Revisiting the past for a better future: A decade of youth in agriculture in Lira

Revisiting the past for a better future: A decade of youth in agriculture in Lira

in News
Hannes Van den Eeckhout
Hannes Van den Eeckhout
Food Systems Analyst

In 2009, three secondary schools in Lira partnered up with Rikolto and YOUCA – a Belgian youth-in-action organisation in schools – to empower Ugandan youth to become active in agriculture. Now more than a decade later, Rikolto is sitting at the drawing board to potentially set up a Food Smart City programme in Northern Uganda, including GoodFood@School activities. In this light, revisiting the schools in Lira presented the perfect opportunity to learn from our previous experience and integrate learnings in the new programme design. Rikolto colleague Hannes Van den Eeckhout hit the road to see if the impact of the project is still visible in the schools. Tag along with Hannes and read his story about his journey to the schools in Lira.

A rewarding project, but not without challenges

From 2009 to 2012, Amach Complex Secondary School, Apala Secondary School and St. Catherine worked with Rikolto and YOUCA to set up ‘Youth Farms’. Kickstarting the project came with many challenges: The collaboration with St. Catherine and the District Farmer Association – which was supposed to support the youth farms by connecting the farms to useful partners and markets – did not run smoothly and was eventually ended. A detailed report about the project and its challenges can be found here (in Dutch only) and student testimonials can be seen below.

Almost a decade after the project’s end, I visited Amach Complex School and Apala Secondary School from March 2-3 and was overwhelmed to see the energy of the school management and students in the youth farm maintenance and long-lasting impact in the schools.

From farming practice to diversified canteen lunches

The youth farms at Amach and Apala slightly differ in the way they are set up. In Amach, there are now seven agriculture clubs with an average of 60 members. Following a weekly timetable, pupils are allocated time to work on the fields and practice what agriculture means. Every club can choose what to grow and the produce is sold to the school canteen, where a quarter of the food is made with produce from the youth farm. While in Apala, pupils mainly grow maize and soybean and sell the produce to the school and the local market. They are spread over four agriculture clubs of around 50 members and work on the seven acres of youth farm in the evening after school. For harvesting, all 301 students in Apala help out on the field.

The students are attracted when they see their friends roasting their maize from the field, or when implementing the nursery beds. I can now teach agriculture in class and then immediately go demonstrate the practice on the field.

Patrick Obala Agriculture teacher at Amach Complex Secondary School

Covid-19 and other challenges...

In March 2020, the Government of Uganda put strict measures in place to stop the spread of covid-19. This meant that on March 21, schools closed and pupils were sent home, leaving the youth farms behind. In Amach, the school’s management, teachers and staff stepped up to continue the farming activities and supported the students who gradually came back since December 2020. The clearing of the fields has already been done for this year, and they are waiting for the rains to come. In Apala, the crops were ready for harvesting when covid-19 started, so the youth farms depended on a small number of students living nearby the school to do the harvesting.

Not everybody can afford pesticides, yet they want good yields. Training in organic farming could help us to reduce the health risks and children could teach their parents to become less dependent on external agricultural inputs.

Adur Okello Eunice Head Teacher at Apala Secondary School

But the youth farms also experience challenges beyond the covid-19 pandemic. Initially, pesticides and insecticides were used in both schools, but now there is a move towards organic farming. In Amach, the damage of pests and diseases was very limited, so they stopped using chemical pesticides in 2018. The land of the Apala youth farms is worked intensively and with the same crops, leading to a high incidence of pests, low yields, and a lot of losses. Agrochemicals are, however, expensive to buy. The school in Apala is now looking at organic farming as the way forward.

The long-term impact in the schools

  • Already 11 promotions of secondary school children – and many more to come – have benefited from agriculture being taught practically. Currently, 420 Students (50%) in Amach and all 301 students in Apala are involved in agriculture clubs and field work.
  • Additionally, the youth farms have given the students the experience of working together and managing this micro-business collectively.
  • The food in the canteen has been diversified, especially in Amach where students have been growing vegetables.
  • Youth learn how to manage finances: From funding club activities beyond farming to contributing towards paying the school fees in-kind or by selling produce on the local market.
  • In Amach, the project donated 1 cow and 1 bull, which became a large offspring of cattle on the school premises. They are sometimes sold, sometimes used to feed students and staff on special occasions.

My take-aways for GoodFood@School in Northern Uganda

It is very nice and significant to find so many of the intended project activities are still in place and sustained autonomously by the school management and students after a decade. There are strong signs of lasting impact of the project.

Based on this experience, I would make three recommendations for a potential Food Smart City and GoodFood@School component in Northern Uganda:

  1. Diversify crop varieties and intensify production (and thus learning cycles) by focusing on vegetables.

  2. Integrate the on-field activities in the wider class-room curriculum: link with yield calculations in mathematics, market information in economics, the plant growing process in biology etc.

  3. Train and build capacity on agroecology among teachers and students to grow food organically, to build resilience and to be less dependent on external agricultural inputs.

Overall, the strong commitment of school management, teachers and pupils in Amach and Apala is definitely promising for the future of a GoodFood@School programme in Northern Uganda.