Danielle Nierenberg Headshot
Bernard Pollack Headshot

Cultivating a Passion for Agriculture

Posted: Updated:

The following is a three-part series about Danielle Nierenberg's visit with DISC project schools in Mukono District, Uganda. Crossposted from Nourishing the Planet.

Part I: How to Keep Kids "Down on the Farm"

In Mukono District, about an hour outside of Kampala, Uganda, agriculture used to be considered a "punishment" for young people at school if they didn't behave and something they would be forced to do if they couldn't go to university or find jobs in the city, according to Edward Mukiibi and Roger Serunjogi, coordinators of the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) project. Edward, 23, and Roger, 22, started the project in 2006 as a way to improve nutrition, environmental awareness, and food traditions and culture in Mukono by establishing school gardens at 15 preschool, day and boarding schools. And over the last year, DISC has received global attention for its work -- DISC is now partly funded by Slow Food International.

They started with Sunrise School, a preschool taking care of children between the ages of 3 and 6. By teaching these kids early about growing, preparing, and eating food they hope to cultivate the next generation of farmers and eaters who can preserve Uganda's culinary traditions. In addition to teaching the children about planting indigenous and traditional vegetables and fruit trees, DISC puts a big emphasis on food preparation and processing. "If a person doesn't know how to cook or prepare food, they don't know how to eat," says Edward. The kids at Sunrise--and the other schools working with DISC -- know how to grow, how to prepare, and how to eat food, as well as its nutritional content.

As a result, these students grow up with more respect -- and excitement -- about farming. At Sirapollo Kaggwass Secondary School, we met 19 year-old Mary Naku, who is learning farming skills from DISC. This was her school's first year with the project and Mary has gained leadership and farming skills. "As youth we have learned to grow fruits and vegetables," she says, "to support our lives."

Betty Nabukalu, a 16 year-old student at Kisoga Secondary School, manages her school's garden and explained how DISC has taught the students "new" methods of planting vegetables. Before, she says, "we used to just plant seeds," but now she and the other students know how to fertilize with manure and compost. And, she says, they've learned not only that they can produce food, but that they can also earn money from it. DISC is also helping build leadership skills. Betty represents students from her on the local Slow Food Convivium, groups of Slow Food members that are dedicated to preserving local food cultures.

Thanks to DISC, students no longer see agriculture as an option of last resort, but rather as a way to make money, help their communities, and preserve biodiversity.

Part II: Conversations With Farmers: Discussing the School Garden with a DISC Project Student

Mary Naku is a 19 year-old student at the Sirapollo Kaggwass Secondary School and is learning farming skills from DISC. In just the one year that her school has worked with the project, Mary has already gained enthusiasm for farming, along with a new sense of leadership and agricultural skills. "As youth we have learned to grow fruits and vegetables," she says, "to support our lives."

Part III: Cultivating a Passion for Agriculture

One thing you immediately notice upon meeting Edward Mukiibi and Roger Serunjogi is their passion for kids and agriculture. Their eyes both lit up whenever they talked about the students who are part of DISC, Developing Innovations in School Cultivation, a project they founded after graduating from Makere University in Kampala. When we met Edward, he had just gotten back from the World Food Summit in Rome, where he was representing Slow Food International's Youth Delegation. He works during the week at the Ugandan Organic Certification Company. Roger is a school teacher and administrator at Sunrise School, where DISC launched its pilot project in 2006.

Edward says that after fulfilling their goals of being able to go to university, he and Roger wanted to "help other people realize their dreams." And they wanted to spread their "passion for producing local foods to the next generation." By focusing on school gardens, Edward and Roger are helping not only feed children, but are also revitalizing an interest in -- and cultivation of -- African indigenous vegetables. The schools don't use any hybrid seeds, but rely on what is locally available. Students and teachers at DISC project schools are taught how to save seed from local varieties of amaranth, sumiwiki, maize, African eggplant, and other local crops to grow in school gardens. They learn how to both dry the seeds and how to store them for the next season. With support from Slow Food International, DISC is establishing a seed bank to, according to Edward, "preserve the world's best vegetables."

Improving nutrition is especially important for boarding school students, who eat all of their meals at school. These children come from all over Uganda and DISC tries to make them feel at home by growing varieties of crops that are familiar to them from both the lowlands and highlands. According to Edward, "a child needs to see what she's used to" in order to appreciate its importance.

At both day and boarding schools, students work with school chefs to learn how to cook foods -- giving them the opportunity to understand food production literally from farm to table. And unlike most other schools in Uganda, DISC project schools get local fruits with their breakfast and can harvest their own desert at lunchtime. DISC is planning the "Year of Fruits" for the next school year, which begins in January or February depending on the school -- each school will be planting its own fruit trees on campus.

Roger explained that in addition to the monkeys who live around Sunrise School and who like to eat some of the crops from their garden, the biggest challenges for DISC involve transportation and equipment for the schools. Because DISC doesn't have its own vehicle, the coordinators, who need to evaluate gardens and make sure that the children are actually getting the food they help grow, often have to scramble to find transportation. And they lack good ways for the schools to communicate with one another about disease outbreaks and other problems.

But as the project receives more interest -- from teachers, students, parents, and policy-makers (the local extension officer for the National Agricultural Advisory Services is a member of the local Slow Food convivium) -- and more funding, they're likely to overcome these challenges and make farming a more viable option for youth in Mikuni and other parts of Uganda.