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Uganda: Women farmers drive the economy with sunflower oil (by Sawa Pius, for Farm Radio Weekly, in Kampala, Uganda)

A group of women farmers in eastern Uganda is earning up to 441 million Uganda shillings per year (about 220,000 American dollars or 170,000 Euros) by meeting local demand for organic sunflower oil.

The Kumi Women’s Initiative started in 1993 as a group of 25 women growing sunflowers as an alternative source of income. Today, the group includes 1,000 women farmers – a number that continues to grow as the demand for organic cooking oil increases.

Anna Grace Akong is one of the pioneer sunflower farmers in the Bukedea district of eastern Uganda. She says that when the group started growing sunflowers, there was no market for the crop, and they earned little income. This prompted them to add value to the sunflowers.

The group purchased manual presses to extract oil from the sunflower seeds. But when the market for oil grew, the manual presses could not manage the huge yields. At this point, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization secured a motorized milling machine for the group. With this machine, the women now process 800 litres of sunflower oil per day. The cooking oil is packed in plastic containers ranging from one- to five-litres, which are sold locally and in Kampala.

Ms. Akong explains that, after extracting the cooking oil from the seeds, a by-product called seed cake remains. Half of the seed cake is given to group members, who use it as chicken feed. The other half is sold to farmers. And the cycle of re-use doesn’t stop there: the women use poultry manure to fertilize their citrus trees.

Sunflowers have proven to be well-adapted to local conditions. They can be harvested four times a year on the same piece of land. The crop is affected neither by heavy rains nor prolonged droughts, and is dry within two days of harvest.

The Kumi Women’s Initiative now ships 250 tonnes of sunflower oil to Kampala every year. The Serena Hotel alone purchases 300 litres of oil each week. But Ms. Akong says that the group has even bigger plans. They are setting up a marketing wing in hopes of exporting sunflower oil to other East African countries.