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Tonic boom for Uganda's hibiscus growers

The colour of the hibiscus calyx is one indicator of antioxidant intensity. The Ibis cultivar is pictured far right (C. Irving)
The colour of the hibiscus calyx is one indicator of antioxidant intensity. The Ibis cultivar is pictured far right
C. Irving

Twice a year, smallholder plots around Lake Kyoga, central Uganda, are awash with hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa). The flowers thrive on the area's volcanic soils, and hundreds of farmers have joined a project to supply the scented calyces (outer flower parts) for a new organic health drink.

Hibiscus use has a long and varied tradition in Africa. In the Nile Delta it is used to flavour non-alcoholic festive drinks and in southern Sudan it is used to add colour and flavour to herbal teas. In Uganda, green hibiscus leaves are a common ingredient in cooking and used like spinach.

Hibiscus is also popular in traditional African medicines and it was the flowers' health properties that captured the interest of pioneering UK farmer Charles Irving. High in vitamin C and anthocyanin - the same antioxidant found in red wine - the ruby red calyces of the 'Ibis' cultivar forms the basis of Simply Hibi, a beverage proving popular with health conscious consumers.

On the Hibi trail

It was in 2002 that Irving's pan-African quest to find the optimum growing conditions for hibiscus led him to the fertile soils around Lake Kyoga, near Lake Victoria, where he presented the idea to local producers. "I was immediately captivated by the enthusiasm of the smallscale farmers to develop their skills and improve their incomes by finding new markets for their crops," he recalls.

In order to spread the benefits of hibiscus production, Irving decided from the outset to involve as many farmers as possible. From small beginnings, Ibis Organics with its sister company in Uganda, Nile Teas, now contracts more than 450 smallholders to grow hibiscus over a combined area of 80 hectares near the Lake.

Complementary approach

Hundreds of smallscale Ugandan farmers are now growing plots of the Ibis hibiscus cultivar for the Simply Hibi drink  (C. Irving)
Hundreds of smallscale Ugandan farmers are now growing plots of the Ibis hibiscus cultivar for the Simply Hibi drink
C. Irving

Irving's approach has been carefully formulated: in the first year of production, each farmer dedicates a maximum of 1000 sq m (0.1 ha) to hibiscus to ensure it does not encroach upon land normally used for food crops. In subsequent years, and in exceptional circumstances, the area may be increased marginally, but only after careful evaluation. "The objective is to provide an opportunity for a small farmer to use some of his surplus land to generate a cash income in the certain knowledge that his crop will be both bought and paid for," says Irving.

Through the work of Sida (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) and EPOPA (Export Promotion of Organic Products from Africa), each producer has been trained in sustainable agriculture, from crop rotation, tree planting and composting, to biological control of pests and disease to maximise yields and comply with strict organic standards. Once harvested, the hibiscus is dried and loaded onto otherwise empty cargo ships returning to the UK, where it is sweetened with grape juice, bottled and sold to supermarkets.

Ripple effects

Hibiscus can be up to three times more profitable than other regional cash crops, like maize or cotton, and it is hoped that a rise in farmers' incomes will see benefits spread throughout the local economy.

Simply Hibi, directly increasing the incomes of hundreds of Ugandan farmers. (WRENmedia)
Simply Hibi, directly increasing the incomes of hundreds of Ugandan farmers.
WRENmedia

Building on the successes of the early years, Irving hopes now to involve farmers in the north of the country in areas where the withdrawal of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - the guerrilla faction opposed to the Ugandan government - has freed-up more land for agriculture. Irving currently has two test sites in these areas and if demand for the drink remains strong, up to 750 Ugandan farmers could be involved in 2008.

Issues of trust have been one of the major challenges to the project, as well the uncertainty of rainfall, working out optimal planting dates, and dealing with pests while maintaining organic standards. It is hoped that with so many subsistence farmers now enjoying improved livelihoods as a result of the scheme, and demand for hibiscus blooming, new farmers will be easier to recruit. "It is not only the people who drink Simply Hibi who are benefiting from it," says Irving. "We're directly increasing the incomes of hundreds of Ugandan farmers."

Date published: November 2007

 

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