This is a True Story

 Pit trench of Ginger. Notice the trees providing shade.

Pit trench of Ginger. Notice the trees providing shade.

I just finished due diligence with an interesting social enterprise in Kamuli, Uganda.  Uganda Farm is working with the abject poor teaching them the advantage of growing, in addition to their subsistence crops, ginger.  Here is the math.

In Kamuli, one acre of corn, culturally the most important subsistence crop, generates one kilogram.  At the current market prices that equates to 500,000 Ugandan shillings per harvest or about $150 USD at the current exchange rate.  Two cycles of corn per year are possible, though climate change has brought on drought conditions that makes two cycles iffy.

Conversely, one acre of ginger, a cash crop relatively unknown in Kamuli generates ten kilograms.  At the current market prices that equates to 10,000 kilograms, 10x the corn or in perfect conditions almost $20,000 at today’s exchange rate.  Only one cycle is possible per year.  But, the delta is startling.  Two corn cycles = $300.  One ginger cycle = $20,000.  One would think that common sense would make the choice simple.  So, what’s the catch?

There are a number of variables that intrude.  Most subsistence farmers have little land, maybe one acre, possibly two.  In their effort to make the most of it they plant whatever will grow. 

On one farm, one of the poorest farmers I have ever met (I included pics of his home and living conditions) 

 Kamuli Subsistence Farmer's Home

Kamuli Subsistence Farmer's Home

 One plastic chair for furniture, filthy mattresses & blankets, a recipe for illness

One plastic chair for furniture, filthy mattresses & blankets, a recipe for illness

On one farm, one of the poorest farmers I have ever met (I included pics of his home and living conditions) grew everything from avocados (the trees were gargantuan), coffee, fruit trees (oranges, small sweet tomatoes, mangoes, corn, potatoes and more.  Uganda Farm convinced him to cross crop ginger in the spaces between everything else pit style.  This method uses shallow trenches running the length and width of the space available in the shade of the other larger trees.  Manure and water is all that is needed for the ginger to flourish and the shade cover is a bonus.  So, on this land the farmer cannot grow a full acre of ginger.  Amazingly, he still can grow enough to generate almost $4000 per year, a huge gain, although he has a large family to support, more than a dozen.  That is a little less than $1 per day more per person, but a big jump up considering his total income is well below the poverty line.  You would think that he would opt to plant as much ginger as possible, forgoing the other crops to chase the elusive $20,000.  But, he does not.  Historical cultural norms get in the way.  While he is testing ginger, he is solidly resistant to expanding.   Sources of irrigation are poor as well.  He is reliant on the rainy season, one, which noted is suspect this year.  Cultural barriers exist.

Corn is a subsistence crop.  It is a food source. The fruit and coffee trees were planted by his ancestors.  They are also a food source.  Ginger, a cash crop, is an unknown in the region.  These factors coupled with the issues of available manure and water are obstacles which inhibit the wholesale conversion to ginger only.  If the farmer had two acres maybe he would consider the alternative, but he does not.

Opportunities abound for the poor and thankfully this social enterprise is pushing to convince these people that there is a different way.  The goal is to engage some of the less culturally resistant, Uganda Farm now has three hundred farmers in the fold.  Peer pressure might convert the obstinate.   When neighbors see neighbors flourish, conversion is easier.  At a one-time cost of $52 per farm to provide the initial inputs and build the capacity to nurture the crop there is a pathway out of poverty for these poor farmers.  It may take time, but it is possible to create a sustainable livelihood from ginger.  Simple math is compelling, but other factors mitigate conversion. This is not unusual in Uganda. Time will tell.