Beyond your own field
An exchange programme for young German and Ugandan farmers shows: There is one shared earth, a variety of ways to work it, and even more to learn from one another
After Brigitte Basedau arrived on the farm of Joseph Male near Kampala in Uganda, far from the farm machinery at her home in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, she initially felt thwarted. After a while, she became less distracted and eventually, her focus sharpened. “I planted some cress once as a child, but the experience of watching one individual tomato plant from seed to harvest, the way I did on the farm in Uganda, is what I took back to Germany with me,” says the farmer-to-be. For three months, from October 2019 to January 2020, she interned on Male’s farm. “There I learned to focus on the individual plant. In Germany, I had been used to seeing everything green on a particular field as a community, to thinking in terms of structures,” Basedau, now in her mid-thirties, remembers a little more than a year later. “Ugandan agriculture, however, asks a different set of questions: ‘What is possible? What can I achieve with the means at my disposal?’ Every single plant counts.”
She would not trade those three months for anything. Basedau took part in the intern exchange programme of the Schorlemer Foundation, part of the German Farmers’ Association (Deutscher Bauernverband e. V., DBV), supported by the special initiative “ONE WORLD – No Hunger” of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. Since 2019, young farmers have been visiting German and Ugandan farms as part of a mutual exchange. The participants learn about the different climatic conditions and the possibilities for adapting to them, they share one another tricks and techniques from each other, and they learn to immerse themselves in a different culture. The German project partner is the Andreas Hermes Academy (AHA); in Uganda, UNYFA, the Young Farmers’ Federation of Uganda, organizes the intern exchange programme.
For Basedau, who is just completing her bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics, it was something of a crash course in the agricultural practices of the entire East African country, because Male is not just running one farm. His “Avail Group” also operates a farm for demonstrating cultivation techniques, and advises other farmers. Together with Male, she travelled to countless farms during her three months in Uganda, scrutinised soils and discussed solutions to problems and options for improvement. “I learned a lot about trimming and irrigation. In Uganda it is often hot and dry, and then there are heavy rains. Typical and previously reliable weather patterns are happening less often or at different times due to climate change – a problem we are facing in Germany as well.”
Something that impressed Basedau was the traditional practice of using fish pond water for irrigation and fertilisation at the same time, which saves costs because farmers need to buy less synthetic fertiliser. “Male always uses a lot of homemade organic fertiliser and tests it in a barrel with water lilies to determine the optimum dosage.”
Basedau grew up on a farm in Schleswig-Holstein. The certified teacher of economic policy and English will take over the operation this summer. “It has been in the family since the 16th century. My siblings became doctors and don’t want to take over the farm – so now it’s up to me.” This is why she decided to study agricultural economics and is looking forward to the up-and-coming farming adventure: She says she wants to make the arable farm organic. She took on the internship in Uganda to broaden her horizons, to steel herself for the experience of having her own farm “I saw so many new things in Uganda,” she says. “It is more of a horticultural and vegetable growing country.” In the beginning, this overwhelmed her, she remembers. “But what fascinated me was that in Uganda, you are closer to the plant, work it with your hands and accompany it through its life cycle.”
Ultimately, she learned a lot at the interpersonal level as well. “I am rather impatient by nature. In Uganda, I learned to live with things that can’t be changed and that you have to believe in your goals.” Back in Germany, this attitude helped her to accept measures and limitations imposed by the pandemic. “I focus my energy on the positive.”
Joseph Male smiles when he hears her tell her story. And confirms: “We might be completely different people, but we share a passion for the countryside and for farming.” Together, they came up with more than a few strategies for the farmland. “We immediately began acting as a team, as if we had worked together for years. We still maintain daily contact with one another via WhatsApp.” Male, 35, is sitting in a car. He joins us via Zoom on his smartphone. He is just coming from a farm with six greenhouses for hot peppers and tomatoes. “Hardly anyone in this country eats the peppers, but they are a good commodity for export.”
He and Basedau had delivered the seedlings to the farm, and now he is checking on their progress. “The tomatoes are infested with whiteflies. I saw that one of the windows wasn’t closed all the time; there is a cassava plantation nearby, which attracts the animals.” What, in his opinion, did Basedau take away from her internship? “That farming here requires you to be more engaged – with a number of factors, with the agricultural circumstances, with a necessary measure of flexibility.” Also, when they think of Africa, many Europeans only think of the dark sides, like poverty. “Brigitte also came to know the cheerful lifestyle!” And: “She saw how hard the people work, and what long hours.”
Nehemiah Buwuule made the journey in the opposite direction. He travelled from his fruit farm in the Luweero district to Germany’s Rhineland, to the Felten family orchard in Meckenheim. “I wanted to learn about growing fruit under different climatic conditions,” says Buwuule, 38, in a phone conversation. We are communicating via WhatsApp. At the moment he is sitting in a restaurant with his family eating beef stew with rice. “Here in Uganda, agriculture is often a person’s livelihood, not so much a business.” But earning money with his own products is exactly what fascinates him. “I was surprised that Manfred can store his apples for five months in a cold room,” he says. “That is excellent. In Uganda, post-harvest losses are just too great.”
After his three months, Buwuule looked for cooperation partners; now he has joined forces with three people. A cold storage room is in the planning phase. “I also realised that cultivation and water can be seen as separate issues. On my farm, there isn’t enough water to increase productivity, so I am planning to build a well.” He learned a lot from the Feltens at the personal level in particular. “We got on very well. I was accepted like a member of the family.” Initial difficulties were quickly overcome. “I took the warmest clothing I had, but it was not enough for a winter in Germany. Fortunately, the Feltens took me shopping right away – after that, I was ok.”
He was also impressed by the way farmers in Germany try to keep the farm as one. “In Uganda, handing over a property to the next generation causes problems,” he says. “The land is more and more fragmented, acreages keep getting smaller because of inheritances being split.” He says he will try to buy land, keep it, and pass the whole lot on to his children.
It is nine o’clock in the morning. The wall clock in Manfred Felten’s office is ticking loudly as he talks about his former intern, Nehemiah. “It was just great fun to work with him,” he says. “Basically, he became part of our core family for three months. We adapted to each other quickly.” For example when it came to food. Nehemiah, Manfred says, was more used to rich foods, but he showed an interest in the many types of vegetables served here. “Only dairy products he never quite trusted. They are less common in Uganda because of occasional problems with the cooling chain.”
Felten doesn’t have much time, he has to take apples to the market. “Nehemiah grows strawberries, too. But in Uganda there are other cold phases to promote flowering. You get to know the fruit from a different perspective.” He was also interested in the higher degree of mechanisation in Germany, “for example the computer-controlled fertilisation and irrigation of our strawberries in polytunnels.” It is true that many methods cannot be implemented one-to-one, as the problems are too different. “For example, we can’t get enough light to our apple trees, which is not much of a problem in Uganda.” But perhaps it is possible to learn a thing or two about organisation.
“You always take something away from other countries. I travel a lot, too, and like to see how agriculture works in other places. I would never presume to tell others how to run their farm!”
Felten says he misses their laughing and singing together and celebrating Christmas and the New Year with him. He learned a lot about the Ugandan zest for life. The programme started in 2019 with four German and fifteen Ugandan farmers. Then came Corona and stopped the programme from continuing with the second generation. The downtime was used for webinars, where content and experiences were exchanged. An example: When Dr Philipp Zimmermann, who had been invited by the Schorlemer Foundation, spoke about the possibility of breeding insects as a basis for animal feed, he immediately inspired a young farmer from the Kapchorwa region in eastern Uganda. “To feed his chickens and pigs, he had been using feed made from fish meal, which comes from Lake Victoria, a relatively long distance away,” Zimmermann recalls.
“But this is getting more and more expensive because of decreasing fish populations.” When Zimmermann – a veterinarian who runs the information services portal “entosiast.de” about the potential of beneficial insects – reported on the larvae of the black soldier fly as an alternative protein source for animal feed in autumn 2020, the farmer sprang into action: He had Zimmerman introduce him to the right network, took a training course on breeding black soldier flies at Makerere University in Kampala, and has been building his own fly breeding operation since January of this year. Because the larvae of the black soldier fly are omnivores, they can convert residual materials from agriculture and food production, even human and animal excretions, into high-value protein. “This turns into a sustainable cycle,” says Zimmermann.
Back to Meckenheim, and to Kiel. Felten is determined to take a trip to Nehemiah’s farm, “after Corona”. And Basedau will be going back to Kampala as well. The relationships forged through the exchange programme will stay strong well past the three months.