The decision to dump cotton on low yields and embrace sunflower has been the spark that has transformed Moroto farmers into oil processors which has seen them earn upto Sh80 million yearly.
As it was the case for many households in Eastern part of Uganda, cotton was widely relied on as the sole cash crop. However, according to Norah Asiyo, the seeds of the then vital crop started being adulterated ultimately impacting on the final yields of the farmers. “We reached a point where cotton farming was entirely a loss making venture and since none of the stakeholders in agriculture was ready to give us a solution, it was practical that we shelve it and source for other alternatives,” noted Asiyo.
Their prayers were answered immediately after dumping cotton; some farmers from the area were invited for training by officials from Uganda Center of excellence for Oil seeds. The month long training on various topics including sunflower farming was the turning point for Asiyo’s life. Despite ill talk about the crops’ negative impact on soil fertility, the determined farmer led a group of ten to try their hands on the new found crop in 2005. The farmers started off with the cultivation of about 25 acres.
But the challenges would follow them. Asiyo explained, “The crop was doing well and the harvest was in plenty but now we were faced with a fresh challenge of reliable market. We harvested our sunflower seeds and sold them to the oil processing companies which were not ready to pay us on time thus derailing our plans.”
The level of frustration from the oil processing firms forced the group of sunflower farmers to start processing their own oil albeit using the old model ramp press machine and package it in used water bottles. Their oil was locally sold and Asiyo noted that there was no turning back as they had no other alternative to turn to having earlier ditched cotton.
Their determination and thirst for success paid off as more people sourced for their locally processed oil and soon development organizations like Private Sector Foundation of Uganda adopted the group. The team of entrepreneurs trained the leaders of the group of better packaging methods and other modes of making their oil more valuable in the market. At the same time, due to the farmers relentless efforts to register success, Food and Agricutural Organization (FAO) also donated automatic oil processing machine worth about Sh1.4million. The machine has a capacity of crushing 120 kilos of sunflower seeds per hour.
Currently, the group has increased in number with the acreage of land under sunflower farming totaling to over 1000 acres. The farmers prefer using open pollinated seeds of the crop which they can re-use for about three seasons. An acre requires about 2 kilos of sunflower and the current market price for the seeds is about Sh700. Weeding is done once and the crop is a stress tolerant therefore there is no need for irrigation and after three months, it is ready for harvest.
An acre of the crop produces between 400-500 kilos of oil seeds. 200 kilos of seeds produce about 50 litres of oil with a kilo retailing between Sh300-400. The remaining sunflower cake residue is also sold as animal feeds. With an annual production of about 1.2 million kilos sunflower oil, the group is estimated to be raking over Sh80 million in earning per year from the processed oil.
Asiyo’s team is now in the final stages of certification and she noted that the demand for their oil is far higher than what they produce. “Our oil is used by most health conscious consumers who are demanding for vegetable oils with no cholesterol content. In addition, we also have orders from the National Heart Institute whose patients mainly depend on this oil.”