Uganda: Good soil makes watermelons a profitable crop in northern Uganda

| March 10, 2019

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Although it’s only nine o’clock in the morning, the clear blue sky signals that it’s going to be a hot, sunny day. The dry season has started, and Ismail Alex is busy irrigating watermelons with a watering can in his one-acre [one-third hectare] garden. He’s trying to keep his soil moist to ensure that his crops grow well.

Mr. Alex explains, “You need very good soil for watermelons to grow well, and if the soil is dry, irrigation should be considered.”

Mr. Alex lives in Boke village in Gulu district, northern Uganda. He learned how to grow watermelons from his father. He says that, to benefit from watermelons, a farmer must use good agricultural practices.

He adds that, if the soil is fertile, watermelon seedlings need only a week to germinate. He says that weeding should start three weeks after germination. If carefully tended, the plants start producing fruits one month after germination.

Watermelons used to be very scarce in supermarkets and shops in Gulu district. But things have changed. The fruit is sold in many places, including on roadsides, and many farmers have started growing the crop.

Mr. Alex sells his watermelons at Cereleno market in Gulu town. He sells one watermelon for about 3,000 Ugandan shillings ($0.81 US) and makes about 3,500,000 Ugandan shillings ($940 US) a year. He started growing watermelons in 2016, and says his increased income makes him a happy man. He adds, “On average, I earn between 100,000 to 200,000 Ugandan shillings ($27–$54 US) per day.”

Joyce Atim is a watermelon farmer who lives in Unyama village, also in Gulu district. Ms. Atim started growing watermelons three and a half years ago because of high market demand. She learned the growing practices from family members.

She says that, although watermelon farming is a profitable venture, the path is not all roses. Apart from needing sufficient water and good soil, farmers also need to spray pesticides regularly to kill pests such as leaf miner flies and flea beetles. She says farmers spend between 300,000 and 1,000,000 Ugandan shillings ($81 – $268 US) to manage pests.

Ms. Atim says that seeds are expensive. A half-kilogram pack of watermelon seeds costs about 300,000 Ugandan shillings ($81 US).

Alex Wabutambi grows watermelons in Bibia, in the Amuru district of northern Uganda. To reduce pest management expenses, he prefers to grow watermelons in dry seasons with irrigation because there are fewer pests than during wet seasons.

Mr. Wabutambi says, “During dry season, it is cheaper to manage pests and the fruits are sweeter and better quality.”

Turyagyenda Laban Frank is the director of Ngetta Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute. Mr. Frank recommends that watermelons be planted in fertile loam soil when the temperature is between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (21-27 degrees Centigrade). He adds, “Famers should maintain adequate water levels and avoid waterlogging in the garden as this would dilute sugar content in the watermelon.”

He says that farmers should use recommended pesticides for watermelon pests. He explains: “You need to buy the pesticides approved by the government for your crops and from certified dealers because some pesticides may be hazardous to human life and may remain active in plants for [a] long period.”

The profits Mr. Alex has earned from watermelons have helped him improve his standard of living. Since venturing into watermelon farming three years ago, he has bought six cows and four goats and diversified into growing crops like onions and maize. Watermelon sales have also enabled him to start building a house.


Photo: Ismail Alex selling watermelons.