Fish and Chips: How a Small Business Can Have Big Impact in Rural Uganda

Other Stories from Kabasheshe: Hills of Green | Ghost Water Taps | Money Loans and Satellite Dishes

IMG_3640At the end of a fun weekend, I was driving from Queen Elizabeth National Park back to Kabale. Along with a group of American and Canadian medical and public health students, I was returning from three days filled with safari and boat adventures in Southwestern Uganda. Before our weekend came to a close, we stopped at the Satellite Hotel for lunch. The hotel offers an impressive lookout for travelers along the Mbarara-Kabale Road and its restaurant was advertising a special of Fish and Chips. I jumped on the bandwagon and ordered a plate.

Fast forward two weeks and now I’m standing next to the pond where the fish I ate was raised. This fish breeding pond – one of four – is part of a business called Satellite Farmers Limited, located at the junction to Kabasheshe in the Ntungamo district. I originally decided to come here to see and learn about their first farms, but I ended up leaving with a much better understanding of how this small enterprise was playing a big role in the community.

My tour guide and teacher would be Godrey, a 20-year-old secondary school student, who was in charge of this facility. As we talked (or, more accurately, as I continually asked questions) he began to open up and seemed excited to share his work with me.

We started outdoors, walking along the trail that connects the fish ponds. Some filled with catfish and others of an unknown kind, these ponds were dug and filled only six months ago, but already had thousands of fish. To help me see their scope, as the water was murky and hid what lay underneath, Godrey went into the green, aluminum building nearer to the road to grab some feed. He threw it into the water and little mouths started to appear. Above the water were lines, closing each other in a grid formation and about 12 inches apart. These lines are used to prevent birds, which are abundant, from flying down and stealing a meal.

On top of the fish sold to the hotel down the road, Satellite Farmers Limited sells local eggs, handheld sprayers, building materials, and the animal feed (mostly for chickens and pigs) that Godfrey used earlier. But catfish are special. Instead of regular feed, they are given meat, chicken to be exact. I was fortunate to see a farmer come in and leave a bucket of future fish food. The blue plastic bucket contained slurry of meat byproduct. The innards of a chicken – heart, lungs, intestines – that people don’t consume and farmers can’t use can be brought here and sold, adding to their income and maximizing the usefulness of a single chicken.

Speaking of chickens, they have those too, both layers and broilers. Layers are the hens that produce eggs, while a broiler is a chicken raised for just the meat. An egg here sells for 250# (250 shillings, or 10 US cents), while the same egg at the rural market would sell for 400#. Say you’re the head of a household and you were looking for an affordable source of protein, this would be your best place to start. Or, if you are a market seller and looking for something to sell, this place could be your supplier, where you can buy and then sell eggs, making 150# profit on each one; you wouldn’t even need to own a chicken.

Godrey led me inside the Feed Mill, which has been in the community for over two years and was started by a man simply known as Chief.

“Who else works here?” I asked Godfrey, as we passed through the doors. “No one”, he responded, “just me.” I was perplexed. The feed mill is massive. It is similar to something I would find back home in Rural Canada. Inside, there were bags everywhere. Scales for weighing, office desks to handle paperwork, and an unorganized stack of water troughs in the corner took up more space inside this building.

It turns out that Godrey is the only full-time employee of the operation, selling eggs, equipment and bags of feed, and feeding the fish as needed. When animal feed needs to be mixed, he goes to the local trading center and hires up to five temporary workers. Together, they can produce one to two tons of feed each hour. This high level of productivity is probably the reason why Godrey can manage everything alone.

The animal feed they manufacture consists of various elements, including silverfish, maize bran, broken maize, cotton cake, shells, sunflower, and calcium. Some are sourced locally, while other bags come from the capital of Kampala. In either case, the concrete floor where these bags are tossed provides another destination for farmers to bring their grains.

It might not seem like much, but in a country where youth unemployment can reach 80%, it is nice to see a successful and growing business that is providing full- and part-time jobs to local residents. Not only that, they are providing tools to farmers to maximize their productivity and earn more, all within walking distance from their fields. Additionally, Satellite Farmers Limited is acting as a link from rural farmers, buying their excess grains, to outside markets, meaning a greatly level of economic stability in this community of a few thousand low-income farmers.

I left by thanking Godrey for his time and sharing so much knowledge with me. I also bought some eggs; it was too good of a bargain not to. This small business, invisible from the paved main roads, in Southwestern Uganda is quietly achieving what so many educated experts have failed to do – foster employment, assist farmers, and grow the local economy.

If you’re interesting in learning more about businesses in emerging markets or innovations in rural agriculture, feel free to contact myself. Questions are welcome and encouraged.


Hills of Green

Other Stories from Kabasheshe: Ghost Water Taps | Fish and Chips | Money Loans and Satellite Dishes

Yellow jerry-cans scattered on the ground. IMG_4047Two young girls cleaning the last of the pots and dishes. Coffee and cassava drying on half-cut sacks near the rabbit house. Grandmother playing ludo on her mat in the center of the yard. Five of her adult grandchildren playing cards under the shade tree. Cock walking, calling. A toddler, with trousers kicked off, running after his inflatable football. Hills of green everywhere you look.

This was midday in Kabasheshe – a rural village in Ntungamo region, western Uganda. I came here for the week to learn about small-scale agriculture and the lives of people who farm for their food and income.

An ambulance brought me here six days prior. It wasn’t for an emergency; the ambulance doubles as a van when the real ones are used by KIHEFO staff. Atayo was driving. Trina and Emily were passengers with me. Along the way, we picked up roadside pineapple, three for 1000 shillings each, to add to my care package of supplies. Kabasheshe is just an hour’s drive from Kabale.

I should mention that the family I would be living with is that of Atayo, my flatmate in Kabale, and Dr. Geoffrey Anguyo, the founder and director of KIHEFO. The grandmother I mentioned above is Dr. Geoffrey’s mother; grandmother in their language of Lougbara is dede. Also in the mix is his father, who goes by the traditional title of musay, or “old man”. The grandchildren – Atoyo’s siblings and cousins – are Judith, Rubina, Monica, Joanne, Milton, Halima, and Sanity. Lincon is Judith’s two-year-old son and has a penchant for acting like he’s twenty, like carrying farm tools twice his size.

After a warm welcome and a side of tea from my host family, we toured the farm. We started near the home and worked outwards. Through a wall of elephant grass, we walked to inspect the coffee field – two and a quarter acres, with a quarter more being prepared for planting, of Robusta and Arabica coffee trees. The harvest was nearing its end with few berries for the picking. Coffee “beans” (actually seeds) exist inside the berries grown on the stems of these trees.

Arabica beans bring more money at the market, but produce less often and the trees have shorter lives. This is why the family’s coffee field is mostly Robusta, with some Arabica trees mixed in between. There are also some young cassava plants, acting as a nursery.

My new family, originally from the northern Arua district, eats a staple diet of cassava, so it is no wonder that three of their nearby paddocks (strips of land with an area of around 1.5 to 2 acres each) have this resilient crop. I learned that cassava – a root vegetable – is grown from stem harvesting, rather than seeds. Basically, after pulling out the tree and harvesting the cassava from underground, a piece of healthy stem, about a hand’s length, is cut and planted. The family has staged their paddocks so that cassava can be harvested daily and the supply will be continuous.

Additionally, two paddocks are waiting for maize. Two more paddocks will create an apiary (bee farm) to manufacture honey.

If you take a walk down the hill, passing between the primary school and mosque, onto the football pitch, and along the valley stream, you will find the continuation of the family farm – three more paddocks. One paddock is growing tomatoes, planting just a week ago. Another one will be for chilies. And the final one has cabbages growing near the stream.

At around 20 acres, this farm would be considered quite large compared to other home gardens and small-scale farmers. Although, it a farmer from the Global North might not think so.

Back at home, the family has two areas set aside for grazing goats. And one of their buildings is home to a rabbit breeding center. (See my previous post “What Can a Rabbit Do?” to learn more about the power of rabbits in Uganda.)

But wait! There’s even more.

Around the house there’s an assortment of fruit trees: passion fruit, banana, paupau, lemon, and avocado. All in all, this farm, like many of the neighboring ones, hosts a diverse ecology that allows for the family to not only feed itself throughout the year, but also makes a living.

The first few days, before I would be on my own, also had some interesting ‘firsts’. For dinner on Friday, I had the honor of slaughtering the chicken that would be our dinner. Judith, the eldest of the grandchildren, showed us how she made donuts, or mandas. I had brought a Frisbee as a gift for the children, so we tried it out down at the football pitch. Dancing, music and foot races also helped to pass the time.

All of the family spoke good English, as it was a requirement in school, in addition to their local Lougbara (Arua district), and the southwestern languages of Rukiga (Kigezi district) and Nancoli (Ntungamo district and similar to Rukiga). Grandmother spoke only a few words of English, so I needed to learn Arua to reduce the awkwardness of my presence.

I used a bit of Lougbara to help talk with dede and the young ones:

“Min goni”  “How are you?”

“Elon goni”  “How did you sleep?”

“Mamokay”  “Fine”

“Mokay”  “Well”

“A wadi fo”  “Thank you”

“Kaka”  “Wow!”

I also practiced my Rukiga greetings with the townspeople:

“Agadi”  “How are you?”

“Nigay”  “Fine”

“Way ba lay”  “Thank you”

Apart from daily activities, including investigating the local water spot, nearby fish farm, and bank cooperative in the next town (I’ll document these in more detail in future posts), I tried my best to learn about rural livelihoods by shadowing the family members.

As the coffee harvest was coming to a close and the animals were being tended by Milton, my first mornings involved going to the tomato paddock. Small tomato trees were planted a week before and the field needed a final weeding. Unfortunately, I arrive not knowing that the tomato plants were in the ground, making for an awkward start. I was told to mimic the others, by making chopping motions with my four-foot hand hoe, pulling dirt and weeds downhill. The tomato plants are only an inch or two tall and unfortunately, look like everything else. After being told to avoid the plants and seeing the rows made the process much less nerve-wracking.

Up and down the valleys you find people working the fields. Men are digging. Women are digging. Children pretend to dig.

By not using tractors or other farm equipment, the work has to be done by hand. Weeding, planting, harvesting. All of these parts are done by hand or with the aid of a hand hoe. It means that farmers can have 2, 3, 4, or more varieties of crops, all within sight of one another, all working together. Trees don’t need to be removed. Hills can be maximized. A local, natural way of farming.

Although the family did other chores back at home – drying coffee, grinding cassava, collecting milk down the road – most of our time was free to interact. There were cards games. They taught me Master. I taught them Hearts and Speed. I showed the kids how to make paper airplanes and what tic-tac-toe is. We shared stories, listened to music, and danced from time to time. The biggest surprise for me was how much time was spent watching television. The area received electricity a few years before and it has allowed for a major improvement to the family. Not only hearing world news, but having lighting and power to charge things like phones.

Overall, the week showed me how similar a farming life in Uganda is to one in Canada. The crops may be different and there is an obvious disparity in machinery and chemicals used, but at the end of the day, after all the hard work is done, people enjoy their spare time by relaxing, watching something on the TV and playing card games together.

We’re not so different.

Photos from the week:

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What Can a Rabbit Do?

The World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO)  have both identified malnutrition as a major factor in preventing the Ugandan people from moving out of poverty and into more substantial development. According to the WFP:

One in three Ugandan children suffer from stunting, a lifelong condition that results when children miss out on critical nutrients such as proteins, vitamins and minerals while in the womb or in the first five years of life. People affected by stunting are more likely to suffer from illnesses, drop out of school, be less productive at work and live shorter lives.

When one visits Uganda’s rural areas, you see hills rolling in lush greens – cassava, maize, sweet potatoes, and other grains and vegetables growing – but this oasis of vegetation does not prevent malnutrition by itself. It is the right combination of foods and healthy activities, including intensive breast feeding, which can prevent malnutrition from occurring in a child’s early years.

Uganda “spends [millions] per year treating cases of diarrhoea, anaemia and respiratory infections linked to malnutrition” (WFP), while also losing revenue as the citizens underperform in school and at work due to stunted childhoods. Western Uganda is suffering from malnutrition even more so. There, 44% of children are affected by malnutrition. Proper prevention of the causes of malnutrition would have immense positive impact on Ugandan families and the country as a whole. So, KIHEFO is tackling the problem.

So, what can a rabbit do (to solve malnutrition)?

Actually, quite a lot!

Rabbits feed families. Farmers gather inedible material like weeds, grass, and vegetable scraps to use as food for rabbits, which are a great source of protein and nutrients.

Rabbits breed quickly. If properly cared for, a female can produce a litter of half a dozen rabbits each month.

Rabbits produce fertilizer.  Rabbit droppings can be collected easily and used as an organic fertilizer to improve soil quality and overall yields.

Rabbits generate revenue. In the market, a rabbit can be sold for 15,000 Ugandan Shillings (equivalent of $6 US Dollars) which helps generate small income for poor households.

For these reasons, rabbits can be the vehicle to solving the problem of malnutrition in Uganda (and other countries). Rabbits can improve people’s diets and current farmland, but also provide the income to source other necessary components of a proper diet.

KIHEFO has researched using rabbits as a solution to malnutrition over the past few years, which led to the constructed of the Kigezi Rabbit Breeding, Training, and Processing Center outside of Kabale.

Inside you will find an assortment of cages. They are filled with five breeds of rabbits, to ensure diversity in future generations. Males and females are further separated, to allow for proper growth.

Cages are simply designed, made of wood and wire mesh. A door is needed to feed the rabbits and then remove the bunnies once they have matured.

Managed by Alphonse, a staff member of KIHEFO, the Center acts as not only the distribution hub for future clients. It also provides education through example. Outside is a small plot of kale that provides the food for the rabbits of the Center. Having everything locally available means that the Center is self-sustaining and requires low resources to operate.

In addition to setting up the infrastructure and initial supply of rabbits, KIHEFO is also conducting nutrition surveys in the outlying rural communities, identifying the most vulnerable populations – those dealing with disease and large numbers of children, many orphaned by HIV/AIDS. The villages of Rubira and Kicumbi have already seen the advantages of this program, with both families and communities starting their own rabbit breeding facilities. These are smaller in scale, but have the ability to grow.

If you want to support KIHEFO’s Rabbit Breeding Center and those families most in need, please let me know.


Always Pack Light

This is the 3rd installment in lessons learned while travelling abroad for the first time. It may or may not be the last of what I learn along the way.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to do a village stay in Bale. It is a small farming village with about 750 people, just northwest of Bole. To get there, I took a moto ride with my host brother, Wisdom.

On Friday, the entire community and most of the entire nation was mourning the passing of the last president, John Evans Atta Mills. So, naturally when I arrived at my host family’s house they were surrounding the tele. Not what I was expecting when going to a remote village. There were even some mud huts that were outfitted with satellite dishes to get BBC and French programming. An amazing combination of modern and traditional technologies working in harmony.

My village home

Some of the other activities that day included walking through the town to visit the local primary and secondary schools; visiting the two boreholes supplying clean, potable water to the entire community; and buying some snacks. Back at home, I was exposed to a lack of toilets, so naturally found a bush to free myself. Also devoid in the village are showers, so a bucket filled with water and a little ingenuity to clean yourself is needed. The thing that many people may find surprising is that people in Ghana actually take 2 showers each day, whether by bucket or running water. It’s one of the many cultural differences that rarely makes it onto our television programming.

On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to visit some local farms to see the unique crops that aren’t found in Canada. There’s maize, cashews, yams, ground nuts, millet, and many more. As I stopped to talk from farmer to farmer and hear about the current status of their farms, I would inevitably tell them about my own farming past. Sometimes Wisdom would drop that little bit of info if I forgot. So, naturally, they put me to the test and wanted to see how good I was at weeding around their yam mounds. By the level of laughing, I was either doing a surprisingly good job or was complete rubbish. I think I was more of the second one.

I was pleasantly surprised by the scale of some of these farms. Most were run by a single family, without fertiliser or herbicides, and an astounding amount of manual labour to clear weeds. This truly is the pinnacle of organic farming.

As I met many people and was in need of my own place in Bole, I left midday on Sunday. The ride back on moto would take about 45 minutes, with only a helmet and my death grip on the rear rack for safety. It was surprisingly smooth (most of these weekend’s surprises were a result of me going into it with a clear head and few expectations). The only downside was the backpack full of supplies that I had brought.

There were the necessities to prevent sickness: mosquito net, medicines, some clean water. Others to record the weekend’s events: camera, notebook, pens. And some other comfort items: change of clothes, sandals, iPod. All in all, this made for a heavy load for my back to burden.

If I could have done it again, I definitely would have brought less of the luxuries, like clean clothes and running shoes, as these were not needed for my survival and were under utilized. But I guess that’s called learning from your mistakes.

Onto my next adventure.