Torn between serving as military officer and taking up an investment that would relieve him from poverty, Maj. Gen Charles Otema Awany took to farming five years ago.
This, he knew could help him gain better income and enable him solve his financial constraints.
Gen Otema who has held myriad command and staff positions including the current reserve commander slot, decided to venture into mixed commercial farming in 2012 in Tango village, Purongo Sub County, Nwoya District.
How he started
He says he visited several farmers around the country to learn how differently he would do farming in northern Uganda.
He invested Shs70m which he had saved from his hotel business. Gen Otema runs Acholi Inn Hotel in Gulu District which was a gift from his aging father.
“I brought four trucks of cassava cuttings in early 2015 and planted them. The rains weren’t fruitful that season but mild showers towards the end of the year brought relief as the cassava significantly improved,” he noted.
“Cassava is a crop that is easy to manage since it does not require a lot of weeding, fertiliser application and disease control mechanisms,” he said.
When the cassava started blossoming, Gen Otema introduced sorghum, rice and passion fruit to his mixed farm.
“Cassava is the biggest but other crops such as sorghum and rice are doing very well,” he says.
You would not be faulted for thinking Gen Otema feeds the entire northern region with bananas.
Because the banana is not a northern crop, people thought Gen Otema was making a wrong investment decision. Like a determined war general, he flushed aside critics.
“My vision was to supply this greater region with bananas. When people saw me planting, they laughed, I did not mind. I continued doing what I thought was right. Today I harvest in hundreds of bunches of bananas. The money is big,” he says.
Some of Gen Otema’s customers buy from him at farm gate where he sells a big bunch of banana at Shs30,000 and a small one at Shs25,000. Gen Otema also supplies several hotels in Gulu with bananas.
He says several traders from South Sudan frequent his farm to buy in trucks. It is estimated the UPDF officer makes Shs50m per month from bananas alone.
Most of his cassava is bought by Uganda Breweries Limited. “I have a deal worth Shs2b to supply Uganda Breweries. They are my biggest customers,” Gen Otema reveals.
The other customers, Gen Otema says are based within the four major districts of Acholi. “I supply them in sacks at a subsided fee,” he says.
Besides the cassava, Gen Otema also makes a kill from sorghum and rice. Otema currently gets Shs1b from the rice which he grows on about 200 acres.
The money he earns from rice, meets the costs on the farm. Most of the rice is sold to Kenya. “We add value to this rice in Jinja before exporting it to Kenya. Some is sold Kampala but 90 per cent goes to Kenya,” he says.
Gen Otema lists bush burning, pests and diseases, lack of electricity and wild animals especially elephants as the biggest challenges on his Purongo farm.
“Elephants are too destructive. When they attack, they can destroy over 50 acres of cassava,” he says.
With the proceeds from the farm, Gen Otema has been able to refurbish Acholi Inn to a three-star hotel.
Otema also looks after his extended family in addition to his children for whom he also pays school fees.
He supports and sponsors education of his nieces and nephews.
Otema is the elder brother to Richard Todwong the NRM deputy secretary general.
Gen Otema wants to expand his market to Europe and Asia.
He believes when he starts adding value to his cassava, the sky will only be the limit.
He also plans to expand his cassava fields to 3,000 acres in the next two years so that he can adequately supply Uganda Breweries Ltd that are now his biggest buyer.
“I am in the process of importing a state of the art cassava processor early next year that will enable me process cassava before I sell them to UBL who demands for the powdered one,” he said.