Jun 20, 2009

Katine farmers harvest first cassava crop

guardian.co.uk by Richard M Kavuma. Jemorun is among the first of the 18 livelihood groups in Katine, Uganda, to harvest the new high-yielding, disease-resistant variety of cassava

A woman carrying cassava in Katine. Photograph: Dan Chung

In the midday heat, a dozen women, members of Ojemorun farmers group in Katine, sit peeling a heap of cassava tubers as men gather stems from the garden.

The tubers of this new variety are longer and bigger than those of the Nigeria strain, the most common type of cassava grown in Katine, but which is vulnerable to diseases like cassava brown streak.

Farmer groups in Katine have been harvesting this new high-yielding, disease-resistant variety of cassava, planted a year ago, given to them by the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref), which is implementing a three-year development project in the sub-county, funded by the Guardian and Barclays. It is receiving technical assistance on farming from Farm-Africa.

Ojemorun is among the first of Amref's 18 livelihood groups to harvest its cassava. After training in May last year, each group was given stem cuttings of the improved Akena and, later, 2961 varieties. Ojemorun was one of four pilot groups to test the enthusiasm for the new strain among farmers. Each group set up a demonstration garden to put into practice what they had learned in training, but also to share the cassava crop. Last month, it was time for the farmers to reap the rewards of their labour.

"Some members wanted us to sell the cassava and buy other things like goats for rearing, but the majority decided that we share the cassava and use it in our homes," explained Julius Opejo, 38, vice-chairman of the group. "There is famine here; people don't have food. A basin of cassava now costs UShs 10,000 [around $4.60], whereas earlier it cost between UShs 3,000 and 5,000."

The new disease-resistant strain of cassava. Photograph: Dan Chung

The group has already ploughed a fresh 0.4 hectare (1 acre) garden where they want to plant the stem cuttings from this harvest. Group chairman Julius Otim says if the new crop does well, then tubers can be given to other farmers who are not part of the 30-member group.

"That is how our neighbours in the village will also benefit," Otim said. "Now the planting material [tubers] would not be enough to give to other people. That is why we have to plant a new garden so as to multiply them."

Although Uganda's research scientists often come up with new varieties of crops to defeat emerging diseases and pests, the challenge lies in getting this information to farmers. The National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS), which seeks to inform farmers about new varieties and ideas, does not get enough money to reach everyone. Like the Katine project's livelihoods component, NAADS works through farmer groups, with one set of farmers having to wait for another before getting any new variety.

Replanting crops in Katine is a slow way to get the improved variety out to other farmers, but, according to David Ogwang, Amref's project assistant for livelihoods, there are no easy short cuts.

One farmers group, Ojwinyi, has decided to distribute the cuttings among themselves right away, instead of re-planting. "The disadvantage with this option is that each farmer only gets a few cuttings that can only be planted in a small area. But in the end we shall see the results and tell which method will have worked better."

So what lessons have the Ojemorun farmers learned from the demonstration exercise? For Anna Grace Anyeno, a mother of five, Akena is a good variety that she did not know about until Amref introduced it. She says it gives bigger tubers and, after only one year, it can be cooked and eaten from the garden.

"But this variety needs a lot of work," Anyeno says. "It needs a well-ploughed garden and you must plant it in spaced rows, whereas for Nigeria, we just plant in any field anyhow."

While she sees this as a disadvantage, in future she hopes to plant both Nigeria and Akena. Nigeria can be harvested, sun-dried and sold or milled into flour after eight months, while the new type will be popular with buyers who want to boil it for food or to make cassava chips.

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