Paul (a member farmer) invited me to chew it over in his carpentry workshop. I listened, ankle deep in wood shavings.
“The farmers from our church are not serious farmers. They have other work, like me! Their farms are all far away from each other, so they struggle to think collectively. In my home village, I have over 60 farmers who want to join us. They are so poor. Farming is their ONLY livelihood, and their farms are all side-by-side, they can see when each other plants, weeds, harvests. They need this. They will work together.”
A week later I found myself cycling behind Paul and our chairman Ocen along Juba Road, passing scattered huts, spiky tuku trees, the odd sunflower field, under Gulu’s glorious domed sky. An hour and a half later, we arrived in Jimo village. My eyes opened wide – within half an hour 66 people materialized under the designated mango tree. Paul nodded happily. Ocen lead a brief bible study on forgiveness, which bizarrely prompted a public reconciliation between two ladies who had been fighting over a goat-crop eating incident.
We explained the seed loan system, then fielded the usual flood of questions. So the seeds aren’t free? Why? What about free Cows? Hoes? Tarpaulins? We explained this is a cooperative, not an NGO. 59 farmers signed up, appointed some key leaders, and promised to bring their membership fees when we convened in 2 months to prepare for the planting season.
And so, we found ourselves starting a new group in Jimo (attempt 3) at the same time we launched attempt 2 with our church farmers. Proper rural, full-time farmers, larger scale, one location…I had a good feeling about it. Take note: feelings are misleading.
Drum roll……..what happened?We biked out again 2 months later with 59 maize seed loan forms. We waited for hours under the mango tree. No one. Just the odd goat. I went back to Paul, trying to find out what happened. Turned out a lot of people lost interest after finding out there weren’t any freebies involved. But Paul insisted we should give it another shot, there are some who are keen. The next week, after waiting over an hour, 6 farmers came with their membership fees, and filled out seed forms, and discussed our game plan. Fine. Lets start smaller. Training day went well. But when I went back to measure the spacing between rows and plants I found all the advice had been ignored. The spacing was huge and irregular. Why? The seed had been given to their children to plant. Go figure. I had to leave for NZ just before storage time. We located a small store in Jimo, and I left the group’s leader with group money to pay the rent and the ‘permethrin dust’ to protect the maize from weevils. I returned from NZ, and called our Jimo leader, who called a group meeting. I biked out…and yet again, just me and the goats. I wandered around, and eventually found a young guy who offered to jump on my bike and round up the members of the group. He located everyone but the leader, who was nowhere to be found. The leader had not told the other farmers about the meeting…. In fact he hadn’t communicated anything to them in a long time. No one had brought any maize to the store. Yet again, they sold the maize early. None of the farmers from Jimo have repaid their seed loan. They’ve told me they will pay it in August when their next crops are ready. I visited our treasurer from the original church group to check our account balance. She told me she had ‘borrowed’ the money to complete construction of her house.
I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. We have entered into the realm of a fiasco.
Why the fiasco?
If we try again, we would plant chili or ginger. Lucrative crops that are not eaten in bulk and have an external market. Would that make all the difference? Perhaps.
But there is a deeper problem. Ultimately, most farmers here believe ‘farming groups’ are primarily about accessing free stuff, rather than working together to increase profits. Our group must have been viewed as a fairly lame- nothing free, just a loan. There was very little interest in improving planting methods, little interest in collective storage and sale.
I’m aware there are plenty of farming projects in Gulu, run by NGOs, not by farmers themselves. The farmers receive free seeds, free fertilizer. Often, the NGO itself collects the crop, stores and sells it. If they leave or end the project (which, at some point, they will), will those farmers be able to run the show by themselves? I’m dubious, but oh so very eager to be proved wrong.
That, my friends, is an abbreviated but true account of my fumblings in farming to date. Will there be an attempt 4? To be honest, I’m not sure. If there is, it will look radically different. I’ll keep you posted.