Wednesday September 3 2014

I quit the pulpit to help my people farm

Pastor Ssekyewa

Ssekyewa emphasises a point on how to care for coffee to some farmers attending a training. PHOTOS BY DOROTHY NAKAWEESI. 

By Dorothy Nakaweesi

My name is Fred Ssekyewa from Rakai District. I worked at Ggaba Community Church in Kampala for 11 years. One day on a trip to my village, as I stopped to greet people along the way, there was this young man who asked me for Shs500.

This hit me hard, I thought about giving him the money but this young man was from a family blessed with lots of land but could not make use of it to change his life. Instead, he depended on handouts from whoever he met. This left me thinking of doing something about this situation in my village. I thought I would be the channel through which my people would get out of poverty and improve their livelihoods.

Quitting his job
In November 2009, I resigned from my other duties at the church where I served. This is how I started Celebrate Hope Ministry in Rakai to look at creating opportunities that would help my people get out of poverty.

We started in March 2010 with seven farmers as a trial; these farmers did well. The following year, we enrolled another 100 farmers and in 2012, another 100. So far, we have managed to mobilise 750 farmers. Through the organisation, we created community-based solutions without discrimination of religion or ethnicity to train them in coffee farming as a business.

Why coffee
In the 1990s, Rakai experienced an influx of poverty eradication programmes and initiatives without guidance, which did not help. Coffee is something that they have had and only needed good agronomic practices. The weather was already favourable for coffee growing and people have the land. The international market is big because consumption is growing.

The farmers are in groups of 20 and every group holds meetings, which are chaired by a local pastor. But the farmers elect their own leaders like the publicity secretary, mobilisers and other leaders. Every farmer has a number which we use to track them in the database. The reason we do this is because we provide them with implements. Each farmer gets 300 coffee seedlings, a spray pump, two litres of herbicides, shoes and machetes.

We also train them at different stages; from land preparation, spacing, to planting the seedlings and care until maturity. In addition, we train them in peer support and cooperation. This encourages them not to give up but stay committed through teamwork.

Then we teach them money acquisition, budgeting and saving. How to save money is done in the first peak season and after that we train them in peer support and how they can help each other. This also takes six months.

After this, it is on how to harvest, handle and market coffee. Each training prepares the farmers to go to the next level. The market has shrewd businessmen who exploit the farmers. So, Nucafe is helping us out in having ownership of our coffee and not to be tempted by offers from middlemen.

This year, we sent 30 tonnes of coffee as our maiden direct consignment for export to a buyer in Italy and all the profits will go directly to the farmers. The farmers have coupons of how much coffee they contributed to the general consignments and the finances will be channelled directly to the farmers through their grading. The coupons will work as cheques and later we have plans of establishing a bank.

We have prepared all the necessary logistical support to help us handle our coffee. We are planning to get a coffee hauler that will help us improve the quality through the value chain. We want to establish a Sacco that will help the farmers in times when it is not a coffee season to sort out their need. In doing this, it will stop the farmers from being desperate for money which in most cases plays them into the hands of middlemen who exploit them. Each loan will be given out at lower interest rates of between 8-10 per cent, which is better than what the commercial banks offer.

Sustaining the initiative much as we have some donors has been a big challenge, especially when the numbers grow. The other challenge has been dealing with people, especially those who are slow at coping with the trends in the coffee value chain. Also, some people say I want to join politics as the reason for what I am doing. To me, this is an insult. This mentality is stuck with people who think I am there to help them because I need something from them.

Taxes levied on the agricultural inputs in the 2014/2015 budget are going to be a big challenge that is going to affect the farmer at the grassroot. This is going to push us back and as a country, this is not good, it will retard the economy. They should listen to people working with the farmers at the grassroots.

We should learn from history. During the 1970s, farmers were told to uproot coffee and instead plant bananas. It was a mistake as many farmers who had large coffee plantations lost them.

But we expose the farmers to agro-based food security. Things that include poultry, piggery and trees. We also encourage people to grow food crops. Awards are given, rated on a good coffee yield, food security, and hygienic environment. What we do is that every after five years, each farmer gives back Shs600,000 to the organisation, which is almost half of what they get from the organisation (Shs1.5m). Every farmer enrolled into the organisation consents to this arrangement. We hope when the donors’ wells dry up one day, we will be able to sustain the organisation using this money.

Change in the farmers
Because of this programme, the farmers have seen their lives change. One farmer got a motorcycle to ease his work and also earn an extra income on top of proceeds from coffee. The money to procure the motorcycle came from coffee.

If people have money in their pockets, they will have a choice to change their lives instead of waiting for government to help. If its school fees or health bills, they can now afford good schools and health facilities.