Walking through the landscaped gardens at Writtle College, Godfrey Kamanda is beaming with excitement – for he has just seen snow for the first time! It is only a light dusting, but it is enough for this postgraduate from Uganda: “I’ve just been out in the fields at the back of the Halls! It’s brilliant! I’ve been taking lots of photographs to send to my family!”
The 28-year-old has travelled from East Africa to study for a MSc Horticulture (Crop Production) at the Essex-based College, thanks to the Marshal Papworth Scholarship, a scheme run by the East of England Agricultural Society to give those in developing countries the chance to develop skills to take back to their homelands and use for the benefit of their own communities.
Uganda is known for its political problems and a lengthy and bloody civil war. But Godfrey says that the country is now a far cry from the tensions, terrorism and population displacement that have rocked it: “It is a very good country now. It is very different to what people perceive it to be. It has the best climate – equatorial weather and fertile soils so from a horticultural and agricultural perspective; it offers a lot to people like me.
“Like many countries, there are political problems and social problems but these are in pockets and there is not one cause. There is poverty, mostly in rural places. The rebels were in the northern part of the country but the recent changes mean it is now safe and there is normal life.
“There is new life in Uganda. Older people despair that it is not what it was like before but for younger people, who can adapt, it offers opportunities. We have had international organisations in to help and the government has been doing its best and making sure people are settled in their homeland. There was no housing, no clean water, no social facilities in areas. It was a disaster zone before now but it is coming on again. It has changed. Uganda is going to be a very good country.”
But even with these changes, living in Halls in the picturesque, traditional English village of Writtle is a very different experience for Godfrey: “Everything here is organised. You have the Halls, paths and the fields behind; the gardens and the facilities. It is all put together in an organised way. In Uganda, you can have a very nice house but all around it will be ramshackled housing. That’s the difference.”
Godfrey, who has a degree in ethno botany, found out about the Marshal Papworth Scholarship and Writtle College while working for a farmers’ group in his district and hearing about charities working in the area. It was seeing malnourished people that inspired him to want to study further: “I had people coming to me as I was educated and an agriculturalist expecting me to know everything. I had knowledge of producing food but not of malnutrition. I realised I needed to deepen my knowledge of producing fruits and vegetables and I needed education to succeed in this. That’s when I heard about Marshal Papworth Scholarship and applied.”
There are huge opportunities in agriculture in Uganda and Godfrey has been enthused by what he has learnt at Writtle College.
“Everywhere you plant something it comes up and gives excellent yields, because of the climate and the soils,” he said. “The problem in Uganda is the mechanisation – there is limited mechanisation and people still use their hands.
“On my course, I am learning from the most experienced lecturers - John Cullum, for Horticulture, and Dr Chris Bishop, for Postharvest Technology. They make you ambitious, curious and show you what is happening in the world and make me believe that I can make a change. They have given me that support and showed me how. Dr Chris Bishop has visited Uganda before to work on cold storage at the airport for exporting cut flowers and veg to the UK. I have acquired the expertise and courage from Chris to make something happen in my own country.”
For his dissertation, Godfrey is specialising in tomatoes, the most widely grown fruit in Uganda (“It is used in all our cooking,” Godfrey says. “It seems like every single dish has tomatoes in it!”). He is researching the postharvest storage of tomatoes and a common pathogen, using essential oils in packaging to see if this will keep tomatoes fresh.
This is part of cutting-edge research at Writtle College, which has a team of scientists looking at how the vapours from essential oils can be used in packaging in order to keep meat fresh, as part of a drive to reduce food waste – and ultimately feed the booming world’s population.
As well as giving Godfrey the technical skills he needs, his Masters is giving him the confidence and inspiration to set up his own business.
He said: “Most of the agriculture is personal in Uganda – people produce food for their families and little is sold out. With the experience I have gained from Writtle College, I hope to be able to increase food production in my country. We have been out to different producers in the UK, from those producing food for horses and animals to Chingfords, which is a fruit and veg supplier. These are family-owned businesses that have grown. Chingfords was intriguing as it has a turnover of £306m just through packing fruit and vegetables – it has its own suppliers and then sorts and packages it. There is a demand there for effective packaging for the supermarkets.
“There is a transition in Uganda at the moment. There are more middle class people who are becoming concerned about food and interested in quality. At the moment, little of our food is packaged - it goes straight to the markets. But this new part of the population doesn’t want to go to markets so this presents a big opportunity.
“The visit to Chingfords has changed my thinking. If I can come up with an idea for a company, I can advise growers, increase productivity, employ others, sustain life and make money for my country. Chingfords employs 224 drivers alone – and the business is just doing the packing!”