Wednesday May 28 2014

Irrigation schemes: Breathing life into maize, rice farming


Mubuku and Doho irrigation schemes are some of the largest in the country. Started in the 1960s, they run into difficulties and collapsed. They have been rehabilitated and thriving as Stephen Otage found out.

For any farmer, neither heavy floods nor long droughts are good for agriculture but the question often eluding answers for any farmer, borders on how to control these natural phenomena especially in the face of climate change.

Thomas Ngachebwa, a farmer and head water guard at the newly rehabilitated Mubuku irrigation scheme in Kasese District, believes that this question is no longer a big deal to them.

He belongs to the 150-member Abasaija Kweyamba Mubuku Farming Cooperative Society, who are in business through the year inspite of the weather patterns because the irrigation scheme, which is fed by River Mubuku.
“Dry weather is not a problem. During the dry season, we agree on who starts the irrigation but all the farmers are served. So, all benefit,” he says.

Livingstone Sempala, who has been a member of the scheme since the 1970s, says they have been benefiting from production of seed for seed processing companies.

“We have running contracts with seed companies like Fica and Naseco, where we produce for them rice, maize and vegetable seeds. Every farmer owns eight acres of land,” he says.

Ssempala ended up in Mubuku after training as an extension worker from Bukalasa agricultural training centre. He says after seeing how good the scheme was and the potential to increase his income, he decided to remain there. He now earns between Shs2m-Shs5m per season when he supplies the seeds.

Frank Twinamatsiko, who has been the chairman of the cooperative society for the last fifteen years, reveals that the cooperative has been exporting hot pepper mainly to Europe in addition to producing maize and rice seed.

“After harvesting, we export the hot pepper unprocessed. As for maize and rice, we have contracts with FICA and NASECO seed companies who process the seeds. We export five tons of pepper every week earning us a total of $2m (Shs5b) in a season,” he explains.

The irrigation scheme taps its water from River Mubuku, which is channeled into the 150 eight-acre farms, which have been parceled out to different farmers. The flood irrigation system is used here; it depends on the natural flow, where the water is directed into farms using the farrows found found across the land for the water to have an easy flow into the farms.

Flooding in the farms is controlled using the very same farrows, along which the crops are planted to direct the water to the next channel where it will be required.

According to Ngachebwa, the head water guard, the farmers follow a strict irrigation schedule because the crops do not need water all the time.
“Crops do not require water all the time. Some of them need water twice a week, others need water three times a week,” he explains adding that when one farmer is not in need of the water, others will be irrigating their farms.

Until recently, Butalejja District in eastern Uganda, was the epicentre of rampant land conflicts, which often resulted into loss of land and lives.
According to Sylvia Nanyunja, a senior water officer, Kyoga water management zone, the deadly land conflicts were mainly caused by poor administration of the water from River Manafwa.

When the Directorate of Water Resources management investigated the causes of the conflicts, they found that the demand for water to irrigate the rice gardens was so high but it was not regulated.

“In 2009/2010, the farmers upstream the River Manafwa diverted water into their gardens, depriving the people downstream of water. This caused flooding in their gardens which destroyed their own crops,” Nanyunja says.
She recalls that when the Doho irrigation scheme collapsed in 1997, there was a lot of flooding in Butalejja, which affected all the rice gardens.
David Obong, permanent secretary, Ministry of Water and Environment, who has been steering the committee overseeing the rehabilitation of the scheme, adds that the scheme, which was started in 1965, has been revived at the cost of Shs21b. This was supported by a loan from the African Development Bank, .

“I have seen this scheme in its death bed, when it was on drip and now when it is back on its toes. It has demonstrated that the whole government concept works,” he says. “In this, we have the ministries of agriculture, trade, finance, gender, and local government all coordinated by Office of the Prime Minister.”

Obong believes that it is such synergy that once maintained in collaboration with local governments , will empower farmers to improve their livelihoods and attain food security, which has been a problem.
“This is not a one ministry project. All must act together to ensure that this scheme works well. We need research and farmer extension systems, because we are making a breakthough in demystifying the water curse where there was too much water without it being used,” he noted.

Benedict Muyagu, vice chairman, Butalejja District, points out that the Doho rice scheme has the capacity to sustainably meet all Uganda’s rice needs.

“Every acre yields about 20bags of rice. With the project, we anticipate that the production will increase to 25bags per acre per season and when fully operational, we will increase to 50 bags per acre per season, which is two and half times more than before,” he anticipates.

He adds that the cooperative society will employ an agronomist to help the 4,000 farmers, under it who own land in the scheme, measuring between half an acre to one acre.

The district has also introduced by-laws with penalties, which are imposed when they are broken.

“People are used to the old system of having water in their gardens even when they do not need it. In irrigation, you have to minimise waste. Crops operate at certain levels of water supply beyond which they get affected,” Muyagu observes.

According to Eng Ronald Kasozi, the site engineer, the scheme requires 1.5 cubic meters of water per second but currently, it can only raise half of the water. This has necessitated the introduction of a component of storing water at night for irrigation during the day.

“At night, since most farmers do not need water, we direct the water into a reservoir and those who do not receive enough water during the day, can also irrigate their farms. We also have a schedule where people downstream irrigate during the day, the others in the night,” he explains.
He notes that before the rehabilitation works, farmers were using logs to barricade water, thus causing a shortage of water in the government scheme.

“Private individuals were taking all the water. To control this, a system was created to time the irrigation so that when gates are shut down, the water flows to the gardens where it is required because water levels in River Manafwa are low during dry seasons and high during the peak of the rains,” Kasozi elaborates.

They created flood control dykes, which also act as roads to protect farmers from floods.
“In the 1960s, the irrigation area was confined to 1,000 hectares but now with the outgrowers, the acreage has increased to 5,000 acres leaving government with only one fifth of the total acreage.
Much as the revamped scheme paints a rosy picture for the farmers, it has not come easy though.
According to Kasozi, the construction took longer time than anticipated because initially, people had negative attitudes towards the project.
“It took us six months to negotiate the project yet the contract period was one year. People had misgivings but when they saw the amount of money involved, they changed their attitudes,” he says.

management of the schemes

The rehabilitation of the Mubuku and Doho schemes is an initiative to restore their irrigation capacity. It is aimed at reviving the production to increase the farmers’ income and livelihood.

John Magezi Ndamira, the national co-ordinator, Farm Income Enhancement and Forest Conservation project, Ministry of Water and Environment, explains: “We want well-managed farmer-based organisations to use the schemes so that other farmers can come and see how irrigation is done and move away from relying on rain-fed agriculture.”

Under a new arrangement, the government signs performance agreements with the district local government who have the responsibility to supervise the scheme.

The district authorities together with the local water authority have the duty to ensure that farmers are sensitised about the wise water use, follow the irrigation schedule so that the water is not abused by depriving other beneficiaries.

Background to schemes

Mubuku irrigation scheme started in the 1960s as a resettlement programme by the government under the national youth service. The intention was to equip the youth with skills which they would use when they go back to their home area. Each received eight acres of land.

“It was established as a way of introducing irrigated agriculture so that when the youths left the scheme, they would return home and demonstrate the technology as a mechanism to promote irrigated agriculture,” explains Okasai Opolot, director, crop resources, in Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries.

He adds that Mubuku and Doho are offsprings of the Olweny irrigation scheme in northern Uganda, which was a farmer-led initiative but was not well planned. But over time, and through the political turmoil in the following decades, the schemes collapsed. “When we got money, government thought of rehabilitating it but also we said let us have it in an organized manner so that it does not collapse like it did before because the people who are settled there now are the bona fide owners of the land,” Opolot points out.

According to Prof Ephraim Kamuntu, minister for Water and Environment, government recently acquired a Shs19b loan from the African Development Bank to rehabilitate the schemes so as to increase farm productivity and modernise agriculture. “The whole essence of irrigation is that you are producing all year round. When a product is needed, it should be there all year round because if you do not produce, you lose out,” he says.

A success story
With the Doho scheme up and running, the farmers expect whirlwind profits from their business. Haji Ahamed Naleeba, who has over 700 acres of land within the scheme, currently earns Shs300m per season.

He says they have carried out an Enviromental Impact Assessment where they were given certain restrictions and instructions about what to do on the wetland.

“We generate 1,200 kilogrammes of rice from each acre. We have many other farmers around but in all, we could be generating 800 tonnes of rice per season. The demand for rice is high in Kampala alone and other parts of Uganda,” he said.

Naleeba adds that they are planning on diversifying into onion, garlic, ginger, curry powder which they have not been growing before but which are also proving profitable compared to rice.

“Onions are labour intensive and we are just learning the scheme. Rice gives us Shs2m per acre but onions would give us Shs10m per acre. Market for onions is both within the country and Juba. An acre gives 40 sacks, which go for between Shs200,000 and Shs400,000 each,” he says.