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BIO-INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE; A Ray of Hope for Uganda’s Smallholder Farmers

BIO-INTENSIVE AGRICULTURE; A Ray of Hope for Uganda’s Smallholder Farmers

Uganda like most countries in sub Saharan Africa is predominantly an agrarian economy with agriculture still enjoying a large share of the country’s GDP estimated at 21% and accounts for 48% of export revenue (MAAIF, 2013). Though its GDP stake has been declining over the last decade, the importance of the agricultural sector to the country is still paramount. The sector employs about 70% of Ugandans currently estimated to be 32 million. Smallholder farmers contribute over 75% to the agriculture sector and majority of these are women.

Notwithstanding, agriculture in general and smallholder farmers in particular are faced with several challenges such as reduced soil fertility due to poor agriculture practices leading to soil degradation, land shortage due to high population growth rate and climate change among others which have negatively affected agriculture productivity leading to food insecurity and loss of livelihoods for the smallholder farmers.

This therefore calls for promoting sustainable agriculture practices that enable farmers to increase productivity in their limited pieces of land while also improving soil fertility and general restoration of the ecosystem. Bio intensive Agriculture is one such farming system. To this regard, PELUM Uganda  organised a five (5) day training for 5 member organisations; Caritas Masaka Archdiocese Development Organisation (MADDO), Rural Youth Poverty Eradication Initiative (RYPEI), Skills Oriented Development Initiatives (SODI), Sustainable agriculture Trainers Network (SATNET), Community Empowerment For Rural Development (CEFORD) in bio intensive agriculture. The training was conducted by Manor House Agriculture College (MHAC) in Kitale, Kenya, a PELUM Kenya member from 23rd to 28th March 2014.

Biointensive agriculture is an organic agricultural system which focuses on maximum yields from the minimum area of land, while simultaneously improving and maintaining the fertility of the soil. The goal of the method is long term sustainability on a closed system basis. The biointensive method provides many benefits as compared with conventional farming and gardening methods, and is an inexpensive, easily implemented sustainable production method that can be used by people who lack the resources (or desire) to implement commercial chemical and fossil-fuel-based forms of agriculture. Bio intensive Agriculture was pioneered by John Jeavons of Ecology Action in 1972 and has been well researched and proved to be a highly productive and self regenerating farming system over the years (Ecology Action, 2010).

Biointensive Agriculture uses an eight-part integrated system of deep soil cultivation (“double-digging”) to create raised, aerated beds; intensive planting; companion planting or crop diversity; composting; the use of open-pollinated seeds to ensure seed security of the farmer; and a carefully balanced planting ratio of 60% Carbon-Rich Crops (for compost production) 30% Calorie-Rich Crops (for food) and an optional 10% planted in Income Crops (for sale).

The training was both theoretical to enable participants grasp the concepts and principles of bio intensive agriculture as well as practical whereby participants were equipped with hands on practical skills on Biointensive agriculture. The major components covered were; principles of Bio-intensive agriculture, dairy cattle production in bio intensive system, soil fertility management, seed production focusing on open pollinated seeds, pasture and fodder crop establishment and management, enterprise management, value addition and animal draft power.

What participants found very impressive and unique was the double digging technique which involves loosening the soil (top soil and sub soil) up to 60 centimeters deep as a way of building up the soils quickly. Also, the close spacing using the diagonal offset method that enables a farmer to maximally utilize the little piece of land to produce as much as possible. With land increasingly becoming smaller due to population pressure, bio intensive agriculture provides the solution to intensively and maximally utilize small pieces of land sustainably to feed the growing population. Biointensive agriculture is both relevant for rural and urban agriculture. Also the fact that the farmer requires little to no external inputs and yet it’s highly productive makes Bio intensive agriculture very cost friendly and enables farmers to maximize profits. Bio intensive agriculture also encourages nutrition at homes due to diversified enterprises promoted both to control the pests and disease cycles and meet the nutritional and income needs of the farming household.

The only set back to Biointensive agriculture is the fact that it’s labour intensive especially at the initial stages of bed preparation. A standard double dug bed of 1.5 meters width and 6 meters length can take 1 farmer about 3-4 days. However, when well prepared, the double dug bed can last for more than 2 years and a farmer would require less energy for maintenance. It’s therefore advised that farmers are encouraged to work as households while establishing such beds. Manuring is also essential, with compost manure being the most preferred. A single standard bed requires 3 wheel barrows of compost manure.

 Photo: Manor House student (in black) explains diagonal offset spacing to participants

The beds are also easy to irrigate during harsh climatic conditions and the soils have a high water retention capacity due to the high organic matter content from the compost. The crops form a canopy due to close diagonal spacing which acts as a live mulch to prevent the sun from directly hitting the soil surface hence reducing evaporation.  This makes bio intensive agriculture climate smart.

Therefore introducing bio intensive agriculture in the PELUM Uganda family was a step in the right direction and at the right time. The trained member organisations have upon return embarked on establishment of demonstration gardens at their respective organisations to train other farmers and other member organisations. PELUM Uganda plans to organize in country learning visits for other member organisations on bio intensive agriculture to be hosted by the members that received the initial training. This is hoped to further spread the fire of bio intensive agriculture across the PELUM family all for the benefit of the affiliate smallholder farmers.

PELUM Uganda will continue to identify and promote more of such ecologically friendly and highly productive sustainable farming systems to ensure that the current challenges faced by smallholder farmers such as low productivity, pest and diseases are addressed to ensure improved farmers livelihoods.

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