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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Organic Exports

Air Date: Week of

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The market for organic produce has been rising steadily in the past decade. Now, farmers in Uganda are cashing in on that demand. The success of organic farming there is due, in part, because modern farming methods were late in coming to that east African nation. Jessie Graham reports.


CURWOOD: President Bush's tour of Africa has taken him to five nations on that continent, all countries that currently enjoy relative stability. One of them is Uganda. Uganda is endowed with an ample amount of fertile land and regular rainfall, but it is still recovering from the dark days when it was ruled by the infamous dictator, Idi Amin. The success of that recovery depends, in great part, on Uganda's agricultural exports. And as Jessie Graham reports, Ugandan farmers are learning that supplying the booming market in organic products is one way to bolster their success.


GRAHAM: In a shady clearing tucked between neat rows of banana trees and papaya groves, two Ugandan farmers scrub, label and box tiny golden pineapples. These fragrant packages are bound for Germany, where the fruit will grace the shelves of fancy supermarkets and health food stores.


Patrick Sembuya contributed 126 pineapples today from his two and a half acre plot down the road. His land is one of Uganda's 28,000 certified organic farms. According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, Uganda has the fourth largest number of such farms in the world. The country -- which is about the size of Oregon -- leads Africa and most of the developing world in this highly lucrative market. But organic farming isn’t easy. Sembuya says without chemicals, he has to hire workers to dig out weeds.

SEMBUYA: Because we are not spraying, we're digging. As you know, digging is not a simple thing. We have other laborers that help us to dig, but that's really a hard job.

GRAHAM: Before he went organic, Sembuya earned less than twenty dollars a month. By complying with organic standards, the thirty-six year old father of three has increased his profits over 200 percent. Farmers like Sembuya can't do this alone. They're members of a cooperative started by a company with strong export connections.

WEKE: We approached him and we taught them what is the importance of organic.

GRAHAM: Seka Weke works for Amfri farms. Amfri pays its 82 farmers a premium of 25 cents per pineapple. Before they went organic, these farmers didn't export. Uganda has never been able to compete with more developed countries when it comes to shipping out conventional produce. In the local market, a surplus of fruit in the high season drives prices down, bringing the farmers only pennies for their produce. With the premium the farmers are paid for organics, they earn a steady wage, year round. Weke and his colleagues train small farmers to comply with organic standards.

WEKE: They told us you have to teach us what is organic, so that's what our company is doing. We are teaching them, we are training them organically.

GRAHAM: Neighboring Kenya and Tanzania have only a fraction of the number of organic farms thriving in Uganda. Sara Scherr, an agricultural economist at Forest Trends, a Washington D.C. based conservation organization, attributes Uganda's success in organics to companies like Amfri.

SCHERR: What has happened in the case of the development of markets for organic products from Uganda is you've had a great combination of the strengthening of local cooperatives of farmers, the development of supportive NGOs and other kinds of agencies that have provided marketing advice as well as technical advice, and you've had buyers that were willing and interested to promote this as a new source of supply.


GRAHAM: Amfri's head Amin Shivji owns the largest organic farm in Uganda. His four year old business earned over half a million dollars last year. In addition to the fresh fruit he exports to Europe, he also ships out dried ginger, papaya, bananas and pineapple to the U.S. and Canada. He plucks a golden pineapple from a grove on his 1,500-acre estate two hours north of Uganda’s capital, Kampala.

SHIVJI: I'll just show you a tiny little baby pineapple. We'll go and cut this so you will see how sweet it is.

GRAHAM: Ten years ago, nothing grew here but weeds. Shivji was one of 70,000 Asians expelled by Idi Amin in 1972 in a bid to Africanize the country. He abandoned his thriving sugar plantation three months after the despotic leader issued his ultimatum. After working as a businessman and raising a family in Canada, Shivji returned to his farm in 1990, when President Yoweri Museveni invited Indians back to reclaim their land. He remembers driving up the bumpy road.


SHIVJI: It was quite an emotional experience. It was a very hot day and everywhere I saw, nostalgia overcame me. I remembered this and that. Of course things had changed a lot. Until I came to the farm— and I almost missed it because it was all bush at the time. And finally I found the road going up to where my house used to be.

GRAHAM: The farm was in the heart of Lowero— the region most ravaged by years of rebel wars. Shivji found skulls scattered among the rusted tractors, crumbled buildings and bramble-filled fields.

SHIVJI: I had heard that one of the army officers was running the farm. My aim was to take a quick look and just run away. And I was very, very sad. It was absolutely bush, there was absolutely nothing, all the buildings had been broken down, there was hardly a foundation left on all of them.

GRAHAM: It took years for Shivji to wrestle his farm from the government. It wasn't until 1998 that he figured out how to make his vast acreage work. With a Swiss partner schooled in low-tech farming, he made the switch to organics. The conversion was an easy one, in part because years of war and grinding poverty had kept Uganda from joining the Green Revolution -- the agriculture movement that pushed chemicals and heavy machinery to increase crop yields.


GRAHAM: Today, Shivji employs a staff of 45 on his farm. Paul Ngugi is a Kenyan who came to Uganda to manage the field workers. He says organics haven't been as quick to catch on in his native country, where years of factory farming have made the conversion tricky.

NGUGI: Here in Uganda the potential is big because whenever you compare countries, like in Kenya, organic farming is difficult because of years of conventional farming practices. So the soil is depleted out of their nutrients. But when you come to Uganda, most of the land has not been used and that is the best land for organic farming.

GRAHAM: Back in the tiny village of Mataba, Shivji's cooperative members are done packaging pineapples for the day. They snack on over-ripe fruit under the shade of a mango tree. Farmer Emmanuel Nsubuga gives a tour of his organic groves of banana, coffee and papaya. He already owns fifteen acres -- far more than the average Ugandan farmer. He hopes to expand his business.


NSUBUGA: I want to buy another land. This is too small. I want more land than this I have. If I get enough land, I can increase.

GRAHAM: Advocates of organics say chemical-free agriculture techniques have benefits beyond lifting farmers like Nsubuga out of poverty. They believe organic farming practices can provide food security without harming the environment.


GRAHAM: For Living on Earth, I'm Jessie Graham in Mataba, Uganda.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Noyce Foundation, dedicated to improving math and science instruction from kindergarten through grade 12, and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR’s coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council.



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