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Category: Environment, Health, International

A Few Acres and a Cow (or Two): Up from Poverty in East Africa

| November 25, 2009

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Norah Kanyana at the opening of a milk chilling plant

Backed by Gates Foundation funding, women dairy farmers in Uganda are working collectively to care for their families, their livestock, their crops and the earth.

“It became easy” once she had wheels, Lydia Jjemba said, referring to her gift from a non-profit pilot project. It helps her visit each of the 35 members of her women farmers’ group every month in the Wakiso district of central Uganda. Not a car or motorcycle or scooter. Jjemba, at 49 years, is thankful for her new bicycle. Norah Kanyana still walks the long, flat, remote stretch to work with poor farming women in her district some distance away.

Soon after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched its agricultural program in Africa in 2006, it called attention to the underserved women who do 80 percent of the continent’s farming and to the women change-makers Africa needs to break the cycle of poverty. Jjemba and Kanyana are two such leaders in East Africa.

The Gates chose Heifer International to create the large and ambitious East Africa Dairy Development (EADD), a pilot project with a $42.8 million grant. Having worked to correct gender injustices for more than 20 years, the non-profit focused on women, integrating livestock into their small farm holdings as one way for the rural poor to escape poverty. EADD is designed to double the income of poor farmers—typically less than $2 a day in the dairy sector—and reach a target of 179,000 families over ten years.

“Women are at the center of the project,” said Beatrice Ouma, the regional spokeswoman for EADD. Saeed Bancie, Heifer’s director for the project, noted that even women who own few cows or none can still benefit by learning how to care for livestock and eventually purchasing their own.

Over the four-year pilot, which began in mid-2008, Heifer is installing nearly 30 milk-chilling plants in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The plants enable small farms in the dairy industry to receive higher prices from commercial companies for better quality milk. Without a chilling facility, they have to sell their raw milk quickly to buyers who must boil it before use.

The plant is also a hub with markets and business, financial and animal-care services. Heifer works with four partners to provide specialized courses and workshops free of charge. Farmers buy shares in the enterprise, which they operate cooperatively. Thus the infrastructure will be in place to continue independently and grow after the pilot period is over. Some of the farmers take courses in finance and entrepreneurship to create added incomes for themselves. With increased earnings, they can finally send their children to school, feed their families better, and receive medical care. Heifer is matching $2.5 million of the Gates grant for a fund to guarantee financing by the farmer coop associations.

Lydia Jjemba was one of the first to sign up for her coop association and is now, according to one EADD officer, “a very vibrant member” of its executive committee. But what sustains her is the three-acre farm she co-owns with her husband, who, she makes clear, helps her and is supportive of the enterprise.

In 2003, she purchased two cows, and then added goats and pigs and finally chickens. Before that, she and her husband only grew vegetables for themselves and their four children. Until EADD came to the Wakiso district, she had no idea the eight or nine liters of milk from each of the cows was a paltry daily yield. According to Bancie, many other farmers were getting even less from their poorly fed animals.

“We had only one kind of grass for our cows,” Jjemba explained. “They brought in other kinds of seeds for us.” She took a number of courses in animal care offered by EADD. “I followed their recommendation and had artificial insemination from healthy non-local animals used on my cows.” The cross breeding produced sturdier animals, immune to local diseases, which now yield 18 to 19 liters daily. “My dairy income has at least doubled,” she reports.

EADD spokeswoman Ouma said the project advocates for “more women to own shares independent of their spouses.” Jjemba works toward this goal through the Kyosiga Women Farmers’ Group, which she heads. (Kyosiga means “what you plant is what you harvest.”) Members buy shares together in the chilling plant coop. The men are “comfortable with that,” said Bancie, partly because of Heifer’s gender sensitivity courses. “They begin to see that women contribute economically and ask themselves, ‘what will I lose by enhancing the participation of my wife or my daughters in this initiative if these are the benefits?’ I haven't seen any situations where men react negatively toward this." By the time the pilot period is over, the project expects to have a critical mass of women in place, along side the infrastructure, to ensure its long-range success. Moreover, their peers will vote in women leaders in a process, as Bancie stresses, where leadership starts from bottom up and not from top down.

Unlike Jjemba, Norah Kanyana had left her farming community to earn a business education certificate and work in Entebbe for 10 years. After her brother died, she decided to go back to Kyankwanzi, the village where she grew up, to help support the primary school that he had established. A single mother of three children, she returned to where poverty was the norm, illiteracy rampant among adults and children, and clean water meant a very, very long walk. She found a good teacher for the school, which now has 350 students, most of them girls. “They used to force girls into marriage,” she said. “Now it has stopped. I’m happy about that.”

She also began to talk with local dairy farmers about increasing their productivity. Word spread and farmers from neighboring villages joined in her efforts. In 2007 she talked with Heifer, which this spring built an EADD milk-chilling operation. Kanyana was elected chair of the 600-member, and growing, farmers’ cooperative association.

Kanyana takes advantage of Heifer gender sensitivity training when she visits women in isolated areas to bring them into the coop.

“Some are single mothers, some are not very happy with their marriage because their income is not shared very properly in the family,” she remarked. “They do join, but not at the higher level like men,” who have greater access and less responsibility at home. Still, about a third of the coop members are women. Teaching literacy to adults, especially women, is another of Kanyana’s goals. “I am lacking the funds. It is my vision but I don’t know when it will come.” Surely she’ll get to it.

Jjemba also has a vision: to make her farm into a learning center for best agricultural and livestock practices. Her three acres are organic and sustainable, a goal for all of the farms in the EADD network. For example, they feed their animals on callandria, a fast growing, soil-enriching crop. Jjemba also practices intercropping, an ancient technique key to organic farming, and saves seeds for the next planting.

She fertilizes her crops from the droppings of her animals and plans to use bio-gas, produced from animal and vegetable waste, for the household heating and cooking. The goats sometimes graze on communal land where, she says, grasses grow quickly. Eggs are sold at market along with vegetable crops and coffee beans, while milk is picked up for the chilling plant.

Also crowded onto her three acres is a nursery with “natural tree breeding.” Some are sold and some are given away to those who need them, a practice Heifer calls “passing on the gift.” Jjemba’s trees shelter animals and crops from strong winds and other weather conditions exacerbated by climate change, constant challenges in areas where EADD operates. But with the help of training provided by the project, the women whom Ouma calls “the primary on-farm producers” will continue to seek new and ancient ways to combat the growing problems of global warming.

The author wishes to thank Saeed Bancie and his colleague Beatrice Bamulesewa Nabwire, monitoring and evaluation/information officer, EADD Uganda, and Martha Hirpa, director of gender equity, Heifer International.

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