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In Karamoja’s dry plains, Obin’s crops are thriving on one secret: ‘managing water’

Kotido, April 25, 2023: Benard Obin’s garden looks like an island. Surrounded by a sea of wastes, dotting shrubs, sun-baked soils, and deep gullies caused by floods from the previous torrential rains – the two-acre green patch can easily be spotted from afar.

In the past, this land was abandoned, with no farming activity. Locals had uninhibited it for being ‘infertile’ after continuous failed attempts to reap from it.

But in 2016, upon buying part of the land, which is located in Kotido municipality, Obin surprised many when he grew beans, vegetables, maize, and sorghum with ease.  Locals in that community were awe-struck as they thought he was ‘using witchcraft’. That was not surprising to Obin, after all, most communities in Karamoja are heavily superstitious.

But the mystery that shrouds this agricultural prowess, Obin says, is simple: learn how to manage water sustainably, and then grow the right plants, with specific roles, for your food crops to thrive in harsh conditions.

And what makes it even more amazing, Obin says, is that he does not need any artificial methods: “I have everything I need right here,” says Obin, a 36-year-old agriculturalist.

“All the plants you see here have their uses, and so I don’t have to rely on any chemical fertilizers or anything synthetic for my crops to grow,” he adds.

As climate change continues to intensify, many smallholder farmers struggle to grow crops as erratic rains and extreme temperatures become common with less reliable harvests and more pest infestation.

Karamoja for instance, experiences its first rainy season between March and June, followed by a long dry spell. ‘Pseudo-rainy seasons’ are also a common phenomenon in this semi-arid region.

“The shifting rainfall patterns confuse many locals who are mostly agro-pastoralists,” Obin says. “This disrupts their livelihood resulting in low crop yields and food insecurity in homes”.

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Managing water sustainably

Before all this, Obin had planned everything. He dug his garden in November during the dry season. This was unusual but it was a deliberate move to expose the bare land to the sun. This was to mitigate pest attacks such as spittlebugs, which lay their eggs in the ground.

As the heavens were about to open up in March the following year, Obin dug contour bunds around his garden to slow down water run-offs and enhance water infiltration; he also dug ditches to enhance water percolation to retain moisture within the soil and micro ponds for harvesting excess water.

He also planted cover crops such as jack beans whose broad leaves would help in preventing moisture loss through evaporation, Napier grass (commonly known as Elephant grass) to control the speed of water run-offs whenever it rained heavily and milk bushes to trap the silt from the top soils which are good for growing vegetables.

Other plants like Faidherbia albida were also planted due to their ability to shed off their leaves during the wet season (unlike most plants, which do this during dry seasons) for organic manure.

These leguminous plants, Obin adds, also help in fixing nitrogen into the soil, which helps plants to make special proteins for plant growth. Without nitrogen, plants remain stunted or even wither and die.

On windy days, Obin’s garden is protected from destruction since trees like Terminalia catappa, sesbania and neem act as windbreakers in his garden. These species are also medicinal values since neem leaves can be used to treat ear infections, stomach upsets, and healing wounds and Terminalia catappa for treating skin infections, Obin planted milk bushes and balanites to protect his garden from animal intrusion due to their thorny and fence-like nature.

With all this, Obin has been able to reap some proceeds. From the 20 kg of maize that he grew last year, Obin harvested 800kg of maize, which he sold at shs 960,000.

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Obin stands close to a micro pond in his garden. The pond is used to harvest excess rainwater which can be used during the dry season. Photo by John Okot.

“I used the money to pay my children’s school fees,” he says. “I also used the remaining food stock for home consumption,”

He is also sensitizing locals on better farming practices such as crop rotation and crop diversification. With such practices, Obin says, locals will be able to increase soil fertility unlike monoculture, a common practice in Karamoja, where farmers mainly grow sorghum, which drains the soil.

Prospects

Obin hopes to retire from civil service soon and focus on farming. But before that, he intends to acquire more skills, especially how to use modern technology to adapt to climate change.  He also hopes to expand his project by venturing into mixed farming as soon as he gets some cash.

“I want to grow citrus fruits and I want to do beekeeping,” he says, adding that “rearing livestock would also be good for selling and also a good source of organic manure for my garden”. To prepare for this, Obin has so far grown shrubs, locally known as Atheperwa in Karimojong, which are good for feeding goats.

“I call myself a scientific farmer whose goal is to fight climate change,” he says. “My dream is to train many farmers on how to adapt to harsh conditions using low-cost and sustainable ideas.

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