On the shores of Lake Victoria, in Mpigi District, sits the Asante Mama cocoa farm of 200 acres. However, whilst a farm conjures up images of neatly pruned rows of crops solely for the benefit of the harvest, this farm is quite different – something of a habit for Asante Mama. As well as allowing multiple crops to grow among the protected trees, helping protect the soil, a whole 10 acres is left to be forest. This allows wildlife to thrive, with monkeys, crescent cranes – the national bird of Uganda, featured on the flag – and even snakes enjoying this protected habitat which runs all the way to the swamp on the lake shore. Despite the occasional raid by the monkeys to feast on the harvest, they coexist with the farm. The workers are prohibited from killing animals – even a stray cobra, for which they wear rubber boots for protection. This respect for the environment extends to contract farmers, who are encouraged plant trees.
Asante Mama is a social business created by Pamela Anyoti to encourage economic development through agriculture. She started the business following the conflict created by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Starting in Soroti with birdseye chillis, they supported farmers – providing subsidised seedlings and trainers, recruited from the local area – to grow the crop and then guaranteed a fair price at harvest. Lots of farmers were interested, leading Asante Mama to develop their contract farming model. They quickly diversified into cocoa, herbs and spices. Because cocoa takes 3-4 years to start fruiting, it was important to combine it with a faster yielding crop, like herbs and spices. Whilst the herbs and spices help them create their delicious tea, the cocoa is sold in six varieties: raw, roast both with options of either milk chocolate or high cocoa content chocolate.
The farm in Mpigi is almost 90% devoted to growing cocoa, which is harvested and then laid in banana lined boxes for seven days for its first fermentation. It is then washed three times, before its second fermentation brings it to look like the cocoa we know and love. As well as their own farm, which employs up to 150 people during busy times, Asante Mama also works with contract farmers: smallholders who are supported to grow a particular crop with an agreement from Asante Mama to buy their produce.
Asante Mama runs cost-benefit analysis on all its crops, the summary of which is shared with farmers so they can decide what is best to grow – for example, growing chilli can net a farmer over US$400 each season per acre. Asante Mama do farmers’ questionnaire, understanding the life of the farmer before and after working with them to ensure they are making a difference. And they are! – in Soroti 75% of the farmers preferred to work with them. This all speaks to real development for farmers, who have managed to build a proper village home, educate their children and eat better food. This year farmers will benefit even more as irrigation is introduced.
As well as developing smallholder farmers, it is evident that Asante Mama takes developing their own staff seriously. From Sharon who joined as secretary, progressed to field supervisor and now manages their Mpigi farm to Odele who started as a casual worker and now is head of cocoa production. Sharon, a young woman who manages up to 150 staff – many of whom are men – takes her responsibility in her stride, balancing toughness with a genuine love of her work. She truly believes in the pro-environment, pro-community vision Pamela created. As Sharon says about the relationship Asante Mama has with small holder farmers: ‘if they’re not well, we’re not well’; ‘we hope the farmers hold the things we teach them close to their heart’.