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Why Indigenous Foods Should Be On Every Menu

by Jacquiline Nakandi
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By Umar Nsubuga and Joshua Kato

Hanging over Sarah Adong’s fireplace are several stocks of indigenous seeds and grains, such as sorghum, millet and maize.

Adong uses the fireplace in her kitchen at her home in Adyanglit village, Amolatar district to preserve her indigenous seeds for the next planting season.

“The fireplace keeps them warm and safe from weevils. Even though they are dry, they can still be attacked by weevils because of the changes in the environment and air,” she says.

“We also keep seeds and grains in gourds at the fireplace, so they can last three years without getting attacked by weevils. Our forefathers used to keep seeds like this under the fireplace or out in the open.”

Adong is the chairperson of the 200-member local seed farmers’ group in her home village.

“We are keeping indigenous seeds because they are disappearing. If they disappear, there will be no food in homes. We call these community seed banks because it’s the community that collects the seeds. No one else.”

Adong says its high time the Government incorporated indigenous seeds and crops when supplying to farmers under programmes, such as Operation Wealth Creation.

“The cassava, which government has been giving farmers, takes six months to mature and gets rotten, leaving people in hunger. So, many rejected it and have gone back to indigenous cassava (okonyo-ladak), which takes two years to mature, but one can keep harvesting it for three years,” she says.

Even though it was a dry season, Adong was still harvesting green vegetables, such as amaranths, cherry tomatoes, yams, spider plant (akeyo) and cow pea leaves from her small garden right in front of her kitchen.

This is because the indigenous food crops are more resistant to dry weather, she says.

The need to buy planting material every season and the unpredictable prices for farm produce means that many farmers may not earn enough to afford seed for the next crop.

This is why farmers, such as Adong, are going back to using indigenous seeds and food crops. This eliminates the need to buy new seeds every other planting season, since farmers using indigenous seeds just have to dry some of them and then plant them in the next season.

 Jacqueline Obura, the treasurer of the group, says with their local seeds, when you plant those you dried and kept, they will still yield as highly as they did the first time, as long as you plant, weed and harvest at the right time.

Obura says local seeds can be easily replicated compared to improved seeds.

“Many people go and buy collard greens, locally known as sukuma wiki from shops expensively, but after planting, they cannot harvest any seeds, which means they have to buy seeds every planting season” she says.

The members ventured into vegetable growing after finding difficulty in keeping up with weekly savings due to lack of cash.

“Vegetables like boo (cow pea) take two and half weeks for one to start harvesting and selling. This saved us from selling household food stuffs like sorghum and beans to get money for savings,” Obura says.

From selling the vegetables and indigenous seeds, the group managed to save sh2.5m in 2022 and targeted saving sh7m from indigenous vegetables last year.

Obura explains that growing crops using indigenous seeds has been advantageous to the group and opened up opportunities for them.

“Growing indigenous crops helped us during the coronavirus pandemic. Health experts were advising people to eat vegetables to build immunity and these are foods we already had,” she says.

Josephine Luyimbazi, the country director of PELUM Uganda, says embracing agroecology is essential to guaranteeing food sovereignty, responsible investments and respecting the rights and needs of local citizens, especially for small-scale farmers.

“Agroecology is farming that centres on food production that makes the best use of nature without damaging the resources. This system of farming thrives with local ecosystems, such as improving soil and plant quality through available biomass and biodiversity rather than battling nature with chemicals,” she says.

Luyimbazi says agroecological farmers seek to improve food yields for balanced nutrition, strengthen fair market for their produce, enhance healthy ecosystems and build on ancestral knowledge and customs.

“Agroecology can resolve hunger sustainably, as well as address problems and limitations of industrial agriculture, such as increased poverty and malnutrition rate, inequality and environmental degradation, particularly climate change,” she says.

Smallholder farmers, who make the majority of players in both crop and livestock sectors, have been crucial in producing food and cash crops and they employ a significant portion of the population, including youth, women and the elderly. Their efforts have contributed to Uganda’s food security within the East African community.

Luyimbazi says by adopting comprehensive approaches, such as agroecology, Uganda’s farmers are positioning themselves as agents of community change, working towards a future where food is abundant, income is steady and poverty is reduced.

“They play a vital role in supplying over 80% of the food in the sub-Saharan region, further solidifying their critical importance in the country’s agricultural landscape,” she says.

According to Beatrice Mbugua, a participatory action research advisor at Broederlijk Delen, an international non-governmental organisation focused on improving the livelihoods of farmers, their aim is to directly assist 2,500 households and indirectly impact around 180,000 people in the Lango and Rwenzori regions within five years.

She highlighted that the primary issues faced by farmers stem from poor soil health, caused by a limited understanding of soil ecosystems and the excessive use of synthetic inputs, disrupting natural regenerative processes.

“When crops grow in depleted soil with low organic matter, they become more susceptible to drought, pests and diseases. Farmers grappling with such challenges might resort to increased chemical usage, further damaging their soil and intensifying their reliance on inputs,” Mbugua says.

Furthermore, he stresses the signifi cance of preserving indigenous and traditional seed varieties due to their resilience and adaptation to local conditions.

“These seeds require fewer inputs to thrive in their natural environment compared to poorly adapted improved or exotic varieties,” Mbugua says.

She underscores the urgency, stating: “Preserving agricultural biodiversity is crucial in the face of climate change, extreme weather and escalating pest and disease occurrences. Our resilience and adaptability hinge on this rich agricultural diversity.”

Project focus

The project’s focus includes collaborating with agricultural training institutions to empower community-based farmer innovators and local farmers through enhanced capacity-building initiatives.

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