Tuesday March 22 2016

Agriculture: What went wrong on our farms?

A cabbage farmer works on his farm in Jinja.

A cabbage farmer works on his farm in Jinja. Uganda’s current troubles seem surprising given her fertile soils, heavy rains and a warm climate for agricultural production in this part of the Sahara. PHOTO BY STEPHEN OTAGE 

By William Lubuulwa

Agriculture represents 37 per cent of Uganda’s Gross Domestic Product estimated by the International Monetary Fund to stand at $27 billion (Shs90.9 trillion) and approximately 82 per cent (2013 figures) of inhabitants are involved in agricultural activities. It contributes nearly all of Uganda’s foreign exchange earnings with coffee representing the largest percentage of 19 per cent of the country’s exports.
In 2014, the country was the ninth largest coffee producer in the world with 240 million kilogrammes; coming second (in Africa) to Ethiopia which produced 397.5 million kilogrammes.
Coffee is, indeed, a vital part of the Ugandan economy, with a large portion of the population working in coffee related industries. The coffee business was initially a pleasant affair until prices begun to fall. Although government does not exert control on the industry, the sector is regulated by the Uganda Coffee Development Authority.

Agriculture buttresses the country’s economy with four in every five people relying on it for income and other forms of survival.
Farmers grow crops such as maize and sugarcane for the local market while coffee and tea are majorly for export. Small-scale farmers also grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in their fields and gardens. Even when Ugandans move to towns and into Kampala city, many to ride boda-bodas and some to do other petty businesses, they often return to the countryside in the villages to tend to land they have either inherited or own as a family.

Across our farming villages, and depending on season and region, the common fruits and vegetables include oranges, carrots, green pepper and cabbage, pineapples, mangoes, papayas, tangerines and eggplants. Main food crops are usually matooke, cassava, sweet potatoes, maize, beans, Irish potatoes, millet and to some extent rice.
Dairying is an integral part of Uganda’s agriculture with no significant exports of dairy and related products. Economically, cattle lead in livestock, although goats, sheep, pigs and poultry make significant contributions to diet and economy.
Formerly, farmers depended on buyers for credit services such as school fees and advance payments. These services are no longer available due to unreliable coffee supply and unfaithful individuals.

Mzee Mpiima Miti, a retired school teacher in Nakidu – Bukoba Kyaggwe, says: “In our days, farming was very helpful in terms of food and a reliable source of income. Our parents sent us to school using money obtained from selling coffee and cotton. But we also never went hungry at any one time. We had enough food and fruits in our homes throughout the year. It is unfortunate things have changed in the times of our children.”

But what went wrong on our farms?
Some people assert that Uganda’s success story in agriculture could have been eroded by outright despotism and excessive receptiveness to international aid. To ensure food security, communities require strong, democratic leadership and sound policies.
Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
The country has gone from plentiful coffee and cotton harvests to miserable yields accompanied by prolonged uncertainty among the farmers.

Nalongo Karen Kapuki, an elderly farmer who has depended on farming all her life in Kakukuulu village, in Kasawo – Mukono District, says: “Agribusiness is constrained with limited or lack of ready market for products coupled with price instability and failure to meet standards. The low milk price during rains, for instance, negatively impacts efforts to improve production. We, therefore, do not get enough money from our sales.”

Due to many factors, there is increased threat from the pangs of hunger in a number of places in the country. But what does it take to feed this small nation once described as the Pearl of Africa?
Uganda finds herself in a tight predicament. A food crisis set off by erratic rains, rising food prices and economic hardships is slowly unfolding. The country’s ability to feed its citizens is also at risk.
In 2008, government quickly allocated Shs20 billion to fix severe food emergencies for the people of Teso and went on to seek another Shs287 billion. A lot of money have been sunk in similar situations.
Kapuki asserts: “But relief money and food alone do not provide an eternal solution for these people. We used to grow enough food for our families, and could even donate maize and beans to friends and neighbours during bumper harvests. But now the soils are too poor to produce anything tangible. Many young people too do not want to work on land.”

Hunger is at it again, destroying a number of lives in North Eastern Uganda; with other parts of the country reporting pockets of malnutrition.
Sadly, Uganda is losing its status as an agricultural success story. The country used to produce enough food for her people to eat and still provide a substantial surplus for sale to the neighbours. Many are now wondering what went wrong and whether there could be lessons for other African countries.
About 2.5 million people of North Eastern Uganda are facing severe food shortages with several elderly persons and children alleged to have starved to death in Moroto and Napak districts in Karamoja.

Uganda needs millions of dollars to contain this situation. Most farmers plant on small plots by hand with almost no irrigation, and therefore are vulnerable to recurring droughts, notes UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation on many African cases.
Uganda is home to the world’s second largest fresh water lake by surface area, after Lake Superior in North America - Lake Victoria - yet a vast majority of farmlands produce crops unirrigated.

Uganda’s current troubles might seem surprising given her fertile soils, heavy rains and a warm climate, all of which provide one of the best environments for agricultural production in this part of the Sahara.
Yet to those who follow events in this small landlocked country in East Africa, poor and peopled as it is, it is less an abrupt change in fortunes than a series of self-inflicted environmental injuries taking place in slow but sure motion.

What should be done to reverse the trend? For Uganda’s agriculture to boom again, strong political will at the highest level is required. Ugandans should rally behind President Museveni’s Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture. Politicians and other leaders should make agriculture a key element of all forums and economic decisions to discuss the way forward for Uganda’s agriculture.
Justine Nalubowa, a Wakiso-based mother of three, says the best way to go is for government to improve land ownership and compel people to go back to farming. “Government should streamline land ownership, outlaw fragmentation, but most importantly, encourage redundant town dwellers to go back to the villages and till land.”

She adds: “There should also be efforts to train and place agricultural officers in all sub-counties to help people with their farming needs.”
However, corrupt government cadres and pockets of disgruntled criminals can hamper these efforts.
Secondly, while foreign aid is critical in feeding the hungry and reviving agriculture in many poor nations, food security is too important to be delegated to external donors. This is so because it requires the same seriousness and resources as national security, even more.

In fact, securing national borders loses validity if hundreds of citizens die not from enemy military might but from starvation, or risk their lives crossing borders to go to Kenya (Uganda’s biggest closest business partner) to look for what to eat.
Finally, Uganda, just like other poor nations scattered all-over the world, needs a resilient food strategy backed by resources from within, to be invested in the ministry of Agriculture, National Agricultural Research Organisation, roads and other infrastructure; plus institutions that promote agriculture.

But there is also a tangible African Union agricultural response that should be strengthened - the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). This programme requires countries that sign up to it to spend at least 10 per cent of their national budgets on agriculture.
CAADP survives on a small budget which it uses to strengthen agricultural institutions by building teams of skilled persons who travel the continent sharing modern practices with national leadership.

The causes

Famine, a widespread scarcity of food, is caused by several factors including crop failure, population imbalance, or government policies. This is usually followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.
In 2010, the United Nations World Food Programme launched a new livelihood programme designed to address the underlying causes of food shortages in Karamoja, the most marginalised region in Uganda which has not had a successful harvest in many years and where more than 80 per cent of the population lives in poverty.