Bridging the Gap Program Wraps Up First Year, Plans for Second Year

AMES, Iowa – In May 2011, Iowa farm women began sharing their experiences in central Africa, where 90 percent of the women living in rural areas work in agriculture. The collaboration was developed by a farmer-to-farmer project through Iowa State University’s Value Added Agriculture program with cooperation from a Ugandan nonprofit organization, Volunteer Efforts for Developing Concerns (VEDCO).

The rural development project, Bridging the Gap: Increasing Competitiveness of Ugandan Women Farmers in the Marketplace, linked Iowa farmers with eight groups of women farmers in the Kamuli District in Uganda.

Bridging the Gap was a yearlong project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Iowa State University’s Value Added Agriculture program partnered with VEDCO and ISU’s Center for Sustainable Livelihoods (CSRL) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to provide farmer production and marketing expertise to Ugandan farmers. CSRL and VEDCO have been providing outreach and education in the district since 2004. As a result, many of the area Ugandan families have achieved food security and are now poised to increase crop diversity, as well as grain yields and improve grain quality for sale to commercial markets.

More than 60 Iowa women farmers applied for the volunteer experience in Africa for the 10 volunteer positions to Africa. Sheila Hebenstreit, of Greene County, traveled to Uganda twice in 2011, once before the project began and once as a volunteer.

“The biggest difference I saw from my first trip was the increase in grain quality through the project, through the use of tarps for spreading out the grain and allowing it to dry and the bicycle-powered maize (corn) shellers. Previously, maize grain had been spread on the bare ground to dry and was threshed off the cob by beating it with a stick,” she explained. “This time, after women farmers used the improved drying technique and mechanized sheller, we measured the maize crop and had it tested professionally.”

In its first year, the project focused on improving maize grain quality and helping to organize collaborative or group marketing of the grain. In addition, soybeans were introduced for food and as a cash crop. The Iowans also helped train the Ugandan farmers to keep written farm business records.

“Through this project five of the eight women’s farmer groups began joint marketing, which was our main objective” said ISU Extension Value Added Ag Specialist Margaret Smith, co-director of the Bridging the Gap program. “Through improved quality of maize (corn) from the bicycle-powered maize shellers and tarpaulins the volunteers provided the women, they also received higher prices for the maize. Several groups also jointly marketed some of their soybeans, which was an unexpected, but well received development in the project. These women are taking the concepts and business management tools that we provided and utilizing them.”

Improved post-harvest management made positive changes in grain quality. Maize storage losses were reduced from 42 percent to 22 percent of the crop and the quality of maize sold that was classified as “good” from the groups increased from 19 percent to 82 percent. The farmers expressed great satisfaction with the new farm record books to track their project crops.

“The record books were useful to the farmers,” said Sabi Jane, a Ugandan farmer and Tibikomo group leader. “They encourage the women in my group to work harder and challenge them to plant and earn more.”

The groups of volunteers noted that soybean grows well in the Kamuli District, but there are still many challenges with harvesting, threshing and preparing the soybeans for family meals.

Some other challenges the program identified for these farmers include availability of tools and equipment, transportation and quality control for grain. Poor grain quality and the lack of adoption of regional grain standards put small-scale farmers at a disadvantage. Much of the maize is shelled by using a stick to beat the kernels off the ear, resulting in a high percentage of damaged and cracked kernels that are subject to insect and rodent damage. Grain buyers come around to farms to purchase grain that is available for sale, but do not use inspected scales and there are no grain standards in place in the countryside. When grain does reach mills for processing, the clean-out losses of damaged and broken kernels can be as high as 40 percent of the original volume.

“In Iowa, we have an amazing system in place to grow and market our crops. Our Iowa farmers’ experiences allow them to identify the gaps in the Ugandan marketing system and help identify steps for improving local farmers’ maize grain quality and marketing,” said Linda Naeve ISU Extension Value Added agriculture specialist and co-director of the project. “Our ultimate goal is to improve profitability for these Ugandan women and bring more money to their households.”

The program has been extended into 2012. This year, the Iowa women volunteers will continue to work on the original program objectives, specifically on joint marketing and development of business management skills. In addition, the volunteers will help train Ugandan farmers to do on-farm seed germination tests to help those farmers evaluate seed quality before planting. Originally, 80 Ugandan farmers were involved in the project; this year, more than 180 farmers will work with the Iowa volunteers. Volunteers will continue to aid the Ugandan farmers with information, and provide more supplies to improve maize and soybean grain quality.

“We didn’t fully meet our objectives in the first year, and now we have a chance to see further improvements for each farmer group,” Smith said.