Nairobi — Like many farmers tilling the slopes of Mt Rwenzori, 300 kilometres west of Kampala, Charles Katusabe experimented with different crops after the collapse of the coffee economy at the turn of the millennium.
The vanilla and moringa crops that promised so much then didn't do well. "We had lots of unsold stock," he recalls.
Katusabe, who is now the chairperson of Mitandi United for Development, a farmers group formed in 2005 bringing together 25 members, was one of 800 farmers targeted by the Kabarole District Farmers Association (KDFA) to participate in a commercial garlic production project.
"Unlike five years ago, it is difficult to believe some of the dreams and hopes we nurse today. Garlic growing has not only brought money into households here but it has also revived our faith in commercial farming," he says.
With technical and financial support from Farm-Africa's Maendeleo Agricultural Technology Fund and Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the project has expanded beyond the original group.
Some 30 groups, with a total member-ship of nearly 900, are now growing garlic on a commercial scale.
In the first phase that ran from 2005 to 2007, the farmers' association sought to popularise garlic growing as an alternative income generating crop.
In Phase II, which commenced in 2008, the project's scope was narrowed down to three sub-counties -- Katebwa, Bukuku and Mugusu -- which form the Kabumu Co-operative.
The focus was on promotion of commercial garlic seed production and access to profitable markets.
Through Kabumu, KDFA is promoting value addition.
Processing of new garlic products for the market has begun.
So far, the co-operative has extracted garlic oil, which it blends with honey to form a medicinal product to treat common colds and coughs.
Other products are garlic powder; garlic bulbs neatly packed in nets; and peeled garlic bulbs preserved in vinegar.
The project is helping farmers adopt new production technologies and pool resources to access profitable markets.
Katusabe says the crop was not new to the area but it had not been considered a potential money spinner.
He adds: "Working with KDFA has helped us in many ways. We have been able to organise into groups, which has made knowledge transfer easier."
It is through the farmers groups that KDFA has channeled support such as planting material and training.
Recently, the association helped the groups construct storage cribs to pool harvests for collective marketing.
Members have also learnt that planting in rows and spacing by a few inches makes weeding easier and improves yields.
Katusabe earned Ush1 million ($500) from his first harvest.
He used Ush750,000 ($375) to buy one long horned cow, and Ush250,000 ($125) for his children's education.
He then increased the acreage under garlic to one and a half acres.
From the extra earnings; he bought a piece of land at Ush1 million ($500), where he is laying the foundation for a better house.
If the market holds, he will expand his garlic business and be able to educate his children to university level, he says.
Charles extols the benefits of working together as knowledge is shared easily.
Members of Mitandi United have a communal field whose proceeds go to community improvement projects.
They also take turns to prepare each member's land for planting.
Recently, they embraced group selling to cut out middlemen.
The group has also set up a tailoring school for women.
The impact of garlic growing is not difficult to see in Katebwe village.
Besides livestock, the village has a number of butcher stalls that point to improved intake of animal protein.
Through simple interventions such as seed multiplication and knowledge transfer, KDFA has succeeded in getting growers to adopt the crop.
Knowledge transfer involved identifying the most suitable variety of garlic for the area and giving farmers such basic skills as line planting, ageing technology for seed production, deflowering and crib construction to improve post harvest handling.
Ageing technology entails treatment of garlic seeds at different temperatures and humidity levels to break their dormancy and make them sprout soon after harvest.
Traditional seed multiplication methods were slow as they required farmers to skip one planting season to allow germination of the cloves.
The project has also enlisted 19 seed multipliers. KDFA buys the stock from them, which it then loans to members.
KDFA co-ordinator Joseph Baguma says the first attempt to commercialise the crop in 2002 ran into several hurdles.
The ideal variety of seed was not available in the right quantities and when the association loaned seed to the initial group of farmers, only 25 per cent of them paid back.
"Garlic has a good net profit. But getting the right variety is a challenge. Keeping seed dormant for a season as you wait for it to bud is also hard, with some middlemen offering to buy the bulbs," says Kabarole district production co-ordinator Thomas Nsemerirwe.
Farmers can harvest two crops a year, worth $500 each.
This compares with a paltry Ush300,000 ($150) a year if one were to put the same land under cassava or green bananas (matoke).
Nsemerirwe points to more schoolgoing children, ironsheet houses and increased land acquisition as some of the benefits of the project.
Getting the right amount of seed and water is the biggest constraint. Seed stock costs Ush8,000 ($4) per kilogramme.
Joseph says planting an acre requires as much as 150kg of seed.
Irrigation is a challenge, given the hilly terrain.
These constraints have influenced farm size, with many farmers tilling lots that average half an acre.
Garlic growing is better suited to the slopes, so farmers are buying land at the bottom of the hills to build houses.
The lowlands are also preferred for homes as they are nearer the water sources.
KDFA has built cribs where farmers have started storing their produce collectively.
It is negotiating for credit from local banks such as Centenary and is trying to create direct links with retailers in Uganda, but a challenge lies in improving packaging and branding.
The group has built a marketing and value addition facility at Mugusu on the Fort Portal-Kasese Highway.
The project has, in particular, benefited women. Margaret Kezabu, a mother of four who leads the 17 member Nyabuswa Initiative, used to grow sweet potatoes and cassava on a one acre piece of land, earning about $38 a year.
After planting her first seed stock of 100kg in 2005, she earned Ush1 million) ($500) from a 500kg harvest.
Her story is replicated in Bukuku. Grace Kaliisa, who started growing garlic three years ago and is the chairperson of the 25 member Kanyamura Women Reflect Circle, says unlike cassava, which has a two-year cycle, garlic can be grown twice a year.