Influence of access to markets on investment in soil fertility management and conservation among potato farmers in the highlands of South-Western Uganda
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Potato (Solanum tuberosum L.) is a major staple food crop and a source of household income in Eastern Africa, particularly the highland areas. Potato production systems are characterized by a spiral of nutrient depletion, leading to low tuber yields and quality. In order to increase potato production particularly in the highlands of south-western Uganda, farmers have destroyed soil conservation structures and encroached on marginal areas. This has further escalated land degradation in form of soil nutrient exhaustion and erosion on the hill-slopes. Baseline studies conducted in the highlands of south-western Uganda in 2002 linked poor soil fertility management in potato-grown fields to two major factors: (i) farmers’ low revenues due to lack of or weak linkages with profitable potato produce markets that are able to incentivize investment in soil fertility management; and (ii) limited knowledge in soil fertility management and conservation among potato growers. These perceived potato production bottlenecks formed the core of the Allied Research and Development Project titled “Enabling Rural Innovations - ERI” under the auspices of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). The objectives of the present study were to: (i) determine the extent to which exposure of potato farmers in the highlands of south-western Uganda to profitable urban markets succeeded in influencing their level of investment in soil nutrient management and conservation measures; (ii) establish the influence of facilitation of potato farmers in the highlands of south-western Uganda, with linkage to profitable urban markets on soil nutrient balances in potato-grown fields; and (iii) determine the influence of exposure of potato farmers in the highlands of south-western Uganda to knowledge and skills of soil fertility management and conservation innovations, on soil nutrient balances in potato-grown fields. The study was conducted in Kamungaguzi Sub County which earlier on hosted the ERI-project. Three parishes in Kamungaguzi Sub County (Buranga, Katenga and Kicumbi) were involved in project activities. Three other parishes (Kasheregyenyi, Kyasano and Mayengo), also in Kamunganguzi sub County, served as reference units in the ERI-project. The soils in all the parishes were characterized by moderate acidity (pH 5.6-5.9) and were low total N and Bray-1 extracted soil P. The study was executed at three levels; namely through (i) focus group discussions, (ii) face to face household interviews, and (iii) physical potato-grown field visits and collection of samples for nutrient balance determinations. Potato-growing households associated with the ERI-project (also codenamed “urban market linked”) were 120, but only 68 households were considered for the present study on the basis of consistently producing potato for the urban market for approximately five consecutive years; they fully participated in group meetings and trainings. On the other hand, non-potato-growing households which were not associated with the ERI-project (also codenamed “non-urban market linked”) were 227 households, though only 46 were considered because they consistently produced potato and sold to non-urban market for five consecutive years. In terms of wealth categories, farmers in Wealth Category I (WC I) predominated in the potato production, regardless of connection with the ERI-project. Farmer training had a marked effect on the use of soil fertility inputs by ERI-project farmers. However, the impact of the training did not necessarily translate into significant increase in investments in use of soil fertility management and conservation innovations as originally hypothesized. Respondents raised several reasons which included among other things: (i) difficulty in accessing fertilizer inputs, (ii) high costs of mineral fertilizers, and (iii) lack of access to farmer-friendly agricultural credit. Similarly, the effect of farmer-facilitated linkage to presumed profitable potato markets did not necessarily lead to significant increased farmers’ investments in soil fertility management and conservation in potato-grown fields. Reasons provided by farmers include: (i) lack of capacity to purchase soil fertility inputs (revenues generated from potato sales were apparently insufficient to cover domestic priority needs as well as purchase soil inputs); (ii) interest rates on scarcely available credit were bottlenecks to investments in soil fertility management and conservation; (iii) access to suppliers of fertilizers was a limitation because they were located in urban centers far away from potato farmers; and (iv) application of farm yard manure in potato grown fields was limited only to fields close to homesteads or areas of manure concentration. In light of the above challenges, there is need to (i) extend farmer-friendly, but conditional credit tied to soil fertility improvement; (ii) encourage or advocate for the establishment of soil fertility input stores in rural potato-growing communities; and (iii) revisit community soil conservation bye-laws with a view to making them user-centered.