The organic sector is one of the fastest growing sectors globally. The sector provides an opportunity for Uganda to export high value products in the global market because of the low intake of fertilisers.
One such opportunity for Uganda is the export of organic pineapples. Uganda has one of the most developed sector of certified organic production in Africa.
According to the International Trade Centre report, about 33,900 farmers manage 122,000 hectares of land using organic methods, an area that accounts for one per cent of Uganda’s arable land.
The organic pineapple enterprise is relatively new, having existed for just over 10 years.
Through the aBi intervention, organic farmers in Kayunga District are reaping the gains.
ABi, founded by the governments of Denmark and Uganda to support agribusiness funding, encourages banks to offer loans to agricultural enterprises – small-scale farming and to micro agribusinesses – by offering to pay part of the money risk in case there is a default arising from production challenges.
ABi avails money to partnering financial institutions, which in turn they lend to farmers.
For more than 15 years, 53-year-old Juma Mulengera Bisaka was a fisherman on Lake Victoria, until the lake became volatile when the UPDF was given authority by President Museveni to stop improper fishing.
Three years ago, Mulengera integrated among his people as a peasant farmer who also keeps animals.
He is now one of the two organic pineapple farmers in Kitimbwa Sub-county who were mobilised by Jakana Foods as part of the supply chain to produce for a unique export market that consumes dried fruit.
During 2017, the horticulture sector received financing from aBi Trust, and Delight Uganda as well as Jakana Foods. They reached 4,366 farmer beneficiaries.
The two companies were mandated to provide training in good agricultural practices, along with technical backstopping.
They also educated farmers about soil fertility management, approaching farming as a business while increasing the awareness about organic certification and in some areas helping to establish solar driers for fruits and vegetable farmers. A 2017 aBi annual report indicated that the support resulted in 2,300 metric tonnes of dried fruits and creation of 181 jobs.
Despite Kayunga being a centre for pineapple growing because of abundant virgin soils, most of the farmers still prefer inorganic produce because it is less tedious.
With his wife, Mulengera established a two-acre garden of organic pineapples, which he started harvesting this year.
For every pineapple, Jakana foods offers Shs800 on top of supporting them with the best agronomic practices that require no use of artificial fertilisers. Jakana is empowered to buy unsold fruit that would otherwise go to waste and sell it as dried fruit.
What it takes to grow organic pineapples
Mulengera explains that the starting point in Kayunga is to hire suitable land.
Each acre of land is hired at Shs15,000 every year with the initial period being seven years.
Mulengera says that after that period, the land is exhausted and maize can be grown for two seasons before pineapples can be re-grown.
Land clearing is normally done by hand while the second ploughing is done by oxen and casual labourers.
After land preparation, rows are marked with a string and pegs with a spacing of 2ft (60cm) between the rows, 1 ft (30cm) between the plants and 4ft (120cm) between adjacent double rows.
Shallow holes of 7 to 10cm deep are dug and then the pedal part of the crown or sucker is planted by compacting the soil around it.
After planting, a farmer digs ridges to help provide a deep bed for better root growth.
Pineapples are vegetatively propagated and although three plant parts can be used, Mulengera prefers to plant suckers, which are offshoots, because they take a shorter time of about 17 months to fruit.
The other parts are the slips, the undergrowth of a pineapple plant and crowns, which is the top spike or leafy part of the pineapple which take about 20 and 24 months, respectively, to fruit.
Each sucker costs about Shs1,000 and an acre requires about 1,000 plants.
His preference is the smooth cayenne, which is the most important cultivar in Uganda.
Mulengera says that there are recommended organic fertilisers which Jakana is supposed to supply but in case they are not available, they fertilise with cow manure and animal droppings.
It comes at a cost though as a truckload is at Shs300,000.
After planting, weeding is done as quickly as possible to prevent disease causing pests as well as the competition for nutrients with the pineapples. He says that casual labourers charge him Shs100,000 for each acre.
Mulengera’s organic farm gives him pineapples each week.
Farmers such as Mulengera still struggle to earn enough money because of post-harvest losses.
Jakana Foods, who buy Mulengera’s pineapples for the export market, allows farmers to sell certified organic harvests.
“Sometimes Jakana delays to collect the pineapples from us and we end up selling to other buyers,” Mulengera explains.
But this delay is slightly beneficial as the buyers are able to sell a big pineapple for Shs1,500.
When there is no such market, rats and other rodents ravage their gardens for the ready fruits.
Termites are another big challenge as well as pineapple wilting, which Mulengera associated with ants and poor soil fertility.
Mulengera explains that gardens ravaged by pests and diseases lead to poor yields and poor quality fruits, which are sometimes rejected by the buyers.
Yet that is just a small problem compared to chemical residues from nearby inorganic farmers.
“Jakana has provided us a hybrid of elephant grass which we plant at the edge of our gardens to stop any contamination,” he explains.
But it remains a thorny business as pineapple leaves are very spiky leaving farmers with sore hands, especially during the weeding period, which is done by hand.
Mulengera, a relieved parent of four, says organic farming is more rewarding with an assured market.
“I can ably pay school fees for my children because I have little concerns over market,” he says.
But Mulengera explains that the solution to surplus supply needs to be addressed by offering farmers solar driers to be able to produce pineapple slices at the farms.
This though faces a stern test of meeting the required hygiene for processing.
Agricultural Business Initiative (aBi) was jointly founded by the Governments of Denmark and Uganda in 2010. It is a social enterprise that channels development cooperation funding to agribusinesses and agricultural service providers in Uganda with the aim of building a competitive, profitable and sustainable agriculture and agribusiness sector in support of equitable wealth creation in Uganda. It currently comprises of aBi Development (formerly aBi Trust) and aBi Finance.
Since inception, aBi has channelled development funding as matching grants and Business Development Services to agricultural producers and agribusiness enterprises to enhance their management, production, productivity, value addition, income, profitability and employment.
This is done for six value chains: coffee, cereals, pulses, oil seeds, horticulture and dairy.
ABi has also supported enhancement of financial services for agribusiness by providing liquidity, de-risking instruments and technical assistance to Financial Institutions.