Uganda: Shift in Crops Boosts Fortunes of Farmers in Northern Uganda

Nwoya, Uganda — Changing weather patterns have forced growers to adapt. Many are now seeing higher yields — and higher incomes.

It’s about 9 a.m. in Amola village, and Alfred Ojok keeps busy trimming branches off coffee plants on his farm in Paminyai subcounty, Nwoya district.

The 22-acre piece of land is flat, with rich black soil that has produced crops from pine to citrus trees. Ojok, 30, began farming in 2014 because he did not have tuition fees to attend the university. After seeing his peers waste away due to drug and alcohol abuse, he vowed to make something better of his life.

He planted pine trees on the family land, then added avocadoes, bananas, coffee and oranges. Bananas and coffee were new to the northern region, and Ojok wasn’t sure how they would turn out.

“It was a lot of trial and error in the beginning,” Ojok says of his early days in farming. He says he once tried to grow chili peppers but lost all the produce.

But it was the shift to crops not commonly grown in the area that changed Ojok’s fortunes.

“One day, I saw an old man growing coffee and bananas in my village. I was shocked and asked myself how this was possible. This was new in my area, so my curiosity led me to him. I learned more about the crops, then later got some seedlings from him and started planting coffee, which currently sits on 17 acres of my land, alongside bananas,” he says.

With his earnings from the sale of coffee and bananas, Ojok has built a house and bought a bike. Last year alone he sold 2.3 metric tons (5,070 pounds) of coffee. “My next step is to plant more coffee and diversify in agriculture,” he says.

Ojok is one of many farmers in the north whose lives turned around after they shifted to crops not commonly grown in the region. Uganda’s west is known for producing green bananas and Irish potatoes, while drought-tolerant crops like sorghum, finger millet, sesame, cotton, groundnuts and cassava are commonly grown in the north. In recent years, however, farmers in the north have embraced other crops like coffee, bananas, maize, beans, sunflowers and soybeans. The shift, partly due to changing weather patterns and the release of early-maturing crop varieties, has resulted in better yields and higher household incomes.

“At least 80% of farmers have adopted new crops,” says Paul Kilama, assistant district agriculture officer in Gulu district. A 2022 study surveyed 600 smallholder farmers in northern Uganda about climate change and the measures they’re taking to cope with the impact on this arid region. The most common measure taken — by over 95% of farmers who participated — was to shift crop types, according to the study published in the journal Land Use Policy.

The regional affinity for certain crops has largely been linked to the climate, Kilama says, with farmers now realigning their crop choices to fit with the changes.

“Weather patterns are not as they were, as we are experiencing prolonged drier or wet spells,” he says. “Farmers are educating themselves on the weather.”

Fred Watman, 48, has been a farmer for over 18 years. In the past, he grew millet, simsim (sesame) and cassava, which he sold in the capital, Kampala. He earned little, and his family was barely surviving.

“Most of my money went to school fees for my seven children and home use. However, 10 years ago I decided to slowly switch to bananas and coffee because they bring in more money. In a good season I can get 6,800,000 Ugandan shillings [1,836 United States dollars] from the sale of bananas and 3 million Ugandan shillings [810 dollars] from coffee,” he says.

Watman has no regrets about making the switch.

“Today my children go to better schools, and their quality of life has improved. I am hoping to buy more land to add on my 10 acres. The dream is to become a commercial farmer,” he says.

Alfred Kimala, Nwoya district agriculture officer, explains other reasons farmers are embracing different crop types.

“The shift is mostly because these crops are marketable. Also, the government is linking farmers to the market and providing inputs like fertilizers, allowing free entry of investors, and commercial farmers from other countries who have invested. This means most farmers are working as outgrowers,” Kimala says.

The Acholi region of northern Uganda was affected by an insurgency from 1986 to 1994, when groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, rebelled against the current president, Yoweri Museveni. The insurgency was allegedly responsible for more than 100,000 deaths. Among those affected, Ojok lived at the Unyema camp for internally displaced people for about 10 years before leaving and eventually taking up farming.

The insurgency made access to food, income and productive assets for the population difficult. The region is still recovering from decades of civil war as it confronts adverse climatic conditions. It has also recorded the highest incidence of poverty and food insecurity in the country.

But the region, Kimala says, has the potential to feed the country.

“Northern Uganda, specifically Nwoya, can become the food basket of Uganda because we grow any type of crops. But there is a need to have signature crops like matooke [plantain], which is common in western Uganda. Specializing in certain crops and value addition will improve the standard of crops and make them marketable,” he says.

In recent years, the government has introduced modern agricultural programs through wealth creation funding opportunities for youth. These programs have encouraged more young people like Ojok to take up farming.

Emmanuel Nelson Oketch, a teacher, was motivated to make the “big switch” by his uncle.

“I saw how successful he was after his shift from growing traditional crops like cotton, sorghum and groundnuts to only vegetables like cabbage, tomatoes, onions, eggplants and many more,” he says.

In his initial days in farming, Oketch grew almost everything, including sorghum, sesame, rice, cassava and groundnuts, on a small scale. Despite spending around 200,000 shillings (54 dollars) on seedlings every season and tediously watering the farm, his earnings remained low. He later slowly began growing vegetables: okra, cabbages, onions and tomatoes that now sit on 2 acres of land.

Oketch says he now spends more on inputs like seedlings and labor because he can afford to. “In a good year, I earn about 50 million Ugandan shillings [13,500 dollars]. In the next five years, I want to increase my acreage to 5, and establish an agriculture research center to train more farmers in my region,” he says.

He is also among the beneficiaries of government trainings on farming.

“Climate challenges are more manageable since I implemented smart agriculture practices,” he says. “Before, pests were a big problem; now I use organic pest control methods I have been taught.”

Dominic Idro, director of Capable International, an organization working to end poverty in northern Uganda by supporting farmers through affordable capital, mentorship and adult literacy programs, discusses his group’s strategy.

“To solve this problem, we encourage 5 acres for commercial purposes besides the normal food security acreage. All farmers we work with have adopted and are using the quickest means of land opening using oxen or available tractor hire services,” he says.

Farmers mainly grow soybeans, sunflowers, maize and rice for commercial purposes, while producing cassava and sweet potatoes for domestic consumption.

Idro says household income for farmers has improved significantly in the first year, from 30 cents a person to above the poverty line of 1.90 dollars. Overall, this has restored livelihoods as some families can now afford three meals a day, pay for their children’s education and build decent homes.

James Ocan, a small-scale farmer from Paicho, in Gulu district, has benefited from government programs like Operation Wealth Creation, which promotes the commercialization of agriculture and boosts household income. The program provides farmers with resources like seedlings, livestock and modern agriculture practices.