Improving agricultural productivity in Africa is high on the international community’s agenda these days, but one Ugandan farmer thinks the aid and development agencies are, well, often missing the forest for the trees.
Most African agricultural projects focus on poor, rural communities. Yet many poor Africans either live in or are increasingly moving to cities as part of a global urbanization trend that is also concentrating poverty. Many of these people are, or were, farmers who moved from their rural lands either out of necessity or based on the belief that urban centers offered a better life.
So rather than try to bring the city-dweller back to the farm, why not bring the farm to the city-dweller?
“There is growing interest in urban farming in Africa, yes,” said Harriet Nakabaale, one of Uganda’s most successful urban farmers. “We are successfully reaching out to young people, teaching them business skills and how to grow their own food. I want to make all of Kampala green.”
Nakabaale and her son, Frank Jjumba Squibb, run on their tiny plot of land in Kampala (50 by 32 feet) an enterprise they call Camp Green — an amazing combination of home, farm and business vocational school. A video:
Nakabaale and Jjumba Squibb were in Seattle for a few days this week as part of a nationwide tour sponsored by Oxfam America.
The advocacy organization brought the mother and son duo to the US, along with a rural woman farmer from Tanzania, to meet with policy makers to urge that aid efforts support smallholder farmers, to take part in the annual World Food Prize celebration (which Monsanto won this year) and to visit with other like-minded urban farmers like Glenn Herlihy of the newly launched Beacon Food Forest in Seattle’s central district.
“We just broke ground in 2012,” Herlihy told the visiting Ugandans. As a part of the city’s community garden program, P-Patch, he described their plans to bring the neighborhood together by growing their own food – including creating a ‘food forest’ with a variety of fruit and nut trees or shrubs. “We want this both represent the diversity of our community and also help build community.”
Nakabaale nodded and smiled slightly – perhaps thinking what she and her son could do if they had, like this Seattle group. acres to work with as opposed to trying to do agriculture around the house using pots, buckets and even old tires on a tiny lot in a city of 1.5 million.
“We are only two of us, but we have already reached something like 10,000 people,” said Nakabaale’s son and co-director at Camp Green Jjumba Squibb. “In many schools, they use agriculture as a way to punish young people. Make them go out and work in the field. We are trying to change that negative attitude, to show young people the joy and power of growing your own food.”
With Oxfam, Nakabaale attended the annual World Food Prize celebration where three scientists were honored for their achievements in agricultural biotechnology. Africa is becoming something of a battleground over a number of issues, including the promotion of GM (genetically modified) crops and some reform efforts that favor large-scale farming techniques which improve yield but also often tend to knock poor farmers off their land.
“Our government is giving much of the land to foreign investors,” Nakabaale said. She is concerned that all of these trends – displacement of rural farmers, foreign control of farming, industrialized farming, urbanization and the cultural stigma tainting this noble profession – will just further the disenfranchisement of the poor.
“Harriet wants to get the government to free up more land in the city for urban farming,” said Jon Scanlon. “We brought her to the US because we think she’s a perfect example of the kind of smallholder farmer we should be supporting, someone who is all about innovation and empowering people.”
For Nakabaale and Jjumba Squibb, there is nothing so fundamental to personal empowerment as being able to feed yourself. As the world becomes more urbanized, they think we all should become farmers – to regain control over this basic, daily need and to restore our sense of connection to the land and cycles of life.
Editor’s note: Oh, and for you philanthropists out there looking for a great way to get a big bang for your buck? Nakabaale and Jjumba Squibb told me they dream of having a training farm outside the city, to deal with the overwhelming demand for hands-on teaching. They said a 10-acre plot would cost them about $20,000 and would catapult Camp Green into a much bigger and more effective social enterprise.
They didn’t come to Seattle to ask anyone for help, or for money. I asked them. Sounds like a project someone might want to invest in.