By Hasifah Namuli

Following a long dry spell in the Karamoja sub-region, the government of Uganda moved to take serious action thereby earmarking Ushs. 135 billion to avert the hunger crisis in the region.

The intervention was announced by the Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja who noted that the funds would also cater for food relief as well as the purchase of seedlings for the planting season.

Subsequently, by June 2022, the government had distributed over 200 metric tons of food supplies to Karamoja in a bid to stabilize the region troubled by prolonged insecurity.

While ordering the finance ministry to avail the funds, the speaker of parliament Anita Among noted with concern that  “the plight of our people in famine-stricken Karamoja remains a scar on the conscience of our Country. The images of starving malnourished children and reports of famine-induced deaths have left us all enervated. Therefore, I direct the Prime Minster to find sustainable solutions to stem this seasonal challenge forthwith.”

Among directed the Prime Minister, Robinah Nabbanja to expeditiously address the worsening famine situation and also find transformative long-term solutions to address the disaster which left scores starving to death. 

Faith Nakut, the Napak district woman Member of Parliament says despite the interventions done by government overtime, there is need for long lasting solution since even the food rations distributed can hardly last them a month. The Karamoja region in Uganda has suffered a long drought this year in which scores died.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) estimates that about 518,000 people from Karamoja’s poorest families faced critical food insecurity resulting from two seasons of crop failure in early 2022.

Of the 518,000 people with high levels of food insecurity, 428,000 were experiencing phase three (crisis levels of food insecurity), and 90,000 at phase four (emergency levels of food insecurity).

The UNICEF August situation report on Karamoja indicates that the population in need in Karamoja exceeds the caseload reached with humanitarian food and nutrition assistance provided thus far.

According to the report, While harvests temporarily improved food consumption, given the below average crop production, above average prices, and below-average income-earning, households were likely to continue facing food consumption gaps and crisis outcomes (IPC Phase 3) even in the post-harvest period.

According to hon. Nakut Faith Loru, the hunger situation in the district is getting worse, especially for the elderly people.

“They are dying in large numbers due to starvation, with those on the verge of dying avoiding sleep because they fear dying while asleep,” she said. By the end of July, all the districts were facing acute malnutrition at critical levels.

One of the victims is seven- year old, Taka Medina, who at the time, was undergoing malnutrition treatment at Kabong general hospital, she appears very lean and suffers from various symptoms. What is more heart wrenching in her situation is that she is responsible for her three- year old brother, Otai Karim, who is also undergoing treatment. The situation is further escalated by the high food prices which have left many families unable to afford any food.

In light of this dire situation, Scientists from the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) developed bean varieties, which they say will solve the problem of hunger and malnutrition in Karamoja Sub-region once and for all.

Under this farmers were trained at NARO’s National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI). The training that involved explaining the different breeding techniques including conventional breeding like hybridisation and genetic engineering and their advantages convinced many about the benefits of genetic engineering technology.

The Farmers across Karamoja sub-region hence embraced the fast-maturing seed varieties. The seed varieties for beans, peas, soybeans and maize take 70-90 days to mature.

The distribution was done in the districts of Nabilatuk, Napak, Nakapiripirit and Abim targeting 10,500 farmers for each of the districts with each receiving a package worth 74, 000 Shillings. In Abim district alone 4,842 farmers have so far benefited from the distribution’s first phase aimed at reducing the burden of malnutrition, and promote food security.

Rogers Adiba, the District project Implementation Leader says the project targets increasing rural farmer access to quality seeds and improve household incomes through market-oriented production. The program, he said, is also to encourage farmers in the region to diversify their economy from animal production to include the growing of high-value crops that survive well in the arid region

The Deputy Director General in charge of Agriculture Technology Promotion at the National Agricultural Research Organisation, (NARO) Kasim Sadek reveals that these varieties were developed under an initiative between the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and USAID with the aim of promoting the use and commercialization of improved technologies with yield and nutritional enhancing characteristics in Uganda. It focused on the continued improvement of crop genetics, bio-fortification, and integrated pest management. The project started in 2020 and will last for five years at a cost of ten million dollars. He says these seed varieties are more resilient, have higher yields and are fast maturing as compared to the local seeds.

The UNICEF communication officer Catherine Ntabadde says that UNICEF’s Integrated community outreaches have improved the enrolment of malnourished children into therapeutic care.

To date, a total of 17,203 (75.6 per cent from 56 per cent as shown in the last report) of children with Severe Acute malnutrition (SAM) have been enrolled into care. Support to integrated community outreaches and referral has been extended to six districts of Nabilatuk, Napak, Kotido, Kaabong, Moroto and Amudat. These have concluded their mass-screening exercises.

Now the scientists are optimistic that these beans will go a long way in solving and alleviating this problem.

According to the head of legume research at National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) Dr Stanley Nkalubo, The beans are rich in iron and zinc and can be processed to make flour for porridge mixed with millet and soybean. The 20-25 percent iron and zinc components in the beans make them suitable for hunger stricken regions such as Karamoja because they are very nutritious.

The scientists at NARO teamed up with USAID Feed the Future and embarked on a campaign in the districts of Kotido, Kabong, Nabilatuk and Abim to roll out the bean varieties.

The coordinator of the program, Grace Nanyonjo says they have successfully promoted climate smart agriculture in which farmers have been sensitized; these were selected from different parishes, identifying those with available and ready pieces to land for cultivation from whom a handful were selected and invited to the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) for a one week camp.

“We then visited them on ground and trained them at their respective farms with guidance on how to plant, weed and tend to them throughout the season so as to multiply the varieties for distribution to fellow farmers. We identified five farmers for every parish who owned vast land who then became our sub trainers for other farmers at village level using their model gardens as proof of high yields,” Nanyonjo explains.

James Cheptum, a farmer from Abim says he has redirected his time and energy to growing both beans and rice and is already experiencing a change with his thriving garden with support from NARO experts and is also able to share the skills he acquired with other farmers as a sub trainer.

“I have gained a lot of knowledge from NARO which has helped me with my seed garden and I am hoping to double my productivity next season because I have seen the results. I got over 10 bags of beans this season, so may be next season I will reap even 50 bags if I add in effort and expand my capacity,” he explains.

James grows on a large commercial scale while preserving some for home consumption. However, Clerence Ajioni says he only grows for home consumption. “We at least have food now, these seeds they gave us mature very fast and we are able to harvest in only two months. This is going to help us fight this hunger problem that was killing us and who knows, I might have some surplus for sale,” he notes.

Ajioni, however notes that even though the initiative seems viable, there is a challenge of unreliable rainfall due to changing weather patterns yet small scale farmers like him cannot afford irrigation equipment.

“The government promised to distribute to us the irrigation machines but we are still required to pay some fee which is hard for us because we cannot afford it. All our cattle was stolen while some died during the long dry spell at the beginning of this year,” he adds. 

According to Nanyonjo, NARO has also taken the campaign to schools where even school going children along with their teachers have been trained. NARO trainers visited the school farms after identifying those with ample land and enough workforce, trained the teachers and students at their respective farms, showing them how to plant which variety depending on the type of land and seed size. The teachers and students then dedicated their time to their gardens tending to them carefully throughout the first season whose yields were very sufficient, three times more than the traditional seeds yet they used to procure them at a higher cost from seed distributors. After the two months training during the first season in August 2022, they embraced the initiative and expanded their production base.

“We have selected 14 schools in Kotido and seven in Kabong. These students and teachers were trained on how to grow the bean varieties for a whole month as we monitored the growth process of our plants, paying attention to the mallets detail of how much fertilizers were needed to the amount of watering needed ,” she says, adding that the process has been taken a notch higher through value addition of the produce.

“A private food processing company, Supper Kawomera has been contracted to process porridge flour, which is made up of pre- cooked beans, amaranth seeds, soybean and maize,” she reveals.

For now it is this company that is doing the processing and production but Nanyonjo says they will be empowering these small scale farmers through trainings on how to process the porridge mixture for sale as an additional source of income at house hold level thus an income earning initiative.

Government has taken keen interest in the initiative. In early August 2022, the government dispatched 90 metric tons of quick maturing seeds worth Ush.800 million including tepary beans, cow peas, maize, and green gram seeds to the Karamoja sub-region.

The State Minister for Agriculture, Fred Bwino Kyakulaga revealed that the seeds take only 56 days to mature stressing that the intervention aims at supporting residents to grow their own food. The donation was an addition to the food relief that had earlier been distributed by the office of the Prime Minister.

Dr. Samuel Mugasa, the Executive Director of National Agriculture Advisory Services-NAADS appealed to leaders in the Karamoja region to consider the most vulnerable households and make sure that the beneficiaries take advantage of the rainy season to plant the seeds.

A recent survey by the Ministry of agriculture revealed that the Karamoja sub-region is the most food insecure with 50% lacking food followed by the Acholi, Lango, Bukedi and Busoga regions.

Meanwhile the minister in charge of Karamoja sub-region Mary Gorreti Kitutu says the populations in the region must adapt to agriculture with these improved seeds because the metrological department has assured them that the current rainfall will go up to December 2022 and thus facilitating for two full seasons. She however stresses that with support from government and development partners, they will also be availed with modern irrigation equipment in the near future.

“People in Karamoja should now take advantage of the prevailing security to go back to their gardens.Before, women were afraid of attending to their gardens for fear of being raped by men with guns but we thank the Uganda People’s Defense Forces for wiping out these criminals,” she said.

According to the LC 5 chairperson of Napak district John Paul Kodet, they were consulted as regional local leaders before government undertook this intervention and they felt like this would be the ultimate solution to their problem, however, he says they realized they also need improved food varieties and thus requests that in the next distribution exercise, the government should send them cassava cuttings and potato veins.

Minister Kyakulaga revealed that for the current rainy season, farmers have already reaped from their hard work but this was on a short term basis. On a medium term basis, he says, Government has now ordered the NARO and the Prison’s services to grow over one hundred thousand hectares of maize, soya bean and sorghum during this rainy season stretching through December.

He adds that for the long-term basis, they plan to distribute more seeds to large scale farmers who will also be provided with irrigation technology to ensure that they keep growing during off season in early 2023 to avoid another food crisis like the one witnessed in the region in early and mid 2022.

On the other hand, the Member of Parliament for Abim Janet Akor Moe, also the Chairperson for the Parliamentary Committee of Agriculture says despite the fact that the initiative has given the people of Karamoja sub-region a glimpse of hope; there is still need for additional strategies to redeem the region from severe starvation once and for all.

This story was first published in Metro FM 90.8

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