Elizabeth Natocho brushes her hands through the purple-flowering, waist-high plants. “Cultivating chia seeds is our main source of income,” the 41-year-old Ugandan explains.
This is how she provides for her husband and children, she says. Several years ago, she also used to grow maize, which was mainly for their own consumption – similar to many Ugandans in the region.
Today, she grows chia on her 42 hectares in Namayingo in eastern Uganda, exporting the seeds to destinations including Germany, Ireland and Denmark.
“Chia is a huge market opening up,” says Robert Okello. His company, Sage Uganda, buys chia from Natocho and others to export. According to Sage, it was the first to grow chia in Uganda, five years ago.
At the start “it was very tedious,” Okello says. Sage’s employees had to learn cultivation techniques, test the soil at various sites and persuade small farmers to switch from traditional crops to chia.
According to agricultural experts, the conditions for chia are excellent in Uganda. In principle, farmers between the equator and the 25th parallel – or from Egypt to South Africa – should be able to grow chia without any problems, says agricultural scientist Simone Graeff-Hoenninger from the University of Hohenheim in Germany.
The plant requires warm weather and fewer than 12 hours of daylight. It originates from South and Central America, and has been cultivated in Mexico for centuries. According to legend, a single spoonful of chia would give an Aztec warrior enough strength for an entire day.
Chia seeds are rich in proteins and unsaturated fatty acids. This superfood has become a popular trend in the US and Europe in recent years, and many supermarkets now stock their own brand of chia.
Farmers in Uganda, Rwanda, Congo and Kenya are taking advantage of this boom. “The price I get for chia seeds is much better than for maize,” says Natocho.
Okello says the plant is also more resistant to weeds and requires less water and no fertiliser, making it ideal for countries such as Uganda that repeatedly experience periods of drought.
Sage Uganda says it is now working with around 8,900 small farmers and expects to export 500 tons of chia this year.
At present, African countries do not export as much as producers in South America. But the amount is steadily rising, and ever more European chia traders are looking to Africa.
“The offers from Africa are around 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than from South America,” says Gertrud Krause-Traudes, from the Danish company Original Chia.
Moreover, the traditional chia-exporting countries in South America have recently been unable to cover demand, she says. According to Graeff-Hoenninger, African farmers also have the advantage of being able to harvest twice a year, due to the two rainy seasons.
Some African producers still have to improve the purity of the chia seeds, says Krause-Traudes. But, she adds, there are plenty of opportunities for the farmers.
Experts believe that the interest in chia will persist. Chia is versatile, says Graeff-Hoenninger, and can be used in oil, juices, yogurt and meat substitutes. However, experts also warn that there are risks associated with the chia boom. In Mexico, for example, there was overproduction for a time that caused prices to fall.
African farmers could also soon be facing competition from Germany.
For several years, the University of Hohenheim has been looking for chia seeds which could be cultivated in Germany. They have tested and bred different varieties of chia for this purpose, according to Graeff-Hoenninger. If the cultivation goes well this year, the university hopes to have a sufficient quantity of seeds by 2019 at the latest, she says.