To fight hunger, Somali farmers turn to Ugandan roots
Could growing cassava and sweet potato help Somali families become more resilient to drought?
SELELE, Uganda - Amina Shale, a Somali farmer, says worsening droughts and ever more unpredictable weather are making getting a crop ever harder.
"It can take a whole year before the rains come," she complained. "Growing crops like tomatoes is very tiring because I have to water them at least twice a day."
But Shale now has some new ideas about how to cope, thanks to a trip to visit the neighbours.
She and 26 other Somali farmers traveled to eastern Uganda last month to see how sweet potatoes are turning into a climate-resilient boom crop for that East African nation.
Uganda is now the leading producer in the region of root crops, which researchers say are much tougher in the face of worsening climate-change-related problems such as drought and flooding.
Some roots, like cassava and sweet potato, are being processed into flour and increasingly used for everything from doughnuts to wedding cakes.
That is helping boost incomes and ensure food security - something urgently needed in Somalia, where 40 percent of people are acutely food insecure, according to an estimate by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Today, few Somali farmers know of - or grow - crops like sweet potatoes or cassava, Shale said. She plants vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, kale and pawpaw.
But during the FAO-backed trip to Uganda, she saw how root crops require less irrigation - and she is now considering switching, she said.
On both sides of the border, farmers are struggling with problems brought on by more erratic weather, including new or worsening pests and diseases attacking traditional staple crops.
Extreme weather is also causing more of the crops that are harvested to rot quickly, said Akello Christine Ekinyu, a Ugandan farmer from Odowo who now grows and processes cassava and sweet potato.
Ekinyu, one of the hosts for visiting Somali farmers, said the crop switch had helped lift her family out of poverty.
"I built a new brick house with the income I got from these crops," beamed Ekinyu, wearing a gold dress and matching headscarf.
In a day, she said, she can make about 100,000 Uganda shillings ($30) selling cassava and sweet potatoes, compared to $2 when she worked day jobs in town. That has been enough to send her two children to university, she said.
NEW SOURCES OF INCOME
The key, she told the visiting Somalis, is to find ways to process crops to increase their value, such as turning cassava or sweet potatoes into finished products like flour.
She learned to do this after joining the Soroti Sweet Potato Producers and Processors Association in Uganda.
Echabu Silver, the group's chairman, explained that "instead of consuming or selling the cassava when it is raw, farmers should process it, turn it into new products and then sell it at a higher price."
That could be anything from crisps and doughnuts to flour for wedding cakes, he said.
Tony Ijala, manager of Cassava Adding Value for Africa, a project led by the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich, said cassava is increasingly no longer grown for home consumption only, but also sold at markets.
"Even retired Ugandans are planting - and deriving an income from - cassava instead of relying on their extended families," he said.
Building markets for the new crops has taken time, however.
Akorir Helen Mary, former secretary general of the Arapai Farmers Multi-Purpose Cooperative in Uganda, said the organisation's members lost 15 tonnes of cassava flour - worth $4,500 - in 2012, due to a lack of buyers.
But now, four years later, "there is high demand for cassava in the market, as (it is) most Ugandan industries' - like breweries' - preferred raw material," he said.
(Reporting by Kagondu Njagi, editing by Zoe Tabary; credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org)