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Uganda's organic push

Ludger Schadomsky / jlwMarch 29, 2013

If Africa is to still its hunger, harvests must be significantly increased while production costs decrease drastically. Studies show that, with organic farming, it can be done.

Box of fruit and vegetables
Image: DW/L. Schadomsky

"Look over there," says Vincent Ssoko, pointing to the expansive plantation of banana trees swaying in the warm breeze. "I'm always saying to my neighbors, do it like me. Dig a big hole, so the plants have enough room. Fill it with manure and make sure not to plant the seedlings too close together." But then the man next door goes and buys expensive fertilizer and again has a poor harvest.

Vincent Ssoko, an organic farmer in Busana in the Kayunga region, three hours northeast of Uganda's capital Kampala,  is doing well.. He has just bought 20 hectares (71 acres) of land in addition to the 29 he already owns. "I started with three acres," he says. That was in 1998. Today, the 46-year-old grows pineapples, bananas, coffee, mangoes and beans. He does so organically, and above all, with organic certification. This allows Ssoko to export his produce to Europe. Proudly he points to a row of pineapples that have been planted in perfectly spaced rows. More than half of the 700,000 fruits he grows are sent to Germany each year. Ssoko makes 700 Ugandan shillings, the equivalent of 20 euro cents ($0.25), per pineapple. At the local market, he would earn just 150 shillings.

Vincent Ssoko standing in a field
Ssoko is setting an example for Ugandan food producersImage: DW/L. Schadomsky

Yield increase with organics

If Africa wants to still its hunger, there's a simple formula for its 900 million farmers. Harvests must be increased significantly, while production costs go down.  That this is possible was documented in an extensive study produced by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2010.  The study of over 12 million farms in almost 60 developing countries concluded that average yields could be increased by 80 percent if organic farming techniques were used. The east African country of Uganda is participating in a test phase.

Pineapples are just one fruit Ssoko growsImage: DW/L. Schadomsky

"Look," says Vincent Ssoko, "instead of buying expensive chemicals, I use natural fertilizer that I get for free from my animals. Instead of pesticides, I use urine and ash to control pests." Even for weeding, farmers have to pay someone as herbicides are taboo.

Organic for all

In the capital Kampala, Judith Nabatanzi sits at her computer, typing. Judith, together with her colleague Cathy Kyazike, runs the local organic shop, "Shop Organic." The name says it all, from vanilla pods to organic carrots, the shop stocks dozens of different organic products from different producers. The store belongs to Nogamu, the umbrella organization for Uganda's organic farmers and is the only organic shop for Uganda's population of 35 million.

Judith has been at the shop since seven o'clock, processing customers' orders. "Friday is the busiest day of the week," she says. "Most of our customers want to cook at weekends, so we have to pack 40 or more baskets." In the meantime, the first farmers have parked their boda-bodas, Uganda's motorbike taxis, in front of the shop. After farmers contact Judith and Cathy to say what they can offer, and what their price is, they fight their way through rush hour traffic to deliver their goods to the store the next morning.

Judith Nogamu in her organic shop
Judith Nabatanzi heads Uganda's only organic shopImage: DW/L. Schadomsky

"My farm is thirty kilometers (18 miles) west of Kampala," says Ssozi Muwangwa. Two large cardboard boxes with ripe, bright red tomatoes are strapped to the rack on his bike. Since 2007 he's been coming here once a week. "The price is good here, much better than for conventional products." One kilo of produce earns Muwangwa 4,000 shillings, which is far more than he would make at the street market. Can he confirm the UNEP study findings on increased harvests? "Yes of course, the soil is more fertile without chemicals. We produce more and over a longer period of time. And we save because we don't have to buy expensive fertilizers." On average his yield was 30 percent, sometimes even 50 percent, higher than before.

While Muwangwa unpacks his boxes, Judith and Kathy sort the orders – an assortment of lettuce, apples, carrots and beetroots - into colorful sisal baskets. On top, a dispatch note with an address, so nothing gets mixed up. To deliver the goods, they use a boda-boda or a refrigerated van, so perishable goods are protected from the hot and humid conditions.

Few organic farmers have certificates

Before Ssozi Muwangwa leaves, he has to get something off his chest. "The certification process for organic famers is extremely expensive." The organic farming organization Nogamu helped him with the financing, but for many farmers the certificates are beyond their reach.

Ssozi Muwangwa holding a box of tomatoes
Organic farming is much more profitable for Moses MuwangaImage: DW/L. Schadomsky

"24 thousand US dollars." Moses Muwanga take a sip of his organically certified tea and lets the figure sink in. Muwanga is Nogumu's CEO. On his office wall hang certificates from Japan, the US and the European Union – they have all licensed Nogamu products. "It costs $8,000 to have an inspector come. It costs $16,000 to change over from traditional to organic farming practices. And this takes around a year to do," says Muwanga. At the moment, Nogamu is working with 1.2 million organic farmers. "However only 200,000 of them have an international export certificate."

Politicians must want organic

DW also put the question to the Nogamu head if it is possible for African farmers to increase yields by up to 80 percent through organic farming practices. "We have documented cases where a farmer who switched to organic production methods more than doubled his income," Muwanga replied. The soil is practically free of chemicals and responds quickly with a much higher output, he added.

Vincent Ssoko und Ludger Schadomsky looking at a pineapple in a field
Farmers using organic methods are able to increase yields by 80-percentImage: DW/L. Schadomsky

But, politicians haven't recognized the importance of this, he criticizes. Organic means actively protecting the environment, having a broader and more balanced diet, increasing the population's income by up to 80 percent - and it has huge export potential, "especially since Uganda's conventional agricultural exports are currently in decline," Muwanga says. For six years now a draft law on biologically sustainable agriculture has been passed between decision makers – but no decision has been made. "Maybe we'll finally get there this year."

When Moses Muwanga visited Germany's leading "BioFach" fair in 2012, he took orders worth more than $200 million. But for the time being Uganda is only able to provide up to $40 million worth of organic products.