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When stakes are at stake December 7th, 2014 by

Fred, the driver, keeps on changing gears as we wind our way up and down the hills of southwestern Uganda. The landscape is stunning and when we reach Kisoro just before sunset I realize we are just 10 kilometers from the border with DR Congo and Rwanda. The last orange light gives our eyes a last treat, a view of one of the majestic volcanoes with its head in the clouds. We are now nearly 2000 meters above sea level and the weather is cool. The rich volcanic soils have made this part of the country a major bean and potato growing area, supplying not only the people in the capital city, Kampala, but also in the neighbouring countries.

With land having become a scarce commodity, it is frightening to see how even the steepest slopes are under cultivation. And farmers have shifted en masse from growing bush beans to growing climbing beans. Five kilogram of bush bean seed gives farmers a harvest of about 100 kilograms, but the same amount of climbing bean seed easily yields 250 kilograms. The abundant leaves of climbing beans and the nitrogen they fix also helps to keep the soil fertile. No wonder that farmers have welcomed with open arms the climbing beans that CIAT and NARO introduced. (In 1984, the first improved climbing bean varieties from CIAT were officially released and promoted in Rwanda and then gradually into neighbouring countries).

But unlike bush beans, the climbing beans require stakes, which in a highly deforested part of the country are hard to come by and expensive. And as necessity is the mother of invention, it came as no surprise that farmers have developed a range of solutions.

Some farmers started planting eucalyptus trees on the tops of the hills. Others keep native trees such as Vernonia in their garden and regularly cut 2 or 3 meter-long branches from them, to use themselves or sell to their neighbours. The most popular local tree also provides fodder and medicine, among other things. As we visit various women’s groups to prepare for a series of farmer-to-farmer training videos, Felisten Nwemkuye from the Nyarrubuye women’s grain producers’ group in Kisoro tells us that they can keep their sticks for up to four years:

“After we harvest the beans, we bundle the stakes and turn them upside down so that the parts that were in the soil face upwards and can dry in the sun and get hard again. We also put them upright on some higher ground on some rocks so that when it rains the water easily runs off and the wood does not rot.”

“As stakes are so expensive won’t other people steal them if you leave them in the field?” asks Isaac Mugaga from NARO. He has been working with growers of climbing beans for over a decade.

“No, everyone in the community respects each other and in case stakes are stolen the thief is caught and brought to the local court. He will then be forced to repay the stakes,” replies Felisten.

People are sent to court for stealing stakes and for cutting branches of trees without permission. That is how serious people take their stakes.

The next day we visit the dynamic women’s group of Rwaramba. Here farmers rotate their bean with maize. But instead of harvesting the entire maize plant, they just harvest the cobs and leave the maize stalks standing. When farmers plant their climbing beans the following season, these stalks serve as stakes. As we continue visiting other villages, we learn that some farmers grow elephant grass on the terraced steep slopes of the mountains. They feed its leaves to their cattle, and keep the strongest stalks for staking.

Managing natural resources is an art and farmers, once more, have impressed me with their creativity.

NARO is the National Agricultural Research Organisation of Uganda. CIAT is the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

Watch the video made with CIAT on Staking climbing beans.

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