A pair of agro-engineers from Argentina are helping a U.S. company boost crop yields in Uganda, and help local, small-scale farmers in the process.
BUENOS AIRES — Argentina is known for its large-scale, high-tech and export-driven farming sector. But now, some of its engineers are using their expertise to improve the practices of small-scale, peasant farmers — in Africa.
Such is the case of Juan Francisco Acutain and Francisco Podestá, who are working to boost crop yields while preserving soil quality in Uganda. The two Argentines work for a company called Agilis Partners, which operates in Uganda but was co-founded by another Argentine, Eduardo Brown, who grew up in the United States.
Several years ago, Brown and two friends, brothers Philip and Ben Prince, decided they wanted to help an orphanage in Uganda. To do so they started a pig farm there as a way to bring in revenue. But they also saw in Uganda an opportunity to trade in grains, which led to the birth of Agilis.
The men set up corn reception centers where small-scale farmers, people with a hectare or less of land, could bring in ears of corn they'd harvested by hand. Today, Agilis has 90 such centers where it weighs, examines the quality, and purchases these crops. It also helps finance seed purchases for those who need it. In addition, Agilis has built a silo plant in Masindi, a district of around 100,000 residents where its operations are based.
In 2014, the partners looked at the possibility of producing grains, whereupon Francisco Podestá, a technical consultant now working between Argentina and Uganda, came to advise on strategy and feasibility. Acutain joined the firm in February 2018 to help implement various productive strategies.
Agilis began by sowing 20 hectares. By last season the total had risen to 2,500 hectares. And for next year, it hopes to plant 3,000 hectares.
The area has temperatures of 20 to 28 degrees centigrade throughout the year and good rainfall. Seeds are sown twice a year. "The most important crop here is corn, white corn for human consumption," says Acutain.
"So much corn weakens the productive system and helps nurture insects and illnesses, which is why we have started rotation," he adds.
For the last season, the firm sowed 1,900 hectares with corn, 150 with soybean and the rest with sunflower. As yields were good, for the next sowing season, beginning in August, they plan to have 1,000 hectares of corn, 1,500 of sunflower and 500 of soybean.
Corn yields, on average, are 2,400 kilograms per hectare in Uganda, with more than 90% of production done by small-scale farmers harvesting manually. "With good hybrids and the latest technology we managed to almost double the yield: 4,500 kilograms per hectare," Acutain says. And that's just a start. The Argentine thinks that with the right conditions, they can eventually push the yield to as high as 6,000 kilograms per hectare.
Very little sunflower is grown in Uganda. Agilis's average yields are 1,500 kilograms per hectare, although last season it managed 2,500 kilograms per hectare. "That amount allows it to compete with corn and be included in the rotation," Acutain explains. The firm has less experience with soy but hopes to harvest 2,500 kilograms per hectare. It has also tried sorghum, which can be turned into a syrup for use in making gluten-free beer.
Soil is a limiting factor. "Generally it rains well but most of the soil is shallow, with between 3 and 4% organic material, 20% clay and 50% sand. They're good but not very deep and, you reach the hard surface at 40-60 centimeters," says Acutain. High temperatures also favor fast evaporation here.
One way of maintaining soil humidity and reducing hydric erosion is through direct seeding or sowing, though this is not an established practice for the firm's U.S. owners and British field manager. Podestá says he is convinced this will take off, once the rotation system is consolidated.
Agilis also helps train farmers and share knowhow. One of its events is the annual Farmer Appreciation Day, where some 400 local producers visit the firm's fields to learn about its basic protocols. It should be noted that Uganda and most African states forbid genetically modified seeds (GMOs). Exceptions are South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso.
The firm, which keeps a considerable stock of equipment and replacements, creates precision maps of surrounding farming lands and soils, registering variations in soil quality, acidity, and humidity. For key purchases of supplies and inputs, Acutain and his wife travel to Kampala every fortnight. "That's where you find the important things," he says.
Podestá says Africa has enormous farming potential: "Especially in the central, tropical part where 300-400 million hectares could be farmed. Obviously, in many countries, there are political issues and general delay in adopting technologies, but the potential is huge."