During the Christmas break, a news item caught my attention as it reinforced a number of concerns I have been having about the agriculture value chain in Uganda.
It was reported on one of the television stations that the World Food Programme (WFP) had rejected hundreds of tonnes of maize. This happened towards the end of 2014 when a lot of inconsistencies were found in the standards of maize supplied by traders and farmers.
Currently, the produce business is dominated by “deal makers”. These are people or entities that are largely concerned about the mere purchase and resale of produce following a particular need that has arisen.
When WFP announces that its buying maize, for example, they establish the likely price offering and then scour the countryside to look for maize at the cheapest prices in order to make the highest possible margins.
A serious area of concern is the inability to meet the set quality standards for the produce.
Industry observers worsen the problem when they heap the bulk of this blame on the farmers. Like an eco-system, these farmers need the various players in the value chain to ensure that they work together to observe these established standards.
What standards say
A scan of the East African standard maize grains specification indicates the major requirements for specific areas like quality, contaminants, hygiene, packaging and labelling.
The expected interventions in each of these areas demand that careful monitoring starts right from the time of planting. Waiting for harvested produce is a tad too late to start the process.
General quality requirements, for example, demand that white maize may contain not more than two per cent by weight of maize of other colours while yellow and red maize should not contain more than five per cent by weight of maize of other colours.
Specific quality requirements further categorise maize under three grades. These are determined by, among others, the maximum limits of foreign and inorganic matter, pest damaged grains, rotten and diseased grains, moisture content and broken kernels.
The maize is also expected to comply with the maximum pesticide residue limits as established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission for this commodity.
Players in the entire value chain need to appreciate that our farmers should not be expected to comprehend let alone have the facilities required to meet the set standards. This therefore calls for a concerted effort.
If WFP needs certain grades of produce, they need to ensure that this information is passed on to the various partners they deal with who could be traders, farmer groups, cooperative societies, to mention but a few.
They should also play an active role in facilitating the training of these suppliers in the various key areas of standards management.
Provision of some facilities like storage could also go a long way in alleviating some of these challenges. WFP already actively does this in northern Uganda.
The traders or middlemen need to play a more active role in the life cycle of the produce in question. They should help farmers when it comes to quality seed selection, identification and purchase, equip them with proper agro-management skills as well as ensure that they are ready for the post-harvest handling which is another key determinant of quality.
The writing is on the wall for speculative traders whose only interest lies in purchasing and selling produce.
They will increasingly find it a challenge to meet the expected standards and only those that create symbiotic relationships with the farmers shall reap big in the long term.
This though could also imply an increase in the cost of the produce. I strongly believe that quality food supply at a higher price is much more readily acceptable than questionable food supply at a cheap cost.
Going forward, farmers, traders, processors, retailers and wholesalers need to work together to not only change the status quo but also ensure that the market gets more value for money.
This has been and continues to be the practise. Some of the issues observed in the field so far are;
• Farmers continually complain of being forced to accept prices set by the traders irrespective of one’s quality of produce
• Most farmers hardly understand what the basic standards are for grain handling in Uganda and similar ignorance resonates highly among the ‘deal makers.’
• The traders are accused of mixing good and bad produce in order to ensure that all their held stock is acceptable for purchase
• There is a high disregard for proper procedures of handling produce among the farmers and traders
• The competitive nature of supplying a large single customer like WFP often creates price wars with those able to price low standing higher chances of success.
The writer is an agro-entrepreneur and ICT consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @wirejames