This story is part of AlertNet’s special report “Solutions For A Hungry World”
By Lisa Anderson
NEW YORK (AlertNet) - Once the breadbasket of Uganda, food production in the country’s central region had dwindled drastically by the mid-2000s as HIV/AIDS weakened or killed off farmers and drought ravaged the land.
Many families abandoned any hope of maintaining the farms. But Peter Francis Luswata, who was raised on a farm in the region, saw hope in the land itself.
“We are looking at a holistic approach to help a farmer get out of poverty forever and ever,” Luswata, told AlertNet in a telephone interview.
In 2005, Luswata who used to work for aid agency Mercy Corps, and his banker wife Cissy, launched the Uganda Rural Community Support Foundation (URCSF) in Masaka.
“We started out with one acre of land, one pig, one cow and five goats,” recalled Luswata, now 38.
The idea was to teach farmers new skills including water and soil management, crop diversification, seed sharing, animal husbandry, marketing and sanitation and hygiene training.
If farmers - many of whom are infected with HIV/AIDS - could learn better, sustainable agricultural methods and produce three meals a day for themselves and their families, Luswata reasoned, the benefits would reach far beyond their dinner tables.
They would not only be better able to tolerate their HIV/AIDS medication and have more energy to farm, but they could generate income, achieve food security, rebuild their farming communities and create viable agricultural futures for their children.
In 2007, Luswata's foundation created a model farm to train farmers with a $10,000 grant arranged by the San Francisco-based non-profit Groundwork Opportunities.
The immediate goal was better nutrition for the farmers and their families.
“Most people were having one meal per day,” Luswata said. “The whole idea was that they would have three meals a day, so if they were on medication they would recover. You were helping them to go back to farming because they also would have the energy.”
After three years, Luswata said, farmers were growing enough to feed their families and also sell some of their crops for income. Farmers are taught to produce food and generate income all year round by diversifying their plantings with shorter term crops, such as maize, cassava and cowpeas, and longer term fruits, such as mangoes, oranges, pineapples and bananas.
The model farm has now grown to 27 acres with over 100 pigs and nearly 600 goats. To date, it has reached some 200,000 people in the Masaka region, Luswata said.
He added that the model was very sustainable because whether pigs, goats or seeds, “everything is a bank for us”.
The farm “loans” farmers a pregnant goat or pig. When the animal gives birth, the farmer gives one animal back to the “bank” for another farmer.
The farm also makes loans of seeds and seedlings at planting time with farmers repaying the loans with seeds after the harvest.
“If we give them 10 kg of seeds at the beginning of the season, they bring us back double to support other farmers,” said Luswata, who signs an agreement with every farmer. “And we don’t just give out seeds. We give you seeds that are appropriate to your land.
“Now, we don’t need more seeds, but we need tractors because our farmers are reaching the stage of becoming commercial farmers,” Luswata added. “We have no tractors. One to begin with would be enough. They would share it on a loan system ... If a farmer goes from one acre to four or five acres, it also creates more jobs and people will be making more money.”
The cooperative structure of the model farm has produced something equally important, if less tangible, than the crops, Luswata said. Because people are working together, it has “drastically” reduced the stigma previously associated with HIV/AIDS, he said.
“People now want to work together. You can see that kind of mutual understanding and love. It’s very comforting and very rewarding for us,” he added.