2 October 2009, Kitgum, Uganda/Rome - The first rains arrived in June in Padibe-East County, part of the Kitgum District, close to the border between Uganda and South Sudan. It was a light rain, but a very welcome one for Alphonso Oyo, who had planted a new variety of high yielding NERICA ("New Rice for Africa") rice, and was waiting impatiently for it to flower.
"These rains are late, and the flowering of my rice is behind as a result", observes Alphonso. "But with the NERICA variety that I have planted on this dry and hostile soil here on the uplands, I am still hoping to get a good harvest in September".
Alphonso is already back working his old farm. About 1.5 million more internally displaced people are gradually moving back to their original lands after more than 20 years living a precarious existence in the refugee camps of northern Uganda. Their return is being helped by FAO's NERICA project, which is introducing innovative, rice-based farming systems to increase food security and reduce poverty in Uganda. Funding was provided by Japan (US$1.5 million 2008-2010).
Going back to the land
Hostilities in this region ceased following a peace process concluded in 2006 between the Ugandan government and the rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army. "That is where we needed to take action to help people return to their homelands and encourage them to start farming again", says Percy Misika, the FAO representative in Kampala.
The Ugandan government, Japan and FAO made a strategic decision to focus on rice cultivation, and especially on varieties of the new NERICA cultivar. "The different NERICA varieties offer a number of advantages: they grow well on the uplands and are resistant to drought, their yield is 30 percent higher than that of local varieties, and they produce a long grain rice with good flavour and high nutritional content which matures in three months or less when the rains are regular", explains Mr. Misika.
The first phase of the FAO-Japanese intervention, which concluded in 2008, involved eight districts of northern, eastern, central and western Uganda: 1,800 farmers received NERICA varieties, 32 facilitators were trained to teach farmers and 64 farmer field schools launched.
Otto and Grace Albino work their fields in the Oyam District. They have eight children of their own and take care of six others abandoned by Otto's brother.
"The 2007 rice harvest enabled us to send our children to school and to put up some more huts on our land; the 2008 one was not so productive, but we are confident that 2009 will be a good season for us," Otto says.
Now, nine more northern districts are benefiting from the second phase of the NERICA project: Amolatar, Amuru, Apac, Dokolo, Gulu, Kitgum, Lira, Oyam and Pader.
Many of the young households involved are made up of men and women who have no income and who grew up in refugee camps. Even 20-year-olds have no idea how to grow crops, as they grew up in the camps and have no experience in farming. They have never seen their parents working on their gardens. A number of households are headed by women. All the returnees are determined to get back to work and start farming the land where they were born. Eric Lobi, 20, whose parents both died in the camps, has set up home in Amuru: "When I have enough income from my rice harvest, I'll be able to go to university", he says.
The farmer field school approach
Those returning to their villages have had to learn about farming, take on board best agricultural practices, and acquire familiarity with the basic production systems used in cultivating NERICA.
To achieve this, the project works using the innovative Farmer Field School (FFS) framework, so that young farmers can share knowledge effectively in a spirit of solidarity and unity.
"We are careful to choose the best profile of facilitator to lead this participatory approach", explains the National Project Manager for NERICA, Emmanuel Iyamuremye Iyibingira. "It takes passion, motivation and perfectionism to offer effective training for the farmers, especially the young ones who have never known anything except the precarious life of the camps".
Women stand out as some of the most committed and enthusiastic workers; as well as proving a driving force, they also provide stability for groups within the rural community.
Christine Acire is well aware that this is why she was chosen to be chairperson of her group in Lamogi County, Amuru District: "There are 12 men and 18 women in our mixed group, the Gang Ber Kimon", she says. "We want to make this a good year for our rice. We hold group discussions to decide how to share out the work and talk about the effects of the searing heat on the young NERICA plants; we also need to open a bank account to deposit income that will be generated by the harvests in September and for other joint projects," she says.
Food security: a Millennium Development Goal
Plans are being laid to increase access to improved rice varieties that are resistant to drought and other problems, and to develop agricultural technologies linked to NERICA rice cultivation in the harsh northern regions. Rice symbolizes food and income here, contrary to much of the rest of world where it just is a crop for food.
To achieve this goal and increase both food production and household incomes, Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division, says that FAO is committed to strengthening local capacities to develop food security programmes in rural areas. "We encourage harmonised seed systems and sustainable agricultural intensification based on rice production; we also aim to improve post-harvest technologies and spread their practice", he adds.
FAO believes that the project will result in more than 2,160 farmers trained in NERICA crop production technology, with a total of 72 Farmer Field Schools established in nine districts. According to FAO's Senior Agronomist for NERICA, Ram Chaudhary, the project will also help authorities formulate a national programme for extension of the adoption of improved rice/NERICA-based farming systems and enhance government capacities for seed quality analysis, quality control and certification. Rice community seed enterprises will be trained and capacities developed to do successful seed business.
Against the backdrop of the Millennium Development Goals, the NERICA project is making a major contribution to sustainable development. It is also bringing together partners as part of an alliance against hunger and poverty for the continent's most vulnerable communities, the Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD).