International Year of Family Farming: An Interview with Dorcas Okello, Co-Founder of FOSAA

Two FOSAA educational projects. (Provided by Dorcas Okello.)

The United Nations declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) to highlight the importance of family and smallholder farmers. Food Tank is partnering with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to commemorate IYFF, and will feature weekly posts and other media highlighting the innovations that family farmers are using to alleviate hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation along with the campaigns and policies that support them.

In working to achieve universal primary education for young people, Uganda has encountered one particularly difficult problem: school nutrition. When working on research for her master’s degree, Dorcas Okello, co-founder of the Forum for Sustainable Agriculture in Africa (FOSAA), found that as many as 59 percent of Ugandan primary school students went without food during their entire day at school. Through her work with FOSAA, Okello is implementing school gardens as a way to both improve student nutrition and prepare students for careers in agriculture. Today, Okello and FOSAA work with Ugandans of all ages to bring a more sustainable future to Africa’s family farmers.

Food Tank: How did you get involved with the Forum for Sustainable Agriculture in Africa?

I became involved with FOSAA when I was doing research with school gardening among rural universal education primary schools. This work was funded by The Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) under its Field Attachment Program Award (FAPA) project. While running this project, FOSAA was on the ground ensuring that the activities were carried out as planned. As a member of FOSAA I ensured that activities were done in a way that increased publicity and effectiveness, as well as sustainability, of the project activities. FOSAA’s major role in this activity was in an advisory capacity. Considering FOSAA’s slogan, which is ‘’Agriculture Powered by Innovation”, our mandate is to cultivate an innovative spirit in both rural and urban farming communities in the journey to achieving sustainable agriculture. The purpose is to change the mentality of the young from thinking about agriculture as a punishment, to thinking about it as a credible and feasible economic activity; thus, transforming them into effective agricultural extension agents.

What is an example of a recent FOSAA project of which you are particularly proud?

I am glad to inform you that recently, FOSAA expanded the school gardening initiative from the one school, Nalango primary school, to five schools: St. Jude Bulange primary school, Mpakitoni Primary school, Makoka primary school, Kiwolera Army primary school, and Butaya primary school in Kamuli district. Pupils are now in position to produce their own food to eat while at school, and this is curbing the problem of short term hunger. Attendance, retention and concentration in school are now higher and this, in turn, is reflected in better grades at the end of the term. 

How is FOSAA helping farmers to diversify their production?

One of FOSAA’s mandates is to ensure that farmers’ livelihoods are better than they were before they encountered FOSAA. This is being done by training farmers in better agronomic practices and also introducing them to crops they have not been growing in their regions. The crops we introduce them to are those we are sure will thrive in their region, and also have a pre-established market for income security. We are also in partnership with Global Giving, raising funds via e-fundraising to introduce bee farming, especially in semi-arid zones of Uganda like Nakasongola

How is FOSAA helping to improve value chains for agricultural products?

FOSAA is emphasizing the use of available innovations to maximize productivity. In addition, farmers are monitored until marketing time, when they are advised to bulk up their produce to increase their bargaining power. There is a big emphasis on markets, since markets are the single most important incentive to sustainable agriculture. A farmer linked to a good market has high potential to invest in agro-inputs, and storage and post-harvest technologies, as well as value addition. It is also worth noting that achieving food security requires first ensuring income security. If farmers cannot find money to solve everyday financial obligations like medical or school fees, they cannot afford good meals. In extreme cases, financial pressure forces farmers to sell off what should be reserved as family food and end up going hungry or skipping some meals.

What are some ways that FOSAA is working to improve the participation of women in agriculture?

Since women are considered the custodians of food in Africa, FOSAA has taken very keen interest in their activities. Families where the woman is in good health and in position to produce food are usually food secure. Women in Uganda and Africa at large are mainly involved in food production, while the men take part in produce marketing. But in most cases they are not involved in production. FOSAA is improving the participation of women in agriculture by engaging the whole household. When trainings are done, the whole household in involved. Everyone, including the husbands, are invited for the training. Involvement of husbands sets a platform for supporting the women’s initiatives for improving agricultural production.

​This article originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on July 26, 2013.

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