Uganda: Teenager brightens her siblings’ lives with sunflowers

| March 2, 2015

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After his wife died, Dorcus Ayiko’s father remarried. Then he began caring less for his three children. Ms. Ayiko’s new stepmother simply mistreated them.

When she was 13, her father and his new wife moved to a village on the other side of the district. They left Ms. Ayiko behind with her two younger siblings in a small, mud-walled, grass-thatched house in the village of Acokara in Oyam district, about 400 kilometres north of Kampala.

But Katorina Ogwang had seen how the children were suffering. Mrs. Ogwang is the chairwoman of the Aleyo women’s group. She invited Ms. Ayiko to join.

Aleyo means “to work in turns” in the Langi language. The group members pool their labour to work each other’s land. They also run a group savings scheme, from which members can take small loans.

The 13-year-old blossomed with the guidance she received from the group. Her neighbour, Santa Akullu, encouraged her to grow sunflowers on the one hectare of land her father had abandoned.

Mrs. Akullu says: “Sunflowers are a simple and profitable crop that can relieve you from poverty. They are easy to grow because you do not need to [use pesticides] and you weed only twice. And they are in high demand in this region.”

Ms. Ayiko borrowed $20 U.S. from the women’s group to buy two bags of sunflower seeds. She earned $146 from her first harvest. She says: “I used the money to plough more land, and planted beans and sweet potatoes with the sunflowers. My harvest from the second season was much larger because I cultivated more land and earned $240 U.S.”

Simon Peter Okeng is the Agricultural Officer for Oyam District. He says farmers are benefiting from a sunflower variety called Mukwano. Mr. Okeng says, “Mukwano yields well and it is fast-maturing. It only needs to be weeded once and, unlike traditional varieties, does not require pesticides.”

Sunflowers are a good cash crop for northern Uganda. Local vegetable oil producers provide a ready market for the seeds. Ramesh Patel is the manager of a vegetable oil mill in Oyam town. He says, “The industry needs 1,200 tonnes of sunflowers every six months. We buy sunflowers from the farmers [and] … process seeds to sell back to farmers for planting.”

Many farmers are enjoying the benefits of growing sunflowers. Like Ms. Ayiko, Benon Olyech grows sunflowers in the village of Acokara. The 58-year-old says: “I grew cotton for thirty years but made no profit. [Since switching to sunflowers,] I have constructed a three-room house, bought two bulls so that I can plough more land, and I am paying university fees for my two sons.”

Ms. Ayiko has a long road ahead of her. But she is improving her life and that of her siblings. Despite her youth, she earned $400 U.S. last year, which she uses to look after her family. She says, “Despite being unable to continue with my own education, I am supporting my sister and brother who are still in primary school.”

Photo: A 13 year old girl in Acokara village, in Northern Uganda grows sunflower which she sells to help her care for her young brother and sister. Credit: Geoffrey Ojok