Tag Archives: Champion Farmers

Ethiopia: development and grandeur astride the Abbay

It’s a chilly Monday morning in Addis Ababa with the sun crawling over the horizon. After a refreshing night and hefty breakfast at one of the many hotels sprinkled all over the city centre, I set off, together with three GWI EA colleagues, on a 500km drive to Bahirdar, home to the beautiful Amhara people and project site of our 63 Champion farmers.

dadOver a period of two and a half years, the Global Water Initiative East Africa programme has successfully supported smallholder farmers in Dera Woreda to improve their agricultural production and realise food security. This has been achieved through farmer trainings, on-farm demonstrations, extension support and provision of irrigation technologies such as water pumps, purchased through farmer cooperatives. irrig Our approach has provided the desired multiplier effect, where the cooperatives purchase more pumps – with money paid by the farmers–and which other farmers hire and eventually purchase. Farmers have been trained to appreciate the importance of managing and using the little water available effectively and efficiently for maximum production through supplementary irrigation, especially during the long dry seasons.

Sandwiched by colleagues in the back seat of our rented Land Cruiser, I rubbed my hands in gleeful anticipation as the excitement of a road trip through the rift valley gorge to Bahirdar, north east of Addis Ababa, enveloped me. Not even the reminder that I was on a working visit or the thought of sitting in a car for over nine hours was going to dampen my spirits.

Driving through the city, I was soon struck by the magnitude of history that the people of this land have preserved over the years. Coming from a country where development translates into multi-billion glass buildings and malls, it was time for my patriotism to take a back seat while I rained down glorious chunks of praise on this fascinating land, adorned with beautiful historical architecture. In the heart of the city, sit the palaces of emperors who ruled these lands decades before. Two that especially caught my eye were the Jubilee Palace, a commemoration of the Silver Jubilee of Emperor Haile Selassie’s coronation, and the National Museum of Ethiopia that houses the fossilised remains of the famous early hominid, Lucy.

As we drove away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the beautiful sights of historical monuments were soon replaced by proof of people still living in absolute poverty and under development. I was quickly sobered up from my state of awe by the sight of women, some as old as 50 years, racing down the roadside doubly bent over under the immense weight of piles of wood on their backs. While I was appalled and saddened by this burden I was witnessing, I quickly learned that this is a source of livelihood and the life these women know. With their images engraved on my mind, it was hard to hitch back on my high horse of excitement. Of course that was until I laid my eyes on the breathtaking Blue Nile Gorge, or “The Grand Canyon of Ethiopia” as Liz, my colleague chose to baptize it. lizLocated on the western margin of the northwestern plateau of the Rift Valley, the gorge comes into view some time after leaving behind Debre Libanos and the thrilling drive down and round mountains and plains, a striking scenery that leaves you holding your breath in anticipation for what you just might see next.

And there, right at the bottom of the gorge was the spectacle of the Blue Nile River – reduced to shallow waters at this time of the year – as it lazily flowed on its way down from Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia, to meet the White Nile River in Khartoum and flow into Egypt as one Great Nile. Although the Blue Nile, locally known as the Abbay is significantly much shorter than the White Nile, it is interestingly the origin of approximately 80 percent of the water that flows through the Great Nile. It is here that a huge 6,000 mega watt dam, the nile bestlargest in Africa, is being built. Having contributed a set proportion of their incomes, people of Ethiopia – through the purchase of bonds – will co-own this major infrastructure. The government plans to reimburse the people by selling hydropower to neighbouring countries from this grand investment.

As we drive closer to Bahirdar, it is hard not to notice the dramatic shift in the landscape and lifestyle of the peoples on this side of the Abbay, especially the unique richness and tefftraditional vibrancy in the air. The first to catch my discerning eye was how the women and girls here shaved their heads completely and covered them up with head scarves. The soils too looked much drier. For as far as the eye could see, were bare fields, clustered with heaps of freshly harvested tef and wheat built into domes and left to dry. On first sight, one would think these delicately fashioned masses of grass were huts built for accommodation. In a region that receives very little rain and experiences long dry spells, these heaps of food are a comforting reminder that food security may not be a threat to the people here, at least not for months to come.

Seven hours down the road, hungry, with our joints protesting and demanding for a stretch, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in a town called Saint Michael. A few minutes after placing our orders, a tray of the traditional Ethiopian food –injera, with an assortment of vegetables and meats – gazed invitingly back at us, tempting our long-starved taste buds. One bite into the spicy cuisine and I realised that this dish was on a fast train to becoming my favourite addiction. Each mouth-watering morsel was a enjeramasterpiece waiting to delight my perceptive palates. After the delicious meal, I was presented with a little cup of strong steaming coffee and although the sun was unforgiving and the heat too irreconcilable with a hot drink, I soon learned that under the Ethiopian sky, anytime is chai/coffee time. By the time I had drained my cup, I was left in no doubt that this country could very well be where the fine art of brewing coffee was born.

As the night set in, the feeling of home away from home descended upon me. Having learned and seen so many unforgettable sights that were a perpetual spectacle to my curious eyes and having perfected my “Oh my goodness” mantra of awe, I finally snuggled back into my seat as the beautiful sounds of Madingo Afework flowed from the car radio washing over my spent soul. I was home.

GWI EA team; Matilda, Tesfaye, Elizabeth, Alan and Bethel with some of the Champion Farmers

Matilda Nakawungu
GWI EA, Uganda

Otuke Champion Farmers: One Year Later

GWI East Africa, seeking to ensure that smallholder farmers of Otuke district in Uganda achieve greater and sustainable food security, established Learning and Practice Alliances (LPAs), through which stakeholders converge and discuss solutions to given problems. LPAs operate by equipping select Champion Farmers with knowledge and skills to adopt Water Smart Agricultural practices. These farmers then act as mentors and teachers to other farmers in their communities. To achieve this, demonstration farms were set up at the homes of each Champion Farmer to compare traditional and improved cultivation practices. A total of 24 Champion Farmers have been profiled in the last year. In June, GWI EA travelled north with an entourage of Members of Parliament to establish the progress of the LPA in Otuke and the Champion Farmers in particular. Below are brief updates of three of the farmers visited.

Sophie Achen

sophieWhen she returned home from the displacement camp in Lira in 2008, Sophie found her home covered in shrubs and bushes. She had to start farming afresh. Together with her family of 12, she started to cultivate rice, groundnuts, millet, pigeon peas, simsim, sorghum, tomatoes and beans on her 15 acres of land. Although her level of farming was high, the yields were very low. Her farming was purely rainfed and yet her family survived solely on the food they grew. During the food deficit months of April-June, her family had to reduce the number and portions of meals.

A year after joining the LPA, Sophie now boasts an 80‐square‐meter demonstration plot in her backyard where she grows onions and tomatoes. On half of the plot she practices improved agricultural practices of soil and water conservation, including the use of raised beds with ridges, mulch and compost, and recommended spacing and pruning. On the other half

farmer group
A group learning how to transplant onions at Sophie’s demonstration plot

of the plot, Sophie uses traditional agricultural practices, where vegetables are simply transplanted onto flat ground with no compost and no measures employed to conserve the soil and water nutrients.

After just a month since transplantation into the main gardens, the crops utilising the improved agricultural techniques are already bearing fruit. Unsurprisingly, the traditionally cultivated crops look much younger and delicate. Sophie has trained members of her farmer group, a total of 11 men and 19 women, on how to employ these improved agriculture practices to increase crop productivity.



John Ango

IMG_2603At 69 years, John is one of the most inspiring Champion Farmers of the LPA. Prior to joining the programme, John solely relied on rain fed agriculture and his greatest challenge was drought. During the dry season, he cultivated next to a swamp that borders his land. However, the security of his crops was never guaranteed. Animals, especially cattle, often trampled and destroyed his crop as they drank from the water source. Today, a water harvesting pit filled to capacity sits in his backyard. While GWI EA provides farmers with cheaper options such as using thatch to cover the ponds, John constructed a slab around his pit and covered it with iron sheets, an idea he borrowed from a farmer during an exchange visit to Masaka district. His water is safely stored and protected from evaporation during the dry season.

John’s runoff harvesting pit

Following his adoption of water smart agriculture practices, John’s garden is now thriving and his crop yields have increased. He is growing bananas, cassava and vegetables among others. A lush orchard sits on one side of his courtyard. Mango and tangerine branches hang low, weighed down with fruit.

John has started training members of his farmer group, a total of 18 women and 9 men, on using soil and water conservation techniques to improve their agricultural production. Together, they manage a demonstration site in his backyard. John is determined to make a lasting, positive impact on the livelihoods of these farmers, just like the host farmer miles away in Masaka made to his.



Peter Okello

Picture 557
Peter and his wife

While many youth his age would prefer to take on casual labour as a fast source of income, 24‐year‐old Peter Okello decided to invest his time and energy in agriculture. Previously he had relied on the
rain for farming, so during the dry season his only source of water was a borehole one kilometre away from his home. This meant that he could not cultivate all year round. After joining the LPA as a
Champion Farmer, Peter acquired the knowledge and skills to excavate a water harvesting pond, which he completed within two weeks. Today, the 30,000‐litre pond is filled to the brim with runoff.

With the agronomy training, seeds and banana suckers he received from GWI East Africa, Peter is cultivating over four acres of land using organic manure, ridges, madala terraces, mulching and other improved agronomic techniques for soil and water conservation. He has planted 108 suckers of bananas.

Picture 523
Peter’s runoff harvesting pit

Additionally, Peter is growing vegetables, cassava, maize and rice among other crops for home consumption and sale. His three month‐old tomatoes are already bearing fruit and will soon be ready for harvest. Peter has inspired other farmers, especially the youth in his village, to take on improved agriculture. Among these is his neighbour Jimmy who is preparing raised beds and ridges for his own tomatoes and onions. Learning from Peter, Jimmy is site scouting for a runoff pit in his backyard.

Matilda Nakawungu
GWI EA, Uganda

Sustainable crop production now a reality in Ruvu Mferejini

The journey to meet farmers in Ruvu Mferejini village, in Same district, Tanzania, for a focus group discussion to verify and document the impact of GWI EA’s programme on Water Smart Agriculture, took me through rugged (rocky and rough) roads that lead to the smallholder farms and settlements.

On the 26km dusty road, a dark cloud hangs as a sign of impending rain. Donath Fungu, a well known and respected agronomist with reliable knowledge on the local climatic conditions and variations in Same district, informs me that it will not rain until November. I learn that this community last received rainfall in June and the dry spell is yet to end. Ruvu Mferejini, a water-stressed village, drained by River Pangani, lies in the low lands of Same district and is one of those areas in the Kilimanjaro region with a long annual dry spell that runs from June to November. Isolated and extensive fields of dry vegetation with strong, winds raising dust, illustrate the effects of the dry spell. Limited green vegetation is visible only in areas where heavy flooding occurs.

Dry vegetation
The dry vegetation and soils in Ruvu Mferejini village

Inadequate rains, coupled with high evaporation rates, necessitate farmers to carry out supplementary irrigation to prevent crop failure. Supplementary irrigation, however, is only possible to the few farmers whose gardens have proximity to River Pangani. The agricultural practice, however, is not of much help since the available water from the river is under utilised by farmers. This means that farmers have to irrigate every week because they lack knowledge on how to minimise high evaporation rates. To add to the misery of farmers who struggle to survive in such a water-stressed environment, is the increasingly declining soil fertility as evidenced by no or low yields.

From discussions with farmers, it is evident that soil infertility in the area is a result of a combination of traditional farming practices and unfavourable climatic conditions, especially high temperatures. Mono cropping, continuous cultivation without fallowing, slash and burn and grazing on productive lands are emphasised by champion farmers as the major causes of soil infertility in the area. The result of this nature of climate and environment is limited ability of farmers to feed their families and also graduate out of absolute poverty. It is against this background that GWI’s Water Smart Agriculture interventions in this village are justified, not only to improve the food security situation, but also encourage sustainable household income.

Clement with Champion farmers from Ruvu Mferejini village

Before my travel to Tanzania, I had randomly selected champion farmers including Bosco Masawe, Abdu Mtoi, Paul Romani, Angelina Shaban, Safinah Saidi and Amiri Abdallah. They were to provide me with primary data on the extent to which GWI’s programme on water smart agriculture had transformed their livelihood in relation to improved food security and income. During the discussion, farmers narrated their situation before and after GWI EA’s water smart agriculture interventions.

Like many other smallholder farmers in East Africa, these farmers initially depended on unpredictable and inadequate rains for crop production. Given the unfavourable climatic changes with declining soil fertility, sustainable crop production was a big dream for these farmers. They lacked information and practical skills on how to respond to the climatic changes, effective and efficient utilisation of water on farm including irrigation, application of conservation agriculture and quality seed selection.

GWI EA’s water smart interventions, applied to selected champion farmers, included provision of trainings, practical demonstrations, extension support visits and facilitation of farmer exchange visits. With such support, champion farmers adopted several water smart agriculture practices including double digging, use of ridges, planting cover crops, use of crop residues as compost, mixed cropping and quality seed selection and treatment, which they had never done before. These practices not only increased and retained moisture in the soil, but also regenerated soil fertility. From an average land size of 1.75 acres by the interviewed farmers, an average increment in maize yield of 7 bags (each bag is 100kgs) were remarkably registered.

Masawe Bosco
Champion Farmer Bosco Masawe in his garden, Ruvu Mferejini village

Currently, farmers have enough for home consumption as well as retaining a surplus for sale. Their knowledge on dealing with unpredictable climatic conditions has improved, in addition to effectively and efficiently utilising water from River Pangani for irrigation to sustain crop production during drought. They have also voiced their water for production concerns to political leaders during village meetings. For example, improvement of irrigation channels in the village is one of the issues they have raised.

GWI EA believes that the voice of smallholder farmers, especially women, is important in influencing government decisions and priorities in favour of water smart agriculture for smallholder farmers. This is because social inequalities that increase vulnerability to climate change among women should be addressed in any climate change interventions. GWI EA programme on water smart agriculture has therefore demonstrated that climate change requires that policymakers and practitioners take water for agriculture into account when designing food security programmes. Thus, food security programmes should consider integrating efforts to build the capacity of poor communities to effectively and efficiently manage water on their farms.

Clement Mayanja,
GWI EA, Uganda

Farmers Spur Investment in Water for Agriculture

Bare land, sparse vegetation scattered with shear nut and mango trees, and dusty roads characterize Otuke, one of the recently created districts in northern Uganda. However, on our just concluded trip to the area, the rain gods had smiled down and opened the heavens, covering tracts of land with swollen dams and filled swamps.

This rain is central to the success of the Water Smart Agriculture project being implemented by Global Water Initiative East Africa (GWI EA) in the area. The latter is an initiative to help farmers grow more crops using available water effectively and efficiently to realize sustainable food security.

In partnership with the Otuke District Local Government, GWI East Africa hosted a team of parliamentarians from the Uganda Parliamentary Forum on Food Security, the committee on Natural Resources and that on Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries. This was a great opportunity for the legislators to interact with farmers and explore ways in which the government, can invest more and enable smallholder farmers access and use the available water resources efficiently for better crop production, using cost efficient technologies.

Our first host of the day was Sophia Achen, a 49 year old Champion Farmer living  in Tecwao village. A homestead of perfectly round, grass thatched huts welcomed us to her home. In November 2013, she and 23 other Champion Farmers from Otuke, attended a farmers’ training in Masaka District, organized by the GWI EA. The focal purpose for this visit was for the farmers to have on-ground lessons on improved agronomic practices used by the farmers in Masaka.

On returning home, the Champion Farmers set up demonstration plots on which they could compare the productivity of the modified practices to the traditional cultivation methods. The results of their efforts are nothing short of remarkable. Although GWI EA has provided the farmers with technical guidance, seeds and other farm supplies to manage these plots, it is their unwavering determination and enthusiasm that has gotten them to the lush, healthy gardens they now boast.

Champion Farmer Peter Okello’s water harvesting pit

Another lesson the farmers have put into practice is rainwater harvesting. The Champion Farmers we visited had excavated water harvesting pits which capture runoff during the rainy season. This water will be used to irrigate their farms during the dry season. Some of the farmers, however, are unable to complete the pits. The impenetrable bedrock that characterizes most of Otuke district cannot permit the farmers to breakthrough using the traditional pick axe that they are accustomed to. In these cases, GWI EA has provided the farmers with water harvesting tanks.

Farmers learning at Sophie’s demonstration farm

The Champion Farmers have all started training members of different farmer groups, on how to cultivate crops using these agronomic practices that they have learnt. The Champion in them has without a doubt started to shine.

On our itinerary were two other very significant sites in Otuke. The Akwera and Awio dams. A demonstration farm has been set up by the government at the Akwera dam where a youth group is cultivating vegetables. Water is channeled from the dam and distributed to the crops through a drip irrigation system. Unfortunately, this is as far as the water from this dam goes. Farmers have no direct access to the water from these two  dams for household and agricultural use.


After two days of priceless lessons and encounters, the legislators were nothing short of awed by the hard work of the Champion Farmers in Otuke. They committed themselves to take back, to Parliament the lessons learnt and develop action plans and recommendations that will increase government investment in water for smallholder farmers’ agriculture.

Matilda Nakawungu
GWI EA, Uganda

A Long Road to Recovery…

A long, long road leads from Kampala to Otuke District in Northern Uganda. The road hardly curves or bends and offers little respite from the arduous journey; one of the high points is a water fall that my Ugandan colleague Violet, points out to me.

“This is Karuma Falls on the river Nile”, Violet tells me. This road is somewhat similar to the lives of people in Otuke where life has often been long, hard, and offering up little respite except through the effort  farmers bring to harnessing rainfall that enables them to eke out a living and support their families.

Over 400 kilometers of long winding road rose before us and carried us to Otuke. It stretched onward like a long tarmac braid across the countryside and along the way Violet tirelessly answered the questions I peppered her with. She was spared the last 100 kilometers of questions about the earlier insurgency, the local environment, the challenges local people faced and more, when tarmac and the rain of questions were replaced by a shower of pebbles kicked up from what was  now Murram road.Woman selling mangoes by the side of the road. Kamindi, Uganda © Andy Johnstone/Wild Dog for GWI EA 2013

I arrived tired but enthusiastic to finally meet a few champion farmers as well as other members of the Learning and Practice Alliance (LPA) at district level, including  representatives of Local Government.  This was a trip planned in collaboration with members of the GWI EA team (Regional and Uganda) to allow me to better understand their work, gain an insight into approaches used and to see for myself how GWI East Africa is striving to increase farmer food security through supporting learning on improved water management for agriculture, and using this learning to advocate for greater commitment and investment around this.

My position as Global Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for the Global Water Initiative means that although I am based in Atlanta, I need to be able to really understand what is happening at regional levels through our programs and to ensure that our outreach and key messages are based on evidence coming out of these programs. So I was curious about how all these water management approaches translated into practice and I was especially intrigued to actually meet a champion farmer. Who were the people behind these titles and would I perhaps get an answer to the age-old question, whether champions are made or are born?

The GWI EA team had responded to my request for information about the program sites with an impressive suite of materials including a baseline study on the Food Security,which clearly documented the food insecurity issues present in Otuke, threats these posed to the households and communities present there and the opportunities water harvesting approaches could deliver instead .

On the first morning we pulled into a homestead where the ground was swept immaculately clean.  The owner was a farmer called Okullo John Bosco (JB) and he had recently participated in a GWI EA exchange learning visit during which he had witnessed some rainwater harvesting techniques. He led us proudly to an area where swiftly upon his return from the exchange visit he had carved out a long pit, some five feet deep, where he intended to harvest rain water. I was so impressed with his enthusiasm but also worried somewhat about the quality of the pit as well as its location on his farm. It was clear to me that although the learning visit had been inspirational for him, he would need follow-up technical support of some kind.Lilly Obua, Global Water Initiative (GWI) "Champion Farmer" collecting millet in  her fields. Subsistence farmers in East Africa are facing huge challenges because of climate variability which means that they often experience a shortage of rainfall in the growing season. They have traditionally relied on rainfall for irrigation, but now need to adopt new techniques to ensure that they can continue to survive and feed their families. Otuke District, Uganda © Andy Johnstone/Wild Dog for GWI EA 2013

He was only too happy to answer our numerous questions through our translator. I could see that although GWI could not be and provide all things to all smallholder farmers and at all times (and doesn’t seek to), there is a distinct role for GWI EA and other partners under the LPA including Local Government extension, in  providing sound follow-up once people like JB were ‘immersed’ in the message of rainwater harvesting and soil water management – key themes of GWI EA’s approach.

Moreover, by the end of my trip, I was also particularly reassured by the network of support, technical guidance and policy experts assembled and committed to the work of GWI EA in Uganda. Although only a few of them had participated in the regional meeting in August 2013 out of which the Regional Charter had been developed, it was clear that at district and national levels a wide array of very involved decision-makers and technical experts had been assembled. These stakeholders all reiterated their commitments to rooting the undertakings of the Regional Charter in Uganda’s soils and helping investments in water for smallholder farmers to grow. As I learned about our work (and network) in Uganda, I began to understand GWI EA’s role as providing essential ‘water knowledge’ to help these seeds germinate and grow.

Programs such as these also need champions in the field and outside the field(s). Commitment to this program was also evidenced by the presence of the State Minister for Water Resources, the Hon. Betty Bigombe, who was in attendance at a breakfast meeting organized by the GWI EA team on the final day of our trip. The Minister spoke knowledgeably, authoritatively and approvingly about GWI EA and also provided a framework that would allow this program to complement and support the National Government’s objectives on agriculture and water management with smallholder farmers. The meeting closed with a number of commitments and follow-up actions being made to advance the Regional Charter in Uganda.

And so I left a few hours later having learned a great deal about the work of GWI EA, and specifically, program activities in Uganda. I had been very impressed by the innovations of the programs and humbled by the hospitality of the Champion Farmers. Quite importantly, I had also received the answer to my question from Anyensi Okelle, a widowed female Champion Farmer trying to nurture both her children and her dreams.  While walking together through the fields of her farm, she responded unhesitatingly to my question of what makes a Champion Farmer. She knowingly told me, and unknowingly showed me through her activities, that a Champion Farmer is someone who knows how to plan and manage their resources, that recognises opportunities, knows when to sow and grow and when given a little, knows how to turn that into much.

Having met Anyensi I believe Champions are made of situations and I believe from visiting the GWI EA program in Uganda that situations can also be ‘made for’ Champions that enable their own efforts and energies. I left for Atlanta even more convinced that the work before me at a global level is to help identify and influence policy-investment frameworks that will support champion solutions for champion smallholder farmers at a regional level. That is the road ahead of us and it must be a two way road that brings solutions back to smallholder farmers in places like Otuke District.


Kemi Seesink

Global Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, GWI