The hoe falls in a rhythmic “thud, thud, thud” as Jane Sabbi and her sister-in-law hack at the undergrowth on Sabbi’s shaded, fertile vegetable farm. The sun is still rising in Kamuli, Uganda, and Sabbi has already cooked breakfast, washed the dishes, cleaned the goat and pig pens, and laid out several pounds of beans to dry. Still ahead: pounding amaranth, harvesting bananas, shelling beans, feeding the animals, and cooking lunch for her husband and seven children.
“I want to work hard, get enough money to educate the children to the university level and attain degrees,” said Sabbi. “That’s my hope and desire in life.”
Back in 2004, Sabbi was like many other farmers in Uganda: working hard, subsisting on her harvests, and generating a small income. Then she joined Volunteer Efforts for Development Concerns (VEDCO), a Ugandan civil society group. She learned updated farming methods and began planting more nutritious crops, such as beans.
In a country where, according to USAID, one in five people is undernourished and two in five children are malnourished, helping farmers like Sabbi improve food and nutrition security is crucial to a healthy future. That’s why, at about the same time Sabbi joined, VEDCO began a partnership with Makerere University—Uganda’s top college—and Iowa State University. VEDCO benefits from research and development, as well as on-the-ground training, conducted by the two universities. In turn, the universities benefit from VEDCO’s cadre of members willing and eager to improve their agricultural practices and to test different approaches to sustainable development.
“If you say, ‘We’re going to dictate the terms of this,’ then that doesn’t work,” said Professor Robert Mazur, associate director of Iowa State’s Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods. “But if you’re learning together and raising questions together, I think you not only have a better chance of being able to introduce change but to make change.”
Although women do the majority of the agricultural work in many countries, they often face higher rates of malnutrition than men, due partly to their lower social status. So in 2008, VEDCO, Makerere, and Iowa State launched a four-year nutrition project focused on helping women grow high-quality beans for both consumption and sale.
So far, the project has field-tested various beans to determine which are hardiest, improved market access for the bean growers, and developed fast-cooking bean flour.
Jane Sabbi used to grow beans only for cooking as a sauce and mixing with other foods. Now she harvests high-quality beans for the market. She earns 2,500 shillings (about $1) per kilo for her improved beans, versus 800 shillings per kilo for regular beans.
“Sometimes I go to the farms and I ask about the production system, ‘Who clears the land?’ ‘The women.’ ‘Who plants the seeds?’ ‘The women.’ ‘Who does the weeding?’ ‘The women.’ ‘Who does the harvesting?’ ‘The women,’” said Dr. Dorothy Nakimbugwe, a food technology and nutrition professor at Makerere who develops bean-related food products. “So, women actually do the majority of the work of farm production and ensure food security for their families.”