Agriculture Based Ecotourism Model a Success for Communities Around the Rwenzori Mountains
The Rwenzori Mountains National Park located in western Uganda has been a focal point for international recognitions and has Africa's third highest peak (Mount Margherita, 5,109 m). It was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1994. The Park’s biodiversity includes natural habitats of endangered species and a rich and unique flora. Along the 160 km park border there are many local communities that are economically poor and have very limited access to a variety of goods and services.
Tapping into tourism, communities in the Rwenzori landscape are reaping big from nature-based enterprises supported by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Uganda, French Facility for Global Environment (FFEM), and the European Union (EU), the communities have been able to successfully benefit from sustainable tourism. The Government of Uganda through Uganda Wildlife Authority-Rwenzori Mountains National Park, Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), the District Local Government have also supported these groups through their role as implementing partners in the project.
One such group is the Busongora Joint Farmers Association.
Mathias Kasighalire, a farmer and also the Association’s Marketing Manager, warmly welcomes us to one of the coffee farms in the breathtaking Rwenzori landscape. It is a beautiful lush green area in the slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains in Kasese District. The farm is part of the coffee experience set up through the Association three years ago with the help of WWF.
According to Mathias, the people of Busongora have practiced coffee farming for generations. Mathias is one of the farmers registered to the Busongora Joint Farmers Association which also has a Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) for the benefit of its members. Coffee farming has been the main source of income for communities in the area for decades.
For successive generations, the farmers held on to the ‘stagnated’ nature of traditional coffee farming methods which not only gave them poor yields but also failed to empower them economically. Herein when WWF and its partners introduced farming methods that sought to satisfy both criterion and more, the farmers were excited and openly welcomed the initiative. WWF trained farmers in climate smart agriculture which included planting shade trees among the coffee bushes, digging trenches in the gardens, mulching, planting grass strips along the trenches, planting cover crops and stumping old coffee bushes among others.
The initiative has opened up the town of Busongora to local and international recognition and most notably, has acted as a gateway to expose the once silent little Ugandan town as an ecotourism destination. Despite the indisputable fact that the eco-friendly methods introduced by WWF and its partners hail many advantages, one particular intervention posed a great challenge which cannot be overlooked.
“People in the area have largely been dependent on coffee farming for their livelihoods for generations. Asking them to stump their old coffee bushes and start afresh is the most challenging part of this process.” said Richard Mwesigwa, the project manager WWF Uganda. Despite the fact that once stumped, the coffee bushes will produce more yield on sprouting again, this was and still is unfavourable to many due to the fact that most of the members of the community have no alternative sources of livelihood that they can depend on for what they call a substantially ‘long’ period required to regrow the coffee. This factor forced some farmers to unwillingly shun the method. Who will fund their children’s education and put food on their table? How will they cater for their basic needs? This is where the dilemma occurs.
Despite this, there is glimmering hope as the Association continues to grow and flourish. They conduct annual training to teach other interested parties how to grow, harvest and process coffee. They have also opened up a forum to sensitize the farmers on key related issues such as, child labour, domestic violence and gender mainstreaming. This has been highly effective and has led to the empowerment of women in this village. To date 328 out of the 516 members of the Association are women and are currently headed by a chairlady. This is more than half of the members; a fact that cannot be overlooked in a deep rooted patriarchal society.
Through ecotourism, the farmers have been able to receive visitors from all corners of the world including France, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy. What stood out for the farmers was a lovely Belgian couple who planted a coffee bush in the farm. Most, if not all visitors, end up buying coffee from the farmers. The smell of good arabica coffee is undeniably a takeaway experience. The hardworking farmers might not fully understand ecotourism now, but they will soon fully grasp the concept. What is undeniably evident to most of them is that the benefits outweigh the challenges.