At Uraki Primary School in Arusha, Tanzania, a group of students gather on a farming plot behind their schoolyard. They're holding sticks and tilling the soil to break up crusted parts and help manage weeds. Just a month ago, this plot was empty. Now, it's populated with rows of growing cabbage which the school plans to use as part of its meal program.
Last month, students from the primary school participated in a training on nutrition and agriculture as part of the Vegetables for All project, managed by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). The project aims to improve income and nutrition among 4,000 small scale farmer households as well as access to nutritious vegetables among lower-income consumers in Arusha, Kilimanjaro, Tanga and Manyara regions.
Training skills in horticulture production
The training - conducted by the Tanzanian Horticultural Association and Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation – offered skills in horticulture production and encouraged the students to set up a school initiative to continue building their knowledge in this area as well as get hands-on experience with farming.
As a result, students formed an afterschool group called the "GAIN Club" to learn about nutrition and agriculture. Through the leadership of Rose Mjema, the school's English teacher who doubles as the agricultural teacher and overlooks the club, they have transformed empty spaces of the school's property into fertile plots for growing vegetables.
In the centre of the school's yard is a garden where the students grow kale, spinach, and Chinese cabbage. "This is a bag garden," Rose says, pointing to a metre-high bag filled with soil that has spinach growing out of it. "Before, we were buying vegetables and now we're growing them". The main plot is located next to the cafeteria, and Rose says the chef will use these vegetables to prepare healthy meals for the students.
More vegetables in school meals
Rose says that incorporating more vegetables in the meal program will support the children's nutrition and physical development during these pivotal years. She adds that there are students who are malnourished and others who are living with HIV, whom will particularly benefit from this initiative. According to Rose, Uraki Primary School plans to harvest more vegetables than it needs for the meal program in order to sell the excess to teachers and community members, creating an additional source of income for the school.
Students take their learnings home
"The students have responded very positively to this program," Rose says, noting that particularly keen students have taken their learnings home. "Some have taken this knowledge and started gardens in their homes. It's good for students because it's like a business for them," she explains.
One of these students, Josephina Elias, 12, says she joined the GAIN Club because she wanted to learn how to grow vegetables. "I learned the whole process of how to prepare the land and grow vegetables. You have to remove weeds and take good care of the land," she explains.
A week after joining the club, Josephina convinced her parents that they should grow a vegetable garden in their home. She now grows spinach and kale at her family home and says they're adding this vegetable to their diet. Josephina also plans to sell the excess produce and will use the money to buy exercise books and pens for school.
Her classmate, Christian Afrael, 12, has a similar plan. He says the 'GAIN club has taught him how to grow vegetables and what to do to keep chickens from entering a plot to destroy crops. "As soon as we got the training, I started to do this [gardening] at my home," Christian says. He spoke with his father — who is also a farmer — and told him he wanted to start growing his own vegetables. Christian's father keenly agreed, giving him a portion of the family's land in order to grow spinach and Chinese cabbage.
Plans to extend the vegetable garden
Back at Uraki Primary School, Rose is hopeful the initiative will benefit both students and the school. She is already making plans to extend the vegetable garden and add an irrigation system. "It's amazing because the students are doing everything themselves."