Farming in Bags: Micro Gardening in Northern Uganda

By Holly Welcome Radice, Action Against Hunger-USA

Holly Welcome Radice has worked as a food security officer for AAHUSA in Liberia, Uganda, and as programme co-ordinator in Ethiopia.

The author would like to acknowledge the valuable contributions to this article of Pamela Atim, Victor Onenchan, and Thomas Ojara, and the support of Devrig Velly, AAH-USA and Lisa Ernoul, ACF.

The Acholi region of Northern Uganda (Kitgum, Pader and Gulu districts) has been affected by rebel activities since 1986. An estimated 100,000 people have been killed and 20,000 abducted during this near twenty year period of crisis. Since 1996, the population has been displaced and currently over 90% or over 1.3 million people are internally displaced (IDPs) in the three districts. Due to the constant crisis and erratic security situation, access to food, income, and productive assets for the population has become increasingly difficult over the years. In particular, access to land is very limited due to security constraints and related displacement. Assistance from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and access to the population has continually been complicated by the erratic security in the district. The population is chronically food insecure, heavily dependent on food aid, face periodic lootings and attacks, and is plagued by the effects of poor access to basic infrastructures (e.g. safe drinking water and hygiene facilities).

ACF-USA staff, Thomas Ojara (middle) making a micro-garden

Work of Action Against Hunger-USA

Action Against Hunger-USA (AAHUSA) has been active in Gulu district since 1997, mostly working in nutrition and water and sanitation (WAT/SAN). The majority of the population, estimated at 515,000 people (UNOCHA), are internally displaced and living in camps throughout the district.

Food security assessments were completed by AAH-USA in Gulu district in 1999 and 2003. As a result of recommendations made following the 2003 assessment, AAH-USA began a pilot microgardening project in two Gulu district IDP camps in 2004. The project aimed to tackle household food insecurity through achieving the following aims:

Planting seeds in a micro-garden

Project implementation

ACF-USA staff, Victor Onenchen, watering a micro-garden

The project used the basic ideas of urban agriculture and rooftop farming - containerised planting, using locally available materials, and low maintenance systems in small spaces. The planting method promoted involved polyethylene grain sacks, which are abundant in the camps and not costly. Materials used included loam soil, rocks and a banana stem. The banana stems were placed in the sacks and filled with rocks. Loam soil was placed around the stem. When the sack was filled with soil, the banana stem was removed leaving a core area of rocks, which served as a watering area. Planting was carried out around the bag (sides) and on top of it. Some households that had small parcels of land near their compounds also planted using traditional gardening methods. Beneficiaries of the programme were recipient households of the AAH-USA supplementary feeding centres (SFCs) in Opit and Amuru camps. A total of 940 households participated in the programme.

Micro-gardening family with bag in bloom

Micro-gardening activities comprised training, distribution, and monitoring. Each camp had a demonstration garden near the SFC that was tended by a gardener and hosted the training sessions. Training days coincided with the days the caretakers picked up rations at the SFC. Groups of up to 40 women (almost all SFC caretakers are women) participated in the training in microgarden construction, maintenance, and vegetable harvesting. At the end of the training, each household received a 100kg grain sack, seeds (carrots and a choice of spinach (dodo) or cowpeas (boo)), and an instruction sheet written in the local language, Luo. Each household was supposed to plant one garden. The project was kept small-scale in order to gauge the interest and appropriateness of the activity before rolling it out.

Gardens were constructed near the beneficiaries' household. Soil and rocks were brought from nearby areas and the majority of gardens were built in 2-3 days. Fences made of local materials (e.g. thorny bushes, bamboo) were constructed to protect the gardens. Maintenance took up on average just over 2 hours per week. This included watering, transplanting, fencing, and weeding. AAH-USA food security staff made weekly visits to the field to monitor the gardens and help troubleshoot for the households.

It is probably fair to say that the initial perception of the micro-gardening was that the project was "strange" and even "a childish thing to be doing". The Acholi, who are the ethnic group in Gulu district, are used to gardening vegetables in a small area and, in some IDP camps, there is enough room to have a small garden alongside the house. However, gardening in a sack had never been seen before. Despite this, the beneficiaries, who were almost exclusively women, were eager to try the new activity. Many husbands and neighbours looked on in curiosity. Carrots were also new to most people, as it is not a traditional Acholi crop.

Success of 'farming in bags'

The results of the micro-gardening project were assessed through weekly monitoring of the gardens' progress and discussions with the beneficiaries, observations, and a formal evaluation. Overall, micro-gardening was well received. Almost all households who received the garden kit planted a garden. Over 85% of households claimed they were satisfied with the project and 94% wanted to continue with the activity for more seasons. The main reasons given for wanting to participate in micro-gardening included liking the project idea, having no 'other' land to plant, and being able to provide vegetables for their children. Even neighbours where impressed, with some 80% of those interviewed expressing positive views about the concept of the micro-garden.

Micro-gardens planted in Opit camp

A number of advantages were identified with respect to micro-gardening. The proximity of the micro-garden to the compound and the ease of maintenance were mentioned most frequently. Theft of crops was also reportedly discouraged because the micro-gardens can be constantly monitored. One unexpected advantage highlighted was that the micro-gardens decorate the home.

A few disadvantages of micro-gardens were also identified. The most significant ones were problems related to watering the garden (gardens required, on average, two litres per day in the dry season) and protecting it from destruction by children and animals. Watering was a particular problem in Amuru camp where water availability was very limited.

The relevance of the project was also demonstrated by the fact that half of the households had not been planting vegetables in the previous season before receiving the seeds from AAH-USA. In addition, vegetable consumption is generally low. Most households only ate vegetables 1-3 times a week. The major reasons given for this low consumption were cost and land being too far away, i.e. difficult to cultivate and keep in the home for daily use.

Fifty five percent of micro-gardens that were observed were well maintained. However, there was a great contrast between the camps. The gardens in Opit were in better condition than those in Amuru. This was related mainly to the water scarcity in Amuru, where watering was carried out sparingly resulting in poorer crop performances.

At the time of the evaluation, 37% of the households had eaten 6 meals or more from their gardens, with an average of six people taking part in these meals. It should be noted that at this point, carrots had only just begun to be harvested. As these were the most bulky crop, the final number of meals will be considerably higher. Carrots were a big hit. Some parents stated that the children really enjoyed them and ate with more verve when there were carrots in the meal. AAH-USA conducted training with the beneficiaries on preparation and cooking of carrots. The crowd reaction was excellent with a lot of participation, complete with ululations.

None of the households sold the vegetables produced in the micro gardens, but 75% indicated that if the programme expanded, they would like to sell, as well as eat, the vegetables.

Conclusions

The experience of micro-gardening in Gulu district points to a potentially interesting means of addressing household food insecurity. Though the project is not a new idea and has been implemented in other displaced settings, there had been no such projects in Gulu district before this one. Although the current micro-garden project faced challenges, many of these could be addressed by improving the gardening methods, better targeting and monitoring.

An important attribute of the micro-garden is that it has offered a new idea to the IDP population. After almost 10 years of displacement and very restricted movement, the IDPs in Gulu district are largely demoralised and lack impetus for innovation. While planting in bags was first viewed as childish by many, people are now really interested. Also, the new vegetables may add a lot more interest to household cuisine.

AAH-USA plan to continue the project, improve it and increase the number of beneficiaries. The pilot project highlighted the need to increase the size of the gardens for greater impact, but at the same time making sure not to over burden households.

Emphasis will be placed on increasing production in order to promote consumption and sale. In order to do this there will be more detailed analysis of the types of planting methods promoted, in order to maximise output in return for minimal input. Other recommendations include;

For further information, contact Devrig Velly, Food Security Coordinator, AAH-USA, email: dv@aah-usa.org

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Reference this page

Holly Welcome Radice (2005). Farming in Bags: Micro Gardening in Northern Uganda. Field Exchange 26, November 2005. p2. www.ennonline.net/fex/26/farming