A lawyer by training and a farmer by experience, Thurayya Zawedde experienced first-hand the challenges of agriculture without guaranteed access to water all year-long. She created OMZA to offer a low-cost solution to farmers.
What is OMZA, and what problem are you trying to address?
OMZA was started in May 2016 to address the water crisis faced by farmers in Uganda as a result of climate change. We work in the agriculture sector, more specifically offering irrigation as a service.
Where did the idea come from?
In 2013 I started as one of the few youth farmers in Uganda with 1ha of wheat. The biggest challenge I faced was the droughts, which led to a loss of production – my only option, as for so many other farmers, was to sit and wait for the rain. I wanted to explore other solutions, and started by excavating a pond around the field, to access the water and irrigate the crops. As my farm grew in size I moved towards more advanced approaches to sustain good irrigation. From this first-hand experience, I could see the benefits of irrigation and decided to start a business around it.
What makes your idea different from competitors?
We are different from our competitors in Uganda because we managed to develop affordable techniques, accessible to all farmers. Most farmers in Uganda are rural women who cannot afford our competitors’ services. We manage to keep our services affordable by cutting down on cost per hour and leveraging existing assets such as the use of disposable water bottles or using stones to filter the water. Women are also trained in focus groups on these irrigation techniques.
We focus on developing affordable services because for many of these women farming is their only livelihood – they feed themselves and their families on the products they grow, they can start a business from the products, and thereby pay for their children’s school etc… Without irrigation, their livelihood is threatened.
Can you share a success story that you are particularly proud of?
Our first client was a man who had 15 ha of land and needed an irrigation system. We asked to go to his farm to make measurements so that we could give him an accurate quote, but the client wanted a quote directly and went to see our competitors. They quoted him a very high price without even going to visit his farm, and the client eventually came back to us. Our team went to his farm to do our evaluation and delivered him a quotation, a report and a drawing of an irrigation system. The first quote was deliberately low because we needed to get our first customers and show our value. After the irrigation system was put in place, and our client was able to grow passion fruit in a very dry district, he said he was very impressed with our professionalism and the quality of our system. He is now a repeat client and refers others to OMZA.
Another source of inspiration for me comes from my own farm. It is a located in a very dry area and many of my neighbors had given up entirely on farming. Because of this I was able to buy their lands and grow my farm. I now rent this land to the women and train them on irrigation techniques in my personal time. Most of these women adopted the system and now irrigate their crops and are able to feed themselves. This approach also created new bonds in the local community.
What (unexpected) challenges have you faced so far?
The biggest challenge I have faced so far is failure of adoption of irrigation as a technique. In Uganda 80% of people are in agriculture, though 70% of them never touched irrigation techniques and rely on rain. They stick to what they know – this requires behaviour change, which can only happen after training.
Access to resources is also a challenge: recently, we needed to excavate a well for a 100ha farm. Yet OMZA did not have the right machinery, and hiring is extremely expensive, so we lost the client. Governmental investment in Ugandan agriculture is dwindling, which means we are not able to grow products that can compete on the world market. It would be beneficial to get quality trainings in this sector for companies like OMZA.
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