Thursday February 13 2014

Politics has destroyed Uganda’s agriculture

By Karoli Ssemogerere

It is early days in February. The farm year is less than 60 days old. Sporadic rain last year devastated annual crops in the southern half of the country, especially maize and beans. Last year, as the sporadic rain wore on, some frustrated citizens lost patience with the national weather service for continuously announcing “scattered showers and thunderstorms in most parts of the country”, including those where a prolonged dry spell killed entire planted fields.

In 2014, the weather service has issued specific guidance - the rains will delay and yes, don’t be fooled again by scattered showers that make Kampala for instance very wet, 160 out of 360 days while the surrounding districts receive less rain.

On public radio, I have been following for sometime Prof Ogenga Latigo, the former Leader of Opposition and don at Makerere University. Prof Latigo has turned into the public face of government’s agricultural policies. Two weeks ago he said something that was quite remarkable.

First, that the Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA) had failed because it was never fully implemented. PMA failed because just like UPE, announced with a lot of fanfare in 1996, when the bills came in, donors demurred. Big agriculture, and the long list of failed enterprises has never fully taken off.

My good friend Hannington Karuhanga, a banker, businessman, farmer and export merchant, once gave me part of the answer: large scale agriculture relies on OPM. I first heard this acronym from another good friend - a hotelier. OPM in this case stands for Other People’s Money. So, don’t confuse it with Office of the Prime Minister, the sink hole that has lost billions to the taxpayer.

The few success stories in big agriculture, therefore, are mostly state-linked apparatchiks, technically savvy business people who don’t run their farms on a typical profit and loss basis. Whenever a big politician passes away, the inventory of the estate will include how many cows, goats, chicken, pigs and how much hard work went into these things. Sooner than later, these will all collapse because the ‘OPM’ aspect has disappeared. OPM comes in the form of free inputs, chemicals, seeds, extension services and free PR that comes with high profile visits these ‘farms’ have to host to exhibit the progress of government’s agricultural policy.

In 2006, a new policy was enacted around election time promoting transformation of agriculture. Between 2006 and 2011, the government procured a number of facilities to develop markets to connect communities to markets. For the lucky few who had accessed free equipment, the argument was that this new infrastructure will bring produce to the markets. Again the elite took advantage of this new policy to put up stalls to sell produce from the villages and their own farms. Value addition was promoted; if farmers processed milk into cheese and yoghurt, the stories of milk going bad would end.

In 2011-2016, we are repeating a monogram of the past, save for the fact that against all odds, some policy makers are returning to old fashioned economics. Coffee is being promoted again as a cash crop; a cash buffer against the monetary needs that farmers face as the economy monetises more. Coffee has another advantage: it is a natural check on land fragmentation; land is never idle so to speak and has documented returns. So does cotton and simsim. Their success or failure requires a re-invention of community infrastructure - ginneries and hullers that may not necessarily thrive under big agriculture’s preference for a rich farmer.

The crisis coming is that most of the productive infrastructure, cooperatives and milling stations simply rotted away during the war years and 25 years of donor-driven experiments. The small farmer is slowly realising that faced with big agriculture - a system that monetises all aspects of production, including maintaining soil fertility - they stand no chance. After a few visits to our local production officer in Kalangala and reading through his visitor’s book, I am inclined to agree. Some of Kalangala’s most veritable palm oil farmers are politicians and civil servants. I was also surprised to find one of my old schoolmasters, Brother Aganze of the Kisubi-based Brothers of Christian Instruction in the same book.

Aganze in our days had a nickname: ‘Musota’ or ‘Snake’. He and another mystical figure were the ‘CIA’ of the hill whose venerable works included keeping a community of pupils, students and religious men and women safe. Aganze and his colleague had a miraculous ability to appear out of nowhere without warning. But if Aganze was surprise enough, so was the farmer a few lines below, Ms Jennifer Musisi Ssemakula. The cake lady has had a number of exploits, including riding a horse in town; but then palm oil?

After transacting my business and winning a small concession of visits to discuss an invasion of aphids, I left calmed down and more informed. If Aganze was growing palm oil, it was very likely that palm oil, far from being something to fry food using OPM, was a bigger story of what Kalangala and other farming communities were to face in the time to come.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate.