Agriculture needs innovators: Reflections on Our Journey as Innovators at Bobo Eco Farm

Edward Ssebbombo
Bobo Eco Farm, Mityana, Uganda
September, 2016

Why sharing our story?

I believe a good number of people are ignorant of their potential as well as their responsibilities to their communities. Sadly, our environment doesn’t encourage us to discover ourselves as leaders, and the context within which we’re called to lead. We’re often lost in the busy-ness of shaping a career and managing the issues of day to day life that we forget to reflect on the very important things which can change our lives and those of the people around us.  The purpose of sharing our story is to encourage somebody out there to jump off the band wagon and pursue a worthwhile goal for your community.

Catching the vision

When we started farming, we lost our initial investment in crops, chicken and hog. We started all over again, and failed again.  We however realized that other farmers around us also suffer alike.  An idea came to mind; if such a large number of people suffer as such, then it is worthy ‘we specialize in finding solutions’. On one hand it is a moral responsibility, on the other hand it is a business opportunity. We embarked on traveling within and out of the country visiting model farmers, thumbing through newspaper articles, and browsing the Internet to find out what others are doing to address such challenges.

Fueling the ambition

In December 2009 my family took a bus trip to Mombasa for our Christmas holiday. Kenya being the largest economy in East Africa I thought it was greener – in the mind of a farmer. What I saw between Nairobi and Mombasa was instead a desert! When I crossed from Kenya to Tanzania by land, the stretch shortly after the border at Namanga on the way to Arusha is also a desert! I saw a herd of cattle, and a food market; this was testimony that people are doing their best even within such harsh environments. Yet, for the case of Uganda, move East or West you only see potential! I realized we’re sitting on a gold mine, and yet lamenting! It was time for us to think hard! So, we started piloting a few innovations at the farm.

Edward ‘the maggot farmer’

Life in the village is interestingly social – in that everybody is connected to, and interested in what everybody else is doing; even in the absence of Twitter or face book they ‘follow’ each other though subconsciously. For example, one day we woke up to find word had circulated around the village that we were rearing ‘exotic’ rats (actually we never did so), roaches, maggots (yes we did) and other ‘strange things’. We were branded ‘crazy’. Somebody even tried to ‘embarrass’ me during a funeral function; as I arrived, this person stepped forward and greeted me with the words ‘welcome Edward the maggot farmer’. I smiled & answered ‘some people elsewhere already eat maggots; I will make you eat one someday’.

No room to dream, and, play it safe!

We’re groomed to play it safe; study things that have readily available jobs so a pay cheque is assured; invest in things where you’re assured of success, don’t take on risks. We took the risky path! Many times things didn’t go as planned, and we lost all the investment.

To make matters worse, we expanded the farm, fenced it with an expensive material (chain link) and hired full time staff – to rear maggots, worms, roaches, ‘rats’ etc. In a society where flashy cars, big houses, and the like have become a value, serious concerns were aired by people who genuinely cared – who wanted to see us ‘succeed’. Just like the Biblical Joseph, there is no room to dream; one just has to be and do like others – so as to fit in!

Unemployment in the midst of lots of undone jobs!

Look anywhere in our communities you will see problems that need to be fixed yet, our graduates knock at office after office looking for jobs – talking about unemployment – in the midst of lots of undone jobs! As I thought through this irony, I remembered an ingenious lady in the Bible – the mother of Moses. When she was faced with the challenge of saving her son after the pharaoh had given orders to kill all young Jewish boys in Egypt at the time – she made a basket that could float on the river, in which she placed her baby – in the hope that even if it sailed somebody will be able to receive the baby at the other end of the river! We should remember, this lady had no diploma, had never attended any leadership conference or workshop but made a basket that saved her baby! So, if our graduates decide to apply themselves to the development challenges in their communities they would ably weave the baskets needed to fix maternal mortality, child mortality, hunger and malnutrition, corruption, road accidents, toxic agrochemicals in the food value chain, exploitation of farmers by middle men, human trafficking, drug abuse, environmental degradation, et cetera.

The mode for innovation

Mindset is an important factor, it determines one’s world view, for example one that delights in the satisfaction of working on a worthwhile goal, leading a purposeful life as opposed to one that seeks self validation through a glamorous career that hands immediate ‘success’ but devoid of any sense of mission.

When you decide on a project; throw yourself full throttle into your project – body, mind, and soul. Meditate on it day and night. Have a vision, a compelling vision to generate the passion to keep you running through the thick and thin.  It has also proved helpful in our case to focus on the long term – watching the trends, not necessarily the speed; and developing a thick skin so we’re not too sensitive to destructions. Now, I think this one varies from person to person; I’ve sometimes had ideas flow quite easily when relaxed – as was the case when I came up with banana feeding clusters. As a Plant Protection Officer at Entebbe International Airport cleared my consignment of mango seedlings from South Africa, we started a conversation; he shared with me how I can organize my mango orchard with ‘common points’ where fertilizers could be delivered. As I drove back to Kampala with my seedlings, I recalled the chat I had with the guy at the airport; I realized, that could be a perfect solution to the difficulties we face with bananas. I went online to check if their root system would support it; perfect!

On the other hand, our greatest break through amazingly came in the midst of a crisis! Captive breeding of Black Soldier Flies was almost failing – the way we had grounded earthworm rearing a year before. Flies were dying without laying eggs, and the colony was nearing extinction. It was the third trial. We were very anxious about the possibility of grounding this project. Time was of essence. We browsed the internet and extensively read about the behaviors of the female BSF during ovipulation. So, we purposed to mimic nature in our new equipment design! It worked out very well! Violet and I made the ‘Bio Recycler G3’ – the first successful integrated BSF breeding unit at our farm!

Yes, talk about ‘G3’; it was the 3rd generation of our equipment designs. We immediately started looking passed that success, looking forward to Generation 4 (G4) – large scale breeding unit, possibly automated, with ability for micro-climates inside the unit. To me, this points to a long-term commitment to innovation, and seeing things in a bigger picture.

Realizing our vision for the community

With a vision such as ours of building empowered, resilient, and thriving smallholder farmer communities, researchers and policy makers should actively involve farmers in developing holistic, feasible, and long-lasting improvements. They should aim to reduce the vulnerability of smallholder farmers, utilize local materials and resources, and ensure the full integration of women and youths both as contributors and as beneficiaries. Farmers should be involved in the planning, actioning the plans, monitoring, and evaluation; learning from actions taken, and taking actions based on prior learning. Farmer communities will then begin to make sense of the experiences, comprehend desirable goals in their situations and how to achieve them. Consequently, farmers will be able to continuously respond to changes in their environment. As such, farmers will become more resilient in the face of climatic change and other changes in their environment.

Of course, in the face of serious scientific projections i.e. those that transcend the prevailing patterns of the farmers’ circumstances, the incremental and often reactive nature of the farmer-led improvements may be insufficient to cope with the demands, and the rate of dynamism and complexity of such projected situations. Therefore, game-changing innovations are called for. They are systemic, and are not created by the farmers but they create new opportunities for farmers. Such innovations are transformative.  This is the way to go to accelerate African development.