In the middle of Kokorio village, Lokupol parish in Matany sub-county in the north-eastern district of Napak, there's a rare green patch.
It is a large vegetable garden, a rare sight in this semi-arid Karamoja sub-region. Vegetables including cabbages, tomatoes, onions, egg plants and sukuma wiki grow in the dry harsh weather conditions. Soya beans, groundnuts and maize are also being grown on a pilot scheme in the same area.
A recent field visit to Kokorio, served up a good opportunity to see many Karimojong women, men and children tending to their small gardens (partitioned out of the large chunk) in the scorching mid-morning sunshine. The gardens are concentrated around a borehole, the only water point in the village. The other key facilities include; a treadle pump and jerrycans for watering the gardens.
Anna Tapew, 45, is one of the thirty vegetable growers here. In her small garden, Tapew has cabbages and onions. Tapew says she has harvested eight bags of onions since last year. She sold seven bags in the nearby Matany market (where an urban population and developments have mushroomed around a Catholic-founded hospital, schools and parish mission) to meet the demands of six children.
After selling the produce, her earnings soared to Shs 800,000 compared to the Shs 2,000 she used to earn monthly from fetching firewood and water for well-off families in Matany town. With such income, Tapew has managed to set up a vegetable stall (in Matany market), a poultry unit in her manyatta (traditional Karimojong dwelling) homestead and paid her children's school fees.
Her husband Michael Lokunoi also abandoned his former 'job' of cattle rustling. Like other Karimojong warriors, Lokunoi's main activity was herding animals (cattle and goats) during day and raiding neighbouring tribes in the night to steal from their flocks. But Lokunoi quit rustling and started growing sukuma wiki in 2012. One-and-half years later, Lokunoi has no regrets.
"We're very happy as a family because of the incomes from selling vegetables. We can buy salt, soap and food to feed our children," Lokunoi says.
Tapew and Lokunoi are part of the 13,000 Karimojong households being transformed from their traditional overreliance on animal keeping for survival to crop production. The UN agricultural agency, FAO, has since July 2012 supervised the aforesaid transformation with resources from the multibillion Government and European Union (EU)-funded Karamoja Livelihood Project (KALIP). The Rockefeller Foundation, ECHO, OFDA, governments of Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Ireland and Sweden are the other KALIP donors.
Many Karimojong herders, including the formerly notorious warriors, have been inducted into smaller productive groups called Agro Pastoral Farmer Field Schools (APFSs). Once recruited into these groupings, they are empowered with skills to grow food, generate alternative incomes and improve the resilience and productivity of their animals. Each farmer group has between 25 and 30 members.
By producing the first ever fresh vegetables from Karamoja sub-region, farmers at Kokorio APFS have demonstrated how the Karimojong can improve and transform their lives from nomadic to stable productivity. James Okoth, FAO's national programme manager, says they have facilitated the formation of 420 APFSs to initiate crop production in Karamoja.
They have recruited 15 veterinary officers, restocked vet drugs centres and trained over 600 Community Animal Health Workers (CAHWs) to initiate crop production and boost livestock farming. Okoth explains that they have worked with regional agricultural research institutions (to produce the right seed varieties), local NGOs and government authorities to train and enroll farmers.
For instance, FAO's support towards the vegetable growing enterprise at Kokorio included inputs such as seeds and pesticides, ox-ploughs, a treadle pump, drilled the borehole and trained extension agricultural workers for 18 months. Officials say they are encouraging farmers to grow short-term crops that can be harvested at least twice a year to avoid destruction due to long droughts.
A local NGO, Community Managed Watershed Development Organisation (COMWO), coordinates and supervises the vegetable growers. Given their wide knowledge of Karamoja, COMWO officials also provide market information and broker sale deals for the farmers' produce. Happy Cow and Caritas are the other local implementing partner organizations working with FAO to supervise the agro project enterprises in Karamoja.
Other successful project enterprises include maize growing, agro-forestry and cereal banking for food security in Nakapiripirit; apiary in Apeitolim, Napak district; improved animal nutrition and production in Moroto district. Recently, Karimojong herders at Lopur village in Nadunget sub-county embraced artificial insemination for their animals to produce better breeds after several months of sensitization.
Dr Mark Ilukol, the first Karimojong trained vet doctor working in the area, predicts a better future for local animals because of the insemination.
"We have broken the ground for artificial insemination, which most people thought was impossible. Surprisingly, people have embraced the technology after sensitisation and this will improve breeds in the region in terms of weight and production," Ilukol remarks.
Herders have also accepted vaccination of their goats against killer diseases like goat plague (PPR), which has wiped out many herds since 2007. In Lolachat sub-county, FAO boosted cereal banking by giving farmer groups the initial capital of Shs 2.2m to establish saving schemes to buy cereals (sorghum and maize grains) during harvest season and stock their granaries.
Rachael Nandelenga, a communications official with FAO, explains that the approach is a group business intended to eliminate the unscrupulous middlemen who hike food prices whenever scarcity hits the area especially during the May-July drought spell. Consequently, residents have become food secure as they no longer trek distances but buy from their own group stock granaries at subsidized prices.
Officials, however, acknowledge that challenges like water scarcity, poor (road, education and health) infrastructures, slow change of people's attitudes and funding gaps continue to slow Karamoja's development. Indeed, majority of the Karimojong children still roam the bushes herding animals instead of going to school and most manyattas lack basic hygiene facilities such as toilets because of cultural myths.
But educated Karimojong are optimistic that the arrival of electric power (Moroto was recently connected onto the national grid) and the ongoing construction of the Mbale-Sironko-Moroto tarmac highway could expedite development in the region.
"Karamoja will be a different place in the next two decades," says Dr Ilukol, who has worked in his sub-region ever since he graduated from Makerere in the early 1990s.
The availability of electricity is expected to unlock Karamoja's mineral wealth, which includes large amounts of unexploited gold and lime among the precious natural deposits.
Furthermore, officials are hopeful that the successes of KALIP enterprises will trigger a continuous trickledown effect and influence change amongst the Karimojong. Meanwhile, Okoth reveals that the UK Department for International Development (DFID) has already committed 7.7 million pounds (about $13m) towards a follow-up project in the sub-region to fill the gaps encountered during the implementation of KALIP's first and second phases.