On October 16th, World Food Day will call attention to the crucial role that small-scale family farmers play in creating a more sustainable global food system – and it couldn’t come at a more opportune time. As the global population approaches nine billion by the year 2050, nourishing the world and preserving diminishing environmental resources presents a daunting challenge. Over the coming week, Food Tank will highlight the many ways in which small-scale farmers – both urban and rural – are growing healthy, nutritious food for their communities while protecting the planet.
Mwalimu Musheshe, this week’s Food Hero, is the director of the Uganda Rural Development and Training (URDT) Programme and founder of African Rural University, an all-women agricultural school. Both initiatives educate their students about the importance of environmentally sustainable farming traditions while integrating some aspects of modern agriculture. Their focus is not on teaching agroecological practices for the sake of environmental conservation alone, but also for producing more nutritious crops for communities.
As an agricultural engineer from Makerere University in Kampala, Musheshe has advocated for sustainable technologies for irrigation, soil management, processing, and distribution, as well as innovations that would focus on the making nutritious food more widely available. For three years, he served as the chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Agricultural Advisory Services, an organization set up by the Ugandan Parliament to facilitate a transition to market-oriented agriculture. The board developed a number of policies in research, supply chain, and agribusiness advisory services.
As a member of the Ugandan civil society movement, he is additionally working on policies related to funding in the agriculture sector to boost local research into plant genetics, diseases, and pests using an integrated approach, as well as environmental concerns such as global warming and climate change.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Musheshe about his work, and the positive changes that he’s seen in farming on the ground in Uganda.
1. What, in your opinion, are the greatest challenges facing agriculture in Uganda?
First of all, indigenous Ugandans had no culture of commercial farming. Tea and sugarcane plantations were owned and managed by foreigners, especially the British and Indians. Even at the middle level of management, there were very few Africans. Therefore, there is little knowledge of commercial farm management.
Secondly, the education system has demonized farming. The dichotomy has [traditionally] been that the poor and illiterate farm, while the educated get white-collar jobs. Educated people tend look back with disgust at the suffering of their parents [who were farmers], and conclude that it is not worth doing!
Third, there is also little investment and insulation against risk. The nature of farming does not attract much investment, as the technologies, skills, and knowledge are not considered advanced enough to inspire lending confidence in banks. Insurance companies have also been slow to get into this sector, so any natural disaster that affects crops, bees, fish or other animals results in total loss.
Fourth, a weak private sector does not engage farmers in the value chain. Farmers still sell raw materials without any value added.
And lastly, extension and advisory services suffer from the traditional inertia of civil service. They offer no innovations, and are characterized by extreme laxity and little patriotism.
2. With African Rural University, you’ve said that you want to encourage grassroots innovation rather than impose solutions on local communities from above. What is one example of how that approach has worked well?
The African Renaissance calls for anthropological interdependence in science and technology. In a sense, indigenous and foreign knowledge are able to interact. It’s important to be conscious of the fact that the local people have the freedom to choose what works for them. In the case of both colonial and post-colonial extension services, there was no option – they had to implement practices that were imposed on them.
An example of grassroots innovation that has worked well is intercropping – planting beans in a garden of perennial crops, like bananas, which enriches the soil by supplying nitrogen. Another is the use of pumpkin runners in coffee plantations for soil and water management. And we control pests naturally using ash, pepper powder, and ant hill soils.
3. What are the advantages of an alternative training approach that focuses on casting grassroots innovators in the role of the teacher, instead of relying on traditional academics?
We are encouraging endogenous knowledge generation. The indigenous farmers and agricultural experts learn from each other through appreciative inquiry methods, rather than one exerting dominance over the other. Our motto is, “Awakening the sleeping genius in each of us.”
At African Rural University, we are working with specialists in traditional knowledge, who are helping to revisit effective practices that have worked in all endeavors of rural life.
4. You’ve worked with education for girls and women at all levels, including through African Rural University. How is education for women important to food security and rural development?
Education brings out both the hidden and apparent attributes of a woman as teacher, counselor, nurse, manager, peace maker, organizer, administrator, pharmacist, farmer, nutritionist, health worker, and visionary leader. [All of these characteristics make up] the essence of sustainable change.
5. Could you talk more about your work with the URDT Programme?
The program has developed a home-grown development paradigm that enables people to shift from simply reacting to circumstances and events to being proactive and creating more beneficial circumstances for themselves.
The URDT methodology has three main goals relating to rural transformation:
1) People master the principles of the creative process as they discover that they are key to their own development;
2) People master systems-based thinking and recognize forces in play that enhance or constrain development.
3) People master the principle of sustainable development, based on a hierarchy of choices – fundamental, primary, and secondary. The realization of one level leads to the question, “What next?” In this way, people work toward their aspirations through accomplishments and having visions.
6. How does rural development improve food security?
People are using nutrition-based agriculture to become more knowledgeable about [health]. This goes beyond the traditional definition of food security, which was about the quantity of food produced alone, and usually focused on one type of crop, like yams or cassava.
Rural transformation should lead to economic emancipation and social enlightenment. Food security is tied not just to communities being able to produce food self-sufficiently, but their being able to produce nutritious food. The social enlightenment refers to knowing what to eat that will have an effect on one’s health. When people eat well, sleep well, and become healthy, their productivity increases, hence a cyclical relationship is built, breaking the vicious circle of poverty and hunger.