Bumper harvest: Farmer Hadijah Namuli Semwanga and her children with bags of cassava ready for transport to Kampala for sale
Female farmers are one of the pillars of African agriculture, but they face an uphill struggle. Traditional inheritance laws mean that land often goes to male relatives, while other family responsibilities tend to leave women with less time and less access to money and resources. In Uganda's Gomba District, one Muslim-led initiative seeks to change that by helping women to improve their livelihoods and protect the environment at the same time.
Creating a greener and better Gomba
Hadijah Namuli Semwanga and her husband Hamdan Semwanga have always grown cassava on their farm in Gomba, central Uganda, but only in the last few years have they grown enough to sell to the cars that travel two to three hours from the capital Kampala to buy this staple vegetable to sell in the city.
They have made enough profit from cassava to buy a secondhand motorbike and a young calf. They spread dung from the calf on their fields to nourish the soil and planted passion fruits – one of the new crops they are encouraged to grow between rows of potatoes and ficus trees.
Hadijah is one of 32 women from five mosques taking part in the Gomba Women’s Environment Project which aims to reduce the number of trees being cut for firewood, and to develop environmentally friendly income-generating activities to improve women's livelihoods.
Project leader Nambi Aliziki explains: "Our mission is to sensitise people to be aware of the environment. The project started with tree planting and every member has to plant 300 trees. We also do poultry keeping and rear animals. Some have goats, some have cows. We also have stoves which use only a little firewood, and water tanks for harvesting water."
‘Our people are not sensitised to environmental issues. They have cut down all the trees in Gomba and our hills are bare, the rains are not coming and we have prolonged drought' – Hajjat Sebyala Aphwa
Gomba women: Project director Hajjat Sebyala Aphwa (right) with Hadijah Namuli Semwanga, a member of the project
Project Director Hajjat Aphwa Kaawaase Sebyala says people were not aware that they were damaging the environment by cutting down all the trees before planting.
"Our people are not sensitised to environmental issues. They have cut down all the trees in Gomba and our hills are bare, the rains are not coming and we have prolonged drought. They are not aware of the use of trees in preserving the environment," she says.
"We advise them to leave the trees and plant the beans or maize or coffee under the trees. Now all our people are asking for seedlings and those who have cut trees are replacing them."
Members are planting fruit trees, such as paw paws, mangoes, guava and avocado, as well as indigenous trees which can be used for fuel, fodder, windbreaks or bark cloth. In so doing, they are also "answering Sadakatul Jaria (everlasting gift to Allah), the teachings of Islam that you have to plant a tree and care about the environment," says Hajjat Sebyala.
When the first tree seedlings were planted, the survival rate was around 50 per cent. But once water harvesting was introduced, this increased to 80 per cent, says Hajjat Sebyala.
Large water tanks which hold up to 10,000 litres have been erected at each of the five mosques for use by community members. Smaller water tanks, holding 1,000 litres each, have been established in 10 households, while five water reservoirs have been dug in members’ gardens.
The water reservoirs are lined with heavy duty polythene and store water in the rainy season, ready for use during the dry season.
One drop at a time: Hamdan Semwanga demonstrates the water bottle drip feeders which provide a steady supply of water to newly planted seedlings
The water bottle drip feeder
However, the most useful tool transforming the chore of watering is the humble plastic water bottle, which drip-feeds a constant supply of water to individual tree seedlings.
Each water bottle is pierced several times underneath, filled with water and tied to a seedling or to a support near a seedling. The rate at which the water seeps out can be regulated by tightening or loosening the lid: the tighter the lid, the slower the rate of water flow.
It can take up to a week before the water bottles are emptied of water, enabling farmers to provide plants with much needed moisture at the driest time of the year, ensuring healthier, stronger crops and conserving the water harvested during the dry season.
Gomba Green Brigade
To support the Gomba Women’s Environment Group, Hajjat Sebyala set up the Gomba Green Brigade, made up of young adults, to help dig water reservoirs, build energy efficient stoves and make charcoal briquettes. As well as helping the women, this has provided a small income to Brigade members.
"Some of us have used that small income for our education, others to boost their family income," says Brigade leader Katanza Baker. "Others bought bicycles to enable them to transport their small produce to nearby markets. One of our members has bought goats and now has about 10 of them."
He says members have also changed their attitudes towards the environment: "Usually, when someone wants to practise farming, they first cut down all the trees and then plant the beans or the potatoes. We have learned that farming can be done with environmental conservation."
Fuel efficient stoves
Most people in Africa cook on a traditional three-stone open fire. The Gomba Women’s Environment Project has built 20 fuel-efficient stoves for its members; they use up to 50 per cent less firewood than the open stoves, reducing deforestation and resulting in fewer respiratory problems due to less smoke.
Charcoal briquettes: An environmentally friendly source of cooking fuel
Charcoal briquettes provide an alternative, more environmentally friendly source of cooking fuel made from agricultural waste such as maize stalks, banana fibres and bean or coffee husks.
Kayingo Ali explains: "We collect the wastes and burn them in a mini furnace; we then remove the ash and mix it with water." The ash-water mix is put into a moulding machine in the shape of a tube of metal, and mechanically pressed to squeeze out the water.
The resulting circular briquettes are removed and placed in the sunshine to dry. When ready for use, they burn slowly and without smoke. "These briquettes help reduce the rubbish in homes as well as the need to cut down trees for firewood," says Kayingo. "Not only do we use them for cooking, we also sell them and earn some income."
'As women, we were helpless before this project' – Madina Tebasoka
A lasting legacy
Not only is the Gomba Women’s Environment Project helping women build better livelihoods now, it’s also shaping their community’s future. Member Margret Setumba says: "This programme embraces all in the community, even we Christians are members. I am able to feed my family and send both my children and orphaned grandchildren to school."
Another member, Madina Tebasoka, adds: "This project has enabled me to pay fees for my children with the little income it has helped to generate. As women, we were helpless before this project."