Timothy Njakasi, a vastly experienced agronomist, is an organic farmer with an unconventional outlook.
Kasenge Riverford Organic Agricultural Centre is located near Mbalala stone quarry in Mukono District, an infertile stony piece of land about 30km on Kampala-Jinja Highway.
Njakasi’s farm, which acts as a demonstration farm, is the last arable piece of land as you ascend the hill to the quarry.
The 59-year-old father of 10, holds the title of being a farming expert in Mukono, a once thriving farming community home to vanilla, coffee and cocoa that has been invaded by urbanisation.
Njakasi owns four acres of land that is home of Kasenge Riverford Organic Agricultural Centre that has hostels, conference centre and leisure gardens for his learners and keen agro-tourists.
He named the farm after his British mentor Guy Singh-Watson, who owns Riverford Organic Vegetables in Reading, UK where he did his internship while attending a 9-month course on sustainable organic farming in 1998.
“While at Riverford, I gained valuable insights on principles and practices about organic farming. I also learned a good work ethic that I try to pass on to the people we train at Kasenge, so that they can get the most from their land,” Njakasi says.
He is the second generation on the farm, which his late father Seemu Sebbowa used as grazing land until 1999 when he [Njakasi] retired from a government job as Buikwe District extension worker.
Farming has been on both sides of the family in Butanza Luweero District as far as he remembers, so much that Njakasi’s elder sister the late Sarah Kiyingi, a former commissioner in the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industries and Fisheries (Maaif), encouraged him to attend Bukalasa Agricultural College in Luweero District at the time she was a lecturer. As a boy, he kept chicken and rabbits, which he sold to get money for personal needs.
“When I saw my sister driving, I was so inspired and thought to myself that I could live a happy lifestyle too through agriculture,” Njakasi reminisces.
Journey to becoming a trainer
Njakasi graduated with a certificate in agriculture from Bukalasa in 1978 and was deployed as a junior staff at Namulonge Research Station.
“The senior staff members kept talking about a number of privileges that we could never attain at our level,” he says.
That encouraged him to return to the institute for a diploma in 1980 but he graduated in 1986 after the civil war that brought President Museveni into power.
“We were at one time transferred from Bukalasa to Arapai Agricultural College in Soroti. It was never easy and that is how I spent six years to complete my diploma,” Njakasi explains.
Afterwards, he was deployed as an extension worker to Mukono District with his station in Buikwe.
Because life was not as he had expected with a diploma, he applied for early retirement in 1991 which was approved the following year. He was hoping to start a big farm in Kasenge B village where he resides. Yet this was the beginning of another transformation. Njakasi grew cabbages but the returns were heart breaking.
“The harvest was so bad,” he recalls.
He blames his lack of knowledge in the market afterwards even when he started growing high value crops like cucumber and hot pepper.
“I used to take my harvest by taxi to Nakasero Market but I never knew that I was dealing with middlemen. They could offer me breakfast to distract me such that by the time I was done they had their share already. I felt sad and started looking for the real traders,” he adds. Daily, he kept transforming his farm until 1998 when guests from Kulika visited him and left impressed.
“As an agronomist I always knew the best practices and kept practising them,” he says of his time as a conventional farmer.
Kulika introduced him to a training opportunity in organic farming at the University of Reading which had a rigorous selection process after a two-week training at Kamenyamiggo where only eight farmers out of the invited 26 would travel to England. He made the cut and the training changed his life forever.
On return from the UK, he set up a demonstration farm at Kasenge village with a small room for accommodation.
In 2000, he invited Watson to his demonstration farm for a two-week visit. Watson was impressed and invited Njakasi’s wife Annet for a nine-month working visit to the UK from which the family obtained money to buy more land.
Watson continued sending his workers to monitor the progress of the farm and it was during this time that Melanie Chamber, a gardener from the UK, contacted Njakasi for possible assistance.
From 2001 until 2004, Chamber pushed for the operationalisation of the training centre by raising funds for the construction of the classrooms, accommodation and dining room, which are centrepieces at the centre.
At the centre, they run training courses, host interns from universities, farmers and volunteers from across the world.
At the moment, he is hosting an integrated greenhouse tomato project by Solidaridad, which is aimed at growing and distributing hybrid tomatoes that are resistant to bacterial wilt. These tomatoes are then distributed to various young people and women in the greater Mukono region for farming, improving nutrition and livelihoods.
In 2003, Njakasi missed an offer to partner with the National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads), when he was contacted because they required one of the managers to have at least a bachelor’s degree which he did not have then.
It was at this time that he embarked on a distance learning course at Uganda Martyrs University Nkozi where he graduated with a BSC in Agriculture in 2007.
In 2008, he returned to employment as an extension worker on organic farming. He rose through the ranks to become a regional coordinator and agricultural specialist until he retired in 2016 to concentrate on his activities.
“I do not regret having returned to employment,” he says. “It helped me understand both worlds of working for government and non-government organisations. With most government jobs it’s about reports even when it does not work, yet with NGO’s, results matter. Secondly, I got many contacts that are still helpful even today,” he says.
Into organic farming
As an organic farmer, he says that it is a lot of hard work to get started. He explains that land, if not managed properly, cannot cope with the pressure.
One of the principles in organic farming is to control soil erosion and properly feed the soil.
Njakasi promotes inspiring farming on a small scale which is diverse with mixtures of livestock, bananas, coffee, cocoa, trees, vegetables, kitchen gardens and keyhole gardens, all in an intimate mixture that looks chaotic but sustainable and productive.
A proud farmer, he has an acre of passion fruits at Mbalala, a cocoa farm near River Nile, coffee and banana plantations in Kayunga. He also runs a piggery based on principles of IMO, a cow shade, two greenhouses, herb garden, cocoa garden, and pasture garden which all work together to replenish the soil effectively.
His farm has improved so much that it has led to a good quality of life for his family.
Njakasi describes himself as a progressive farmer. He has transformed his land’s health and fertility without using chemicals. He is passionate about organic farming and now leads the way in Mukono District.
By combining livestock husbandry with the careful use of manure and composting, complex, multi-canopy cropping involving many perennial crops and water conservation, he is achieving phenomenal levels of output using almost entirely local materials.
These systems require high levels of skill but in the long run little physical work compared to mono cropping or nearby hand-tilled maize and cassava gardens. However, he admits that it has been a journey of ups and downs, though. Njakasi says that the initial set up of organic farming is labour-intensive yet most people are not aware of the healthy benefits of organic farming.
“Many people go in for the less inorganic crops but it is important to consider the health of consumers in production in order to reduce toxins that people take in through their diets. That starts with us the farmers,” he says.
The organic farmer has discovered that the holistic approach in farming is about growing your confidence and experience.
So, teaching other farmers on basics of practices such as composting contributes to deepening his learning and holistic approach.
He uses his experience to try out new technologies working with other trainers to deliver lessons to local farmers. This is a lesson he learned from Busunju where he visited a hot pepper farmer, who instead gave him dead seed because he was not interested in sharing experience with other farmers.
“He wanted to be the only one in that sector but transferring knowledge to as many farmers as possible can bring meaningful change in reducing poverty and malnutrition,” he says. Njakasi collaborates with NGO’s to train agronomists and refugees as well.
He has a daily involvement in the farming operations in order to ensure proper running of his activities. He also offers support and advice to farmers on maintaining organic standards.
Timothy Njakasi is a famed organic farmer who is the managing director of Kasenge Riverford Organic Centre in Mukono District. He is a vastly experienced organic farmer and grower. He runs Kasenge Riverford Organic Centre, a community-based farming organisation that started in 1992. Since 2001, the farm has been turned into a rural training centre for integrated sustainable organic agriculture.
One of KROC’s key objectives is to carry out comprehensive research in integrated systems of agriculture, environment and social development in collaboration and networking with the research institutions, government agencies, civil society organisations, and local farmers.