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Allow me to introduce you to Solango Kakembo, a farmer from Kikandwa, a rural village about 80 kilometers west of the capital of Uganda. This enchanting gentleman built his small house overlooking the rolling African landscape at the edge of the fields that he and his family tend. His home sits near the center of the farming community, adjacent to the primary school built and operated by the Kikandwa Environmental Association (KEA). Kakembo volunteers his knowledge and experience on behalf of KEA, provides harvested seeds along with advice, and raises seedlings for the Half + Half Reforestation project at the core of KEA’s mission.

Kakembo is a vital resource to his community, but like most smallholder farmers he has not been able to share his expertise, especially as it relates to climate change, with a broader audience. He faces language and technology barriers. KEA has attracted international attention from nonprofits interested in preserving and sharing sustainable farming innovations, including A Growing Culture and The Pollination Project, but his valuable experience has not been fully documented. We traveled to Uganda to study the environmental benefits of sustainable farming and Kakembo shared the highlights of his knowledge. I want to tell you his story.

Agriculture accounts for more than 70% of employment in Uganda. Smallholder farmers provide most of the country’s food at a low cost; feeding the population reduces the risk for revolt. For many years Kakembo tried to compete with other commercial farmers, growing one or two crops at a time using chemical inputs to increase his yield, including fertilizers and pesticides. Over time he saw his yield decline, requiring additional and more expensive chemicals that were destroying organic nutrients in his soil in the same way that chemotherapy cannot target cancer cells over healthy cells. Kakembo developed respiratory problems which he attributed to the use of chemicals. To continue doing what he loved, being a farmer, he had to find a more sustainable approach.

As a child Kakembo had learned from his grandmother the art of seed preservation, land and water management, natural ways to deter pests, and which plants should be grown together. He decided to return to his grandparent’s village to start over and use her traditional methods. Kakembo continues to tailor her approach to respond to the impacts of climate change, notably the disruption in the water cycle. He focuses on preserving local varieties, especially those that perform well during drought, and uses mulching and animal manure to preserve ground moisture while cultivating the soil with organic material.

The village of his grandparents, Kikandwa, had also had a bad experience with commercial farming. Most of the region had been deforested using slash and burn to grow a single type of banana that was distilled into liquor. Farmers had not been growing crops for subsistence and the bananas were susceptible to banana wilt, compromising fields of trees. Food scarcity and theft between neighbors had been common.

Kakembo joined KEA, which was engaging local farmers to diversify their crops and use sustainable farming methods to improve the economy and quality of life for the community. They began with a reforestation project to create micro-environments that attracted biodiversity, reduced soil erosion from wind and water runoff, retained moisture in the soil, and provided shade from the equatorial sun. These areas were successfully established more than a decade ago along the borders between plots and on land that farmers had intentionally set aside. The benefits of reforestation were most evident during droughts, when farmers with forests performed better than those without. Interest in reforestation has grown as droughts have become more common and prolonged.

2017-06-09 - KakemboKakembo shared his concern that commercially available seeds provided inconsistent germination; an expensive gamble. Instead he uses his grandmother’s technique for seed preservation. The first step is to set aside some of the best crops from each harvest to continuously improve the quality of each subsequent harvest. The seeds must be consistent in size and shape. For instance he will take only kernels from the center of an ear of corn, using the smaller kernels for animal feed or corn flour. It takes 120 ears of corn to provide enough seed for 1 acre. The seeds are sun-dried or smoked, and can be preserved up to 6 months. He preserves heritage seeds, protecting the local varieties and improving biodiversity.

He experiments with different soils and growing conditions to test varieties, particularly for drought-resistance. He and his neighbors are dependent on rain for irrigation. Drawing water manually from the distant well is a labor intensive practice saved only for the worst droughts. The farms of Kikandwa are on slopes of varying grades, and the rainy season has been shorter and increasingly inconsistent over the past 5-10 years. Water must be preserved in the soil between rain events, which is done through a combination of mulching, terracing to slow runoff, and irrigation canals to capture water. The reforestation project has also slowed runoff, provided a means of water sequestration, and the trees “breathe” water back into the air through transpiration.

Smallholder farmers average around 2-5 acres of land to farm. Intercropping is possible since most of the work is done by hand. Kakembo highlighted the importance of raising varieties of the same crop, such as different types of beans, potatoes, yams and bananas, in the same season. The crops mature a different rates, have varying resources needs, variety protects against pestilence, and allows the farmer to have successful crops if one fails. Additionally, some crops partner well, for instance maize (corn) and beans; corn depletes the soil of nitrogen while beans replenish it.

Kakembo’s knowledge of traditional farming methods combined with agricultural innovation, known as agroecology, can help solve several sustainable issues facing the world. How to produce low-cost food without sacrificing the environment; large scale farms with significant chemical inputs are not sustainable and are polluting the soil and waterways. Smallholder farmers like those in Kikandwa are stepping up to the challenge, and adapting to climate change, every day. To continue doing the arduous work of farming and remain successful in providing up to 70% of the world’s produce, they need to be helped with sharing knowledge and resources.  Farmers will benefit by having a steady source of nourishment and entrepreneurial employment with purpose, and the community benefits with affordable and healthier produce.

Image: Kakembo’s seed bank, photo by Sean Meriwether