Third Group of Iowa Volunteers Visits Uganda

AMES, Iowa – A third group of volunteers traveled to Uganda in August this year as part of the rural development program, Bridging the Gap: Increasing Competitiveness of Ugandan Women Farmers in the Marketplace. This farmer-to-farmer program pairs Iowa women farmers with eight groups of women farmers in the Kamuli District of Uganda.

Bridging the Gap is a yearlong project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Iowa State University’s Global Extension program has partnered with a Ugandan nonprofit organization, Volunteer Efforts for Developing Concerns (VEDCO) and ISU’s Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to provide farmer production and marketing expertise to Ugandan farmers. The CSRL and VEDCO have been providing outreach and education in the district since 2004. As a result, many of the area Ugandan farm 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.

“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 production and marketing system and help identify steps for improving local farmers’ maize grain quality and marketing,” said ISU Extension Value Added Ag Specialist Linda Naeve, co-director of the Bridging the Gap program. “Our ultimate goal is to improve profitability for these Ugandan women and bring more money to their households.”

The project focuses on improving maize grain quality and helping to organize collaborative or group marketing of the grain. In addition, soybeans are being introduced for food and as a cash crop. The Iowans also helped train the Ugandan farmers to keep written farm business records. During their trip, from Aug. 21- 29, the three volunteers, Sheila Hebenstreit, April Hemmes and Naeve, followed up on the work the previous groups had done. They arrived just after harvest of the first season’s crops in the Kamuli District and met with eight farmer groups to evaluate the progress of the project.

Progress and Sucess

The progress and success of this project are beginning to show, Naeve said.

Hebenstreit and her husband own a farm in Greene County. She has worked at the West Central Cooperative in Jefferson for 28 years as an agronomist and is the District 4 Director for the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). She visited Uganda the first time in February as an ISA representative. This time, in August, she went as a farmer 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.”

Grain quality and grades were determined at Agroways Ltd., a grain warehouse in Jinja, Uganda. The improved drying and shelling methods resulted in fewer cracked kernels and less foreign material in the grain. This higher quality grain is less susceptible to mold and insect damage and has longer storage life. This benefits women who are selling the maize and also storing some on the farm for family use.

The volunteers also learned that the Ugandan farmers are committed to growing more soybeans while continuing to feed their families with the staple foods in their diet like maize, plantain bananas and sweet potatoes. The Ugandan farmers like the soybeans because the crop matures faster than the maize, so it can be harvested first, Naeve explained.

“During this last trip, we learned that our cooperating farmers really like the soybeans and they want to continue using them,” she said. “They see both a market potential and a food value potential.”

The American volunteers kept busy during their weeklong trip to the Kamuli District. On Monday, the group visited with VEDCO staff to create goals for their trip and to assess the progress of the women. On Tuesday through Thursday, they met with the eight groups of women to review their farm production and financial record books, ask them what they learned and to see how the grain shellers and tarps were working. Friday was spent debriefing and reviewing with VEDCO.

Seven out the eight farmer groups reported their best production season in memory, March through July, this year. The one group that reported no gain dealt with hail damage earlier in the season. They were enthused about their new farm record books and have requested additional copies for the second growing season of 2011 and for 2012. The idea of recordkeeping books grew from the tradition of ISU Extension and Outreach providing these to Iowa farmers, before computers came into wide use.

Volunteers Bring Experience, Knowledge

According to Naeve, during the course of the project and trips to Uganda, the farmer volunteers frequently have brought tools and instruments that aid with evaluation of the project.

“The volunteers have added so much to the project because of their life experiences and their knowledge,” she said. “They see things differently than university employees, which adds a lot. They have been able to share much of their experience and knowledge with the Ugandan women farmers.”

Hemmes has farmed her family’s 1,000-acre century farm for 26 years. The farm consists of a corn and soybean rotation with 20 acres of hay. She also runs a 35-head cow/calf herd. Her farming experience proved valuable during her trip.

“I took my hand-held grain moisture meter with me to test the corn and soybean,” she said. “The women and other people we worked with really liked it because all they’ve seen are the large tabletop moisture meters. This would really help them in the future.”

While the trip to Africa was busy, the group did get some downtime on the weekend. The African farmers take Sundays off, so the American volunteers visited the headwaters of the Nile River and hiked in the Mabira Forest Reserve during their days off.

“Though our circumstances are very different – the farm families we have been working with live without electricity, running water, cars or mechanized farming equipment – I think there are very little differences in the goals of the Ugandan and American women,” Hebenstreit said. “We have the same basic desires to feed our families, to do better and to improve our lives.”

Although the project has met success thus far, there are other opportunities to improve Ugandans’ farming and marketing systems. Naeve and co-workers hope to continue the project next year to address issues of post-harvest handling and collective storage and marketing.

The next group of Iowa women volunteers is scheduled to travel to Uganda in November. They will meet with the women farmers and VEDCO administrators to continue improvement of on-site farm production, crop quality and marketing recordkeeping among women farmers in the Kamuli District.

For more information, contact Margaret Smith at


Note: The first picture shows a group of women with the tarps for drying maize. The second picture is of Linda Naeve and Sheila Hebenstreit meeting with a group of women farmers. The third picture shows a group shelling corn with a bicycle sheller. The last picture is of April Hemmes reviewing farm record books with a group of women.