John Alutu has had the most demoralizing maize harvest this year because of Striga weeds. “From four acres of maize, I got only three sacks,” Alutu reveals. Several districts in Uganda, including Agago district, where Alutu resides, are battling Striga, an invasive weed also known as witchweed.
The weed disables crops by leeching off their roots to get water and nutrients, leaving the crops especially cereals like maize, millet, and sorghum, stunted. Maize is one of Uganda’s major staple foods. According to croplife.org. maize alone provides 40 percent calorie consumption of each Ugandan’s daily meal.
Although the number of maize bags per acre depends on several factors, on average, a non-commercial maize farmer in Uganda gets between 10 to 20 bags (100kg bags) per acre. This implies that Alutu’s four acres’ yield is proportionate to a yield of a quarter of an acre.
Besides the maize, Alutu planted three acres of sorghum. Like many farmers who farm on many acres, Alutu relies on tractors to open his gardens, and the services of others to sow, weed, and harvest his crops at a fee. Opening an acre of acre of land using tractors costs between 100,000 to 120,000 Shillings. Other expenses include buying inputs such as seeds, pesticides, and herbicides, which he summed at 2 million Shillings.
“I won’t be able to recover the 2 million shillings, because the three acres of sorghum are now stunted and withered because of the weeds.” Alutu forms the 99 percent of the population that the Uganda Bureau of Statistics- UBOS says is engaged in crop farming. But over the years, prolonged drought, and floods necessitated by climate change have drastically affected yields as many farmers rely on rainfall, threatening not only their food security but main income sources as well.
The invasive weeds have been added to the list and they seem undeterred by either temperature.
“The weeds overwhelm crops regardless of adequate rainfall,” Alutu says. Because of the weeds’ mass effect on crops, some farmers now plan to reduce the number of acres they open. This he says will cut unnecessary expenses and lessen the heartache that comes with the losses.
This means several of those who earned from working in Alutu’s crop gardens, right from digging, sowing, weeding, and harvesting will also be affected. Farmers warn that the economy of the entire country will be greatly affected if nothing is done to bolster smallholder farmers against the combined shocks of droughts, floods, and invasive weeds.
“The government should devise ways of killing the weeds or we will die of starvation, given the ever-rising food prices,” Alutu says, adding that the district should also start sensitizing farmers on which crops can withstand the weeds.” David Okwera, another farmer in Ogolo Village, Aywee Parish in Lokole Sub-County is also feeling the effect of the invasive weeds.
Okwera planted three acres of maize and four acres of sorghum but all died. He describes the weeds as so “aggressive that they continue destroying crops come rain or shine.” He appeals to the Department of Agriculture in the district to find ways of eliminating the weeds, claiming that they not only stunt and leave crops seedless but change their taste as well.
“We have realized that cassava planted in gardens infested with Striga weeds have a bitter aftertaste,” Okwera says he used 1.5 million shillings to plant his crops and is worried about where to get money for his children’s school fees, as farming is his only source of income.
According to the National Agriculture Research Organisation, NARO, maize losses arising from Striga invasion exceed 70 percent, if the weed problem is compounded with constraints such as drought and diseases. Figures show that Uganda has 262,000 hectares of Striga weeds.
It is not clear how much Uganda farmers lose to Striga. However, according to a 2019 peer-reviewed publication by Kobe University, Japan, African farmers lose approximately 9 billion dollars (34 billion shillings) worth of crops a year due to the weeds. To cushion the farmers against the effects of Striga on cereals, the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction recently started training farmers in the district on climate-smart agriculture, but the result is yet to be felt.
Robert Kalisa, the programs manager at the IIRR, says the main climate risks and challenges in Agago are mainly the impacts of drought on farming and invasive weeds, such as Striga and congress weeds, which he confirms affects mainly cereals. “Most of the farmers have run away from growing cereals, most of the farmers are now concentrating on soya beans and sunflower because of the impacts of Striga,” Kalisa says.
IIRR has already introduced some plants that improve soil fertility, improve yields, or overpower Striga weeds. “We have introduced push and pull technologies which involve the use of green leaf desmodium and Sugar Napier to fight Striga,” he says.
Kalisa says the organization has also introduced cover crops like Canavalia, Mucuna, and Jack Beans, and then the use of pigeon peas in maize to increase production. “We are promoting pigeon peas specifically because it is a food security crop. At the same time, it helps to improve the fertility of the garden. And also Gliricidia Sepium because it is a fertilizer tree,” Kalisa says.
Subsistence farming is the main economic activity carried out in Agago district with finger millet, maize, sorghum, peas, cassava, beans, and vegetables as the most grown. Information from the Water for Production Regional Center-North under the Ministry of Water and Environment published in March 2023, indicates that 90 percent of the population in the district is engaged in subsistence farming.
Leaders estimate that 700 acres of cereals have been destroyed by Striga in Lokole sub-county alone this year. Other affected areas in the district include; Agago and Kalongo Town Councils, Parabongo, Ajali, and Agengo sub-counties among others.
James Oyet the chairperson LC3 of Lokole sub-county, thinks the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Agriculture should do more in ridding the country of invasive weeds, or sensitize farmers on how to eliminate the weeds, saying the effect is not only on individual farmers, but many government projects purposed to support farmers with revolving funds.
Oyet cites that government programs such as the Youth Livelihood Fund, Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Program, and Parish Development Model will all fail if the weeds are not eliminated as the majority of beneficiaries are farmers. He argues that since the weed, which started devastating crops three years ago is a huge threat to food security, the ripple effect might also make leadership more difficult, “because it is not easy to lead hungry people.”
Several farmers in the district assume that the Striga weeds were introduced into the district through relief food distributed to Internally Displaced Persons during the LRA war, and have been multiplying gradually. Charles Ojwee, the Agago District Agriculture Officer advises farmers to practice early planting and crop rotation to mitigate the effect of the weeds, saying the Striga weed seeds can survive up to 30 years in the soil.
“Farmers are saying the Striga weeds invaded the gardens when people were in the camps but it might have been there even
before people were displaced in camps because Striga weeds can remain vibrant in the soil for over thirty years.” Alutu has thought of planting early next year, saying he has noticed that the weeds start growing in June and July, and believes he might get something meaningful if he plants fast- early.
But one more thing worries him. The late onset of rain.”