Anyone working for the minimum wage in the UK could buy an oven-ready chicken from a supermarket with half an hour’s wages. In Uganda, a manual worker on an average wage would need to work for one week to buy a chicken and then they would have to kill it and pluck it themselves.

Agricultural production is the bedrock upon which a civilisation is built, but the African continent has not yet benefitted from an agricultural revolution. Farmers lack the opportunities they need to improve the situation.

I recently visited some Farm Africa projects in East Africa with a pal of mine, the 2011 Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year Charlie Russell. The charity works with farmers in Uganda, south Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia. It runs training projects for farmers to raise their yields, improve their marketing and give them the knowledge, the confidence and the contacts to become self-reliant.

My first fear about the trip was, of course, the language barrier. Having grown up in Aberdeen, Charlie has a deep Scottish brogue and my Lincolnshire accent is unpleasantly strong at the moment. I spent a week listening to Proclaimers albums, using the sleeve notes to get my ear in and so, by the time we left, Charlie and I could understand one another. With this initial hurdle overcome, understanding Swahili would be child’s play.

The biggest challenge when putting together our itinerary was the huge distances between the projects (we were destined to have 12 flights in seven days, hopping between Uganda and western Kenya). Farms are hundreds of miles away, on bad roads, from the things that anyone needs to have a successful business – customers, knowledge and input suppliers. This, after all, is why these farmers require help.

Once we landed in Entebbe, we climbed aboard our mutatu and drove alongside Lake Victoria heading towards Luwero with the sun blazing and Ladysmith Black Mambazo playing on the stereo.

Breaking new ground

It wasn’t long before we left the tarmac road and were on dirt tracks, kicking up clouds of dust from the bright red soil.

Our first visits were to meet the Gayamba, Alinykira and Suosolye groups of farmers who were carrying out rice- and bean-growing projects. Each group had more than 40 members and their farms were between half an acre and one acre – subsistence at its most basic level.

Before the Farm Africa project began, their staple crops had been maize, cassava and peanuts. The seed stocks they had been buying were unreliable and they had been using a method called “intercropping,” a grandiose term for “sticking things wherever you fancy”. This method, or lack of it, made crop rotation, seed rates and weeding very difficult.

The project was demonstrating the advantages of cropping in rows, using better seed stocks and implementing basic agronomy. In 2010, the members had seen a yield increase of 30%.

In 2011, as they became familiar with the methods and had been trained to apply an insecticide, they were harvesting 200% more than they had before. These increases were enough to lift the families from a food shortage to a surplus that could be traded in the village – the difference between being able to educate their children or not.

One man in the group with a larger farm, Baale George, had been identified as their designated seed grower. Farm Africa supplied him with hybrid seed and, in return, he committed to supply his seed to the group at two-thirds of the market price.

He had increased his production so much that the single-room hut in which he lived was now full of bean seeds and he and his children had to sleep on top of it. He was planning to build a new house. I left wondering how much he would have achieved had he started with my opportunities in the UK.

How grateful the farmers were for the benefits that they were achieving was evident from the warm reception that we always received. Everyone assembled to sing, dance or perform a play to welcome us as guests. As a taciturn Scotsman and an emotionally stunted Englishman, Charlie and I were completely unprepared for these colourful outbursts of happiness. I have never danced when anyone visited our farm; I don’t find it easy to dance at my friends’ weddings, for goodness sake. Although their lifestyles were alarmingly modest to our Western eyes, we came away envious of the joy they have in their lives.

That night Charlie and I wondered about launching a campaign in the UK to buy hoes for farmers to help them to cultivate their land easily.

Our travel companions, Cathy Whiteman and Matt Whitticase from Farm Africa, pointed out that this approach is not always helpful. It is important that the farmers buy their own seeds and equipment so that they know how to replace them when they need to.

This allows them to keep their money in the local village and the projects become self-financing more quickly. The best benefits come from training, not donating goods. This demonstrates why sending aid without education is only ever of temporary benefit.

Hope for youth 

After two busy days looking at Ugandan projects, we headed back to the Kitale region in Kenya to look at youth projects run under a Farm Africa scheme called Youth Empowerment in Sustainable Agriculture. In Kenya there is 20% youth unemployment among 15- to 19-year-olds. The YESA project was working with 900 young people, 50% male and 50% female, to teach better agricultural practice, to offer sexual health advice and to create a model of youth work.

Although the primary aim is to teach young people to produce things other than maize – such as poultry, fruit, vegetables, salads, mushrooms, fish farming and bee-keeping – the most dramatic benefits have been coming from sex education.

As Charlie and I were not entirely relaxed with the singing and dancing, you can imagine our faces as we sat through discussions about contraception and tampons. But we quickly overcame our embarrassment when we heard that there had been no youth pregnancies or HIV infection in any of the groups since their training began.

The year before the project started there had been 23 pregnancies in one school alone. The girls are able to contribute so much more if they can complete their education and find work before becoming mothers and the empowerment of women has been a major factor in Farm Africa’s success.

Our first youth visit was to the Uwezo group poultry enterprise. These young farmers had already been meeting as a social group when Farm Africa first approached them. The group was now producing eggs at their demonstration unit and three members had already started building them on their own farms. They were selecting breeds that produced more eggs than the local chickens.

We travelled on to look at the Gognac youth group who, with Farm Africa’s advice, had dug a demonstration pond which they have stocked with tilapia. The simplicity of their system was breathtaking and the 27 members of the group had set a target on digging a pond on each member’s farm.

We then travelled around a number of secondary schools that had introduced horticulture to their curriculum and, with Farm Africa’s help, had built polytunnels to grow salad crops.

This was having the added benefit of encouraging even the highly academic students to think about agricultural careers. At one school we visited, the head boy said he was hoping to pursue a career in plant breeding. At the Chisare school, we were moved to learn that the proceeds from their tomato crop were paying the school fees for orphaned students.

It staggers me how little had been required at each project to make an enormous difference. This was due, on the whole, to the team of people that Farm Africa employ – well-educated, hard-working, well respected by the farmers and passionate about helping people help themselves.

The farmers in Africa are like you and me. Some of them are entrepreneurial, some are a bit stubborn. All of them like to see things proven to them before they change what they are doing; they are more likely to adopt new ideas that build upon their existing theories rather than disprove them. This is why Farm Africa is such an effective charity; it understands local sensibilities and it uses word of mouth between farmers to spread new practices and ideas.

Every farmer battles with challenges, but I wouldn’t swap mine for those of one of my contemporaries in Africa.

Picture gallery

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More on this topic

Keep an eye on Farmlife for an article on this trip by Charlie Russell or read more about the Farm Africa project on our dedicated page