An interview with Emma Food AGRF Food Prize winner

After listening to the formal AGRF press conference announcement of the two AGRF 2019 Food Prize winners, I was inspired to sit down with each of the winners to get a better understanding of what drives them, and what do they hope to achieve in the future. I want to talk to one of the winners of the Africa Food Prize.

First, Dr. Emma Naluyima.

How did the school get started?

I started the school because after I had initial success in growing crops on my farm, people wanted me to come to their farms.  “People used to laugh at people who are farming.  Here in Africa, Uganda, “We have everything that farming needs in Africa. We have fertile lands, so why not take advantage of what God has given us?”

What is the root of your inspiration for the farm and school?

The name of the school is MST School. M for Math, S for science, and T for Technology. These are the things that make the world move.  Children have a phobia of math and science.  If we exposed them at an early, then they can overcome this phobia.

Dr. Naluyima shared that it seems, all over Africa, much of the youth have a bad image of Agriculture.

She said that young people are happy to spend the money they receive from their parents, who earn money from farming.  However, they themselves – the children of farmers, who are happy to spend the money earned from farming – do not want to carry on farming. Naluyima noted the average age of a Uganda farmer is 58-plus. Then she turned the tables and asked me, the reporter, “what do you think the average age of a Ugandan is?”  Realizing Africa is a young continent, I took an educated guess and said 22.  The director of MST School quickly corrected with the right answer, saying: “No, the average is 14, and then doing the math added, “a 44-year gap.  If we have such a young population that is not committed to integrated Agriculture, how will we feed ourselves?”

What was the catalyst for you choosing the intensive regenerative agriculture practices, what you call ‘integrated farming’?

As she told the story, one thing led to another, and another.  First, she started with the goal of producing for home consumption.  Then she sold the surplus to the community.  When she started the school, she produced for the school.  Now she no longer sells to the community, because the school is her own market.  I thought to myself the advocates for Market Development Systems would just love Dr. Naluyim and MST school, because by creating the school she created her own market.

She proudly shares the core values of her school as:

  • Time management
  • God-fearing
  • Excellence
  • Teamwork, and
  • Innovation

She reiterates that the pupils are taught how to be good timekeepers.  Dr. Naluyima states forcefully: “Time management.  Value of money. Culture of saving, these are the values we teach.” She tells a story of one of her girl pupils, whose mother had sent a WhatsApp to her.  In the message, which she proudly forwarded to me, the mother thanks Dr. Naluyima for the change, the learning experience her daughter is having.

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Prior to attending the school, the nine-year old was not interested in ‘dirty things’, but now when she wakes up the first thing that goes inti her book-bag are the overalls and ‘gum-boots’.  Now she has a different view of herself.  These are the things that are satisfying to Dr. Naluyima.  She has made other people think differently. “They bank every Monday and Friday,” she adds, going back to the training about the value of money and saving.  From that, I note she is drilling the discipline of positive routines, which develops the habit in this young generation to value saving money.

“If they look after the plants then they fruit.  There is value.  Then they save.  Teach them how to save.” This is the mantra Dr. Naluyima reiterated time and time again in our 45-minute interview.  A takeaway from her is that she in fact is teaching – or, if you will – reconstructing an African culture of ‘zero-waste’.  Don’t waste time.  Don’t waste money.  Don’t waste resources. In summary, this is what she is teaching the pupils to learn, know and practice in every day.

The pupils begin learning as early as four years old.  The age of the pupils in the Elementary grade is six to 12 years, while the Kindergarten is four years. She however noted: “Well, we have a two-year old in Kindergarten, so it seems we are from 2 to 12”.

All the students have gum-boots (in Ghana we call them Wellington boots) and overalls, which is the standard uniform for serious farmers. Dr. Naluyima smiles and adds, “Even the two-year olds, they are learning how to feel the soil”.

Where did you learn the closed-loop principles?   

She started farming pigs, because she wanted money fast.  You have to buy manure, but she noted pigs are producing manure. She connected the dots.  So, rather than buying manure, she used the manure produced by the pigs to grow the Uganda Matooke plantain.  Next, she observed that the chicken would go into the manure in search of earthworms and maggots.  Note, she started chicken farming because she was given two chickens as a gift in payment for her work.  To the chickens she added a cock, and the chicken element of the farm had begun.  Rather than eating the gifts, she immediately thought to produce with them first.

Why did you seek to learn about these principles? 

With the exception of bran, the school is just about self-sufficient.  Through careful observation Dr. Emma adopted cost-efficient practices and productivity improvement processes.  She glows when she describes how both fish and broilers reach target weight in less time.  The story she tells is she observed that the chickens would go in the pig dung searching for earthworms and maggots.  So, she did research and learned that maggots are good for feeding both chicken and fish.

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She says that while her neighbors cringed at the thought of working with dung, she did the research to understand the science behind her observations of how animals’ instincts drive how they interact in their natural environment.  A key result is that when she began growing maggots as a science, she observed broilers reached the targetted 1.5kg weight in six weeks rather than eight to 10 weeks; and the fish reached 1.5kg in four to five weeks rather than the six to eight weeks.  Thus, she reaped the benefits from her appreciative inquiry (AI) and action research, saving both time and money.

What advice do you have about woman overcoming obstacles to achieve success in Agribusiness or eco-preneurship?

Now, Dr. Emma no longer has a veterinarian practice because the school has grown to consume all her time.  The school is now the only customer of the farm.  Without describing it as such, she has created an end to end vertical value chain ecosystem enterprise, which practices many of the circular economy transition principles.

What is your vision for the company and school in three to five years?

Before I could ask this question, Dr. Naluyima talked about the challenge of preparing her young pupils so well that it is difficult to place them in secondary school. So, she has had to become personally engaged in placing pupils in SHSs that can continue developing the pupil from his/her current level rather than forcing them to wait for the rest of the class to catch up with them.  Also, she noted there has been some discussion about her contributing to curriculum reform in Uganda, so that the achievements seen at MST school can be captures throughout the nation of Uganda.

Possible opportunities

What advice do you have for young want to be agripreneurs? What type of mindset do you have to keep going when things don’t go exactly as you want them?

Women should believe in themselves.  If you believe, you can achieve; you can do anything.

How do you currently use the digital economy to share your success and build community?

She admits that one of her weaknesses is social media.  She notes that young people support the school because the Youth-Led Social Media take the lead for ICT.

Emma represents the “I will use what I have to get what I want, or produce to get what I need” attitude or growth mindset.  She is a stunning example of smart agriculture and use of the circular economy to emulate the classic African American Rapper Master P’s lyrics – ‘Tryin’ to Make a Dollar Out of 15 Cents’.

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