On a trip to northern Uganda that saw me traverse the districts of Nwoya, Gulu, Adjumani, across the Nile to Yumbe, Moyo and Arua, I was met with a reality I thought had become history. I was moved more than 200km in a rural locale without seeing any electricity grid, and to add insult to injury, there are very poor roads. Why do I bring this up?
Following the rural electrification programme, whose 2001-2012 strategic plan had the goal of achieving 12 per cent rural electrification, reports indicate that by 2012, Uganda had achieved only seven per cent coverage.
In the same vein, the agriculture sector employs up to 70 per cent of the labour force while most agricultural production takes place in rural areas.
But it has become a fad to blame the poor income of our farmers on lack of value addition and failure to manage farming as a business.
However, you cannot talk of value addition when there is no electricity to facilitate basic processing or lack of decent road networks to give the farmers’ products easy access to markets.
Where is the potential?
Many initiatives are being implemented from the lenses of the farmer in central Uganda who has relatively easier access to the basics of production. How can a cooperative be expected to function well when it cannot easily reach its network of farmer members and aggregate their produce? Or even carry out primary processing of products using the more cost-effective main grid electricity?
Rural farmers have been put at the mercy of the middlemen who take advantage of these challenges to dictate not only the prices but also go a step further to enslave them through pre-financing arrangements that attract exhorbitant interest rates.
According to the World Bank, agriculture and agribusiness are projected to be a one trillion-dollar industry in Sub Saharan Africa by 2030 as opposed to the $313b in 2010.
It is very clear therefore that for any talk of economic transformation in Uganda, the answer is not in the oil reserves but more in agriculture. This is considering that already the country has shown signs of being a regional breadbasket.
Supporting and linking small holder farmers to productive value chains is therefore one of the foundation stones that can enable Uganda partake a significant share of this industry.
Studies have shown that better roads increase the scope of profitable trade, which in turn encourages farm investments to raise agricultural production thereby increasing rural incomes.
Focus on the local context
In Indonesia, a one per cent increase in road investments is associated with a 0.3 per cent decrease in poverty incidence, for every one per cent increase in the number of kilometres of roads per capita in the poor regions of China, household consumption rises by 0.08 per cent. Nearer home, in Ethiopia, access to all weather roads that can support trucks and buses increases consumption growth by 16.3 per cent and reduces incidence of poverty by 6.9 per cent.
Access to electricity offers farmers feasible options for production, processing and even marketing. Just like the road infrastructure, one cannot ignore the impact this too can have on farmer production and hence incomes. You cant think of using ICTs when there is absence of electricity
With the current government- and non-government-related drives to boost rural livelihoods and tackle rampant youth unemployment, it is only prudent that the proposed solutions or interventions be structured to suit the locales in question.
Interventions in Kayunga and Mukono may not necessarily follow the same template as those in Nwoya and Adjumani. Some of the trainings that are being arranged to help farmers are premised on the wrong assumptions.
Sort first things first
It is likely that most of the knowledge being disseminated will be rendered inappropriate.
The way forward therefore lies in having an integrated approach by the government towards addressing citizen-centred programmes.
As Rural Electrification Agency fulfills its mandate, it should work in tandem with the Uganda National Roads Authority and other government agencies like the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, National Agricultural Advisory Services (or its successor), local governments and farmer/community groups in order to realise the much needed transformation.
Isolated interventions can never lead to real change and the lack of complementary ingredients will continue to be an Achilles’ heel.
The trainings targeting the youth that are currently being carried out under the auspices of Skilling Uganda should be designed to focus on the local opportunities and challenges in order to be relevant.
This will help lower the cases of failure being reported by those that get knowledge, say, on chicken rearing and rush back to their villages to do the same only to be confronted with the bitter reality of the lack of market access.
For starters, we need to get the road and electricity infrastructure situation sorted out in rural Uganda after which the discussions on value addition can then take over.
The writer is an agro, ICT and business Consultant.