Daily Monitor’s long serving journalist, Michael J Ssali, 70, who also writes a weekly column, “Farmers Say” in the newspaper’s Seeds of Gold magazine is actually a practicing farmer.
“My first articles in the Daily Monitor way back in 1992 were mainly about farming because my wife and I were already into farming, and we lived in the rural area among fellow farmers,” he said in an interview recently.
“I was writing about what we were doing. We had an editor back then, the late Kevin Aliro, who always assigned me to write farming articles for the newspaper. I often wonder whether as far back as then, he was perhaps planning to start the Seeds of Gold magazine which actually came into being many years after his demise.”
When this writer visited Ssali’s farm, located in Manja Village, Kisekka Sub-county, in Lwengo District, he was hosting the Executive Director of National Union of Coffee Agri-businesses and Farm Enterprises (NUCAFE), Joseph Nkandu.
“We are here to visit Ssali’s coffee farm because we are a national coffee farmers’ organisation,” said Nkandu.
“But we are also here to thank him for his insightful writing in the Daily Monitor about coffee. It is so pleasing for us to discover that he does not just write about coffee farming but he is also a practicing coffee farmer,” says Nkandu.
Ssali and his wife, Mary, conducted Nkandu around their eight-acre clonal Robusta coffee farm making observations regarding fertiliser application, weed and pest control, and soil and water conservation.
How Ssali started
The veteran journalist uses both organic and synthetic fertilisers to come up with the green, vigorous, coffee trees that have become the centre of attraction in the entire neighbourhood.
Ssali whose parents were also coffee farmers, always nursed the idea of becoming a farmer although he began life as a secondary school teacher of English in 1976.
“I did some teaching at St Henry’s College Kitovu, and later at Kakoma Secondary School before going to Nairobi in 1980 where I taught English and learnt Kiswahili and journalism – writing feature articles in the Daily Nation and the Kenya Times,” he reveals.
Takes over dad’s farm
Upon his return to Uganda in 1988 his father was already dead and he took over his land which had turned into solid bush.
“My earlier interest was to grow bananas and to keep some animals. I planted bananas and purchased some local cows. But since farming takes some years to pay, I opened up a photo studio and took up a teaching job at the nearby Kyamaganda Primary Teachers College,” he says.
“I kept investing money I earned into farming. In 1992 I began writing articles for the New Vision and later in the same year when Monitor was founded I became its correspondent in Masaka region. In the subsequent years I was to become the newspaper’s first bureau chief in the region. Today I am officially retired although I still write some articles for the newspaper,” Ssali says.
Like any other farmer, the journey has not been that smooth for Ssali. The seasoned veteran journalist has complained about the incurable coffee wilt disease which he said has wiped out hundreds of coffee trees on the farm.
“It is the reason you see so many young trees,” he told Nkandu. “We keep re-cropping all the time and in fact as a rule we plant at least 100 young trees annually to replace those that die. Fortunately we have identified some breeds that have shown resistance to the disease and it is from those that we get the clones that we plant. One of our regular employees has received training in making coffee clones and we plant those or buy some from established coffee nurseries.”
Nkandu, who is also a coffee farmer, and a trained agriculturist, had plenty of advice to give Ssali which included increasing the number of coffee trees on his farm from the traditional 450 trees per acre to 1,333.
Due to the coffee wilt disease, Ssali has suffered a drawback in coffee production that in the last coffee season he harvested a mere 77 bags (one lorry-full) of dry coffee (kiboko) although his farm has the potential of more than 200 bags per season. “There are two harvest seasons in a year,” he says.
Currently Ssali earns Shs200,000 from one bag if he sells it after removing the husks (kase). “We are now set on an agenda to replace most of the trees with the disease resistant varieties and we believe that in the next few years we will be harvesting a lot more coffee,” Ssali disclosed.
Ssali points out that coffee farming has enabled him to achieve nearly all his life’s dreams.
All his children have completed their education and they include a secondary school teacher, a medical doctor, three nurses, a laboratory technician, an electrician, a clinical officer, and a mid-wife. He has also helped orphans with school fees.
“We have told our children to value the coffee crop,” he said. “We do not want them to subdivide the farm when we are gone but to sustain it as a joint venture.”
Interest in coffee
Ssali’s interest in coffee began after a visit to Gerald Ssendaula’s farm in 1994. He was the area MP back then.
“I was so impressed by the productivity of his coffee farm. Moreover the coffee prices had shot up and nearly everyone in our home area was eager to grow coffee. I was lucky to obtain some 650 Robusta coffee clones from Ssendaula’s farm on credit. I later expanded my farm to some 4,000 coffee trees. I thank God that I took interest in coffee farming because it cushions my retirement,” says Ssali.