Ssemanda’s transition from squatter to model farmer

Ssemanda explains how he uses banana leaves as mulch. Photo / Michael J Ssali

What you need to know:

  • Charles Ssemanda is recognised as the best banana farmer in Ndagwe Sub-county and his well-maintained banana plantation is a big attraction to most passers-by.

Charles Ssemanda, of Kyakwereebera Village, Ndagwe Sub-county, Lwengo District has lived a life of extreme contrasts.

The 47-year-old farmer had no land of his own when he got married in his early 20s. “I lived with my wife in a single-roomed house, in my parents’ compound, and we used to borrow space in which to grow our food,” he told Seeds of Gold.

“Often we had to do some work on other people’s farms in exchange for food items such as cassava, or bananas. But today we live in a large house which is our own, complete with hydroelectricity and water. We are today large scale food producers, working on our own twenty-two acres of land where we grow bananas and mangos,” he says.

Ssemanda says, due to financial hardships, his parents failed to keep him in school beyond Primary Six.

“However despite my low level of formal education, I am now a teacher since I get a lot of people coming to my farm to learn from me about banana production,” he explains.

How he started

Kitovu Mobile, a Catholic Church founded NGO which takes care of HIV victims and orphans in Masaka diocese, has entrusted him with orphaned youth in his neighbourhood to teach them good farming practices. He further revealed that most of the farming skills he shares with the people who visit his farm are his own discoveries, made after many years of observation and hard work as a farmer. It has been a journey of sacrifice and strong determination for him. He has a lot of praise for his committed and hardworking wife.

“We had to forego most luxuries in order to save money for buying our own land,” he told Seeds of Gold.  “We used to drink tea without sugar and sometimes we even failed to buy the tea leaves and simply drank water,” he says. He recalls that in many cases the people that lent them land would ask them to leave after just a year or two. “We would get it when it was solid bush, clear it and turn it into well prepared ground for crop growing but, just then, the owner would tell us it was time for us to leave,” says Ssemanda.

However, they were determined to go on farming, by borrowing land and growing annual crops such as maize, beans, Irish potatoes, onions, and groundnuts which they sold to traders.

“We always made sure we saved some of the money and with time we began purchasing our own land, beginning with pieces as small as half an acre and later buying more and more,” he says.

Turning point

He said that he was lucky to have a number of neighbours willing to sell their land which enabled him to purchase as much as 12 acres altogether on which sits his banana plantation. He also owns another three acres, a short walk’s distance away where he grows bananas well. In addition he has some seven acres not far away devoted to mango growing. He is recognised as the best banana farmer in Ndagwe Sub-county and his well-maintained banana plantation is a big attraction to most passers-by.

The plantains are all green and strong and his explanation for this is that the soil is well nourished. “Most of the people who sold this land to me thought it was poor and infertile,” he says. “But what it lacked is fertiliser application. I began with mulching it with grass locally known as kalenziwe every time I planted anything, whether onions, or beans, or maize.  I can tell you I reaped big yields and made quick money. With time I took to banana farming and I have never turned back. It is the grass and rotting banana leaves used for mulching that have made the soil so well nourished.”

Challenges

His first big challenge was in the late 90s when the entire banana plantation was destroyed by the Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW), a disease that has no known cure to date.

“I gave up growing bananas and resorted to other crops including Irish potatoes, onions, maize and beans. But, after two or three years I resolved to return to banana production which has proven to be going well,” says Ssemanda. He said to avoid BBW a farmer must be prepared to practice a high level of agricultural hygiene, and to handle sharp tools such as knives and panga carefully since they can spread the disease from infected plants to healthy ones.

Mulching

Every year he must pay for the kalenziwe grass for use as mulch. However he also uses banana leaves as mulch as well. Besides suppressing the weeds the mulch eventually rots and turns into manure. He insists on good spacing which according to him is some 10 feet between banana stems. He says that if the plantation is crowded it is quite hard for the farmer to get large, marketable bunches. His preferred banana varieties are kibuzi and mbwazirume.

Harvests

His average monthly harvest is between 150 and 250 bunches of bananas.  He also sells mangoes to traders from Kampala who get them directly from his farm every year in December. This explains why he has found it quite easy to keep his 11 children in school with the eldest now in his first year at Uganda Martyrs’ University Nkozi, studying Business and Accounts.  His other achievement is a beautiful modern residential house in Bijaaba Town.  In the same little town he has established a retail shop as well. He has also bought land in Nansana, Kampala where he has constructed a commercial building. “The monthly rent fees from that building are deposited in my account in Centenary Bank. My idea is to put up more commercial buildings in Kamapala which will be a source of money for the family even when I am too old for active farming,” he says.

He says he looks back at the early days of his marriage and recognises how important it is to restrain oneself from luxury in order to save money. “We gave up drinking tea with sugar and bread in those difficult times, but today we sell sugar and bread and other good things such as cooking oil in our own shop,” he states. “Now we have at our disposal all the good things we sacrificed long ago in order to get where we are today.  That is the power of saving and sacrifice,” he says.

Advice

Ssemanda says he looks back at the early days of his marriage and recognises how important it is to restrain oneself from luxury in order to save money. “We gave up drinking tea with sugar and bread in those difficult times, but today we sell sugar and bread and other good things such as cooking oil in our own shop,” he states.

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