How banana growing turned around the life of a drunkard

Wednesday October 7 2015

Benywanira in his banana plantation in

Benywanira in his banana plantation in Isingiro. He wants to be the biggest banana farmer in Uganda. PHOTO BY OTUSHABIRE TIBYANGYE 

By Otushabire Tibyangye

Behind every dark cloud is always a silver lining. He is a man whose poor background, limited education, or drunkenness would not stop him from achieving his dreams.
Bruce Benywanira, 50, of Kikunyu Village, Kabare parish, Rugaaga Sub County in Isingiro District had a turbulent early life after his parents failed to raise school fees to send him for secondary education.
“I started working in people’s gardens as early as 15 years and very far in Mpigi District. The times were very hard and money was not forthcoming. My biggest problem was that the little I made, I would (spend) drink.
However, after two years, I had earned enough money to buy myself a bicycle, which I used to vend matooke in the Nakivale and Orukinga Refugee settlements.”

In 1990, with the little money he had saved, he sold off the bicycle and decided to marry the love of his life. His partner was from a better background and was in school. He simply ran away with her.
Her brothers came for her at the orders of her father. However, Benywanira narrates, he connived with one of her brothers and she came back to him.
This was the turning point in his life because he was determined to succeed with his new bride.
We started by labouring in people’s gardens. Benywanira stopped consuming alcohol, which enabled him to save some money and he bought land.

He used the land to start growing matooke and dealing in cattle since the area lies in the Ankole cattle corridor.
After five years, he was able to buy more land and planted more bananas. The rest is history.
Benywanira’s lack of education however was a reminder that he should help others access education. He started a secondary school in Kabwohe town Sheema District called Lincoln College, which ran for 10 years before he sold it off and invested the money in matooke plantation.

20 years of growing matooke
Benywanira has 280 acres of matooke and employs about 50 people depending on the need especially during weeding and planting seasons.
Along the way, he has got help from government programmes like Uganda Land Management Programme (ULAMP) and National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads).
ULAMP taught farmers how to manage bananas, integrate other crops with matooke, home improvement and use of organic manure among others.
Rugaaga Sub County was one of the beneficiaries and it is one of the largest producers of matooke in the region.
Benywanira’s production leaped from 400 bunches to 1,500 in 10 years. Currently, he sells on average 2,500 bunches per month.
Benywanira attributes this to improved management, use of organic manure (cow dung), increased acreage and use of better planting materials.

“I used to get cow dung free from cattle keepers, but not anymore since it is now on high demand. As a measure to ensure steady supply I have also started rearing cattle as a way of diversifying and getting manure from them,” Benywanira says.
He bought 70 animals in one month and they have since multiplied adding to his income.
Besides, this has reduced not only on his expenditure of buying manure but also on transport costs.
His plantations have attracted people from near and far, thanks to the participation of his district in the national agriculture trade fair that takes place in Jinja every year.

Benywanira says he had his doubters too.
“People at first said that the matooke did not originate from Isingiro, until they came and visited my farm,” he said.
As a model farmer, Benywanira receives people from across the country who come to learn how he goes about his practice.
“This also attracted the attention of the President who paid him a visit in 2010. I have since named one of the plantations ‘Museveni’ which he found me planting.
The president gave him money that he has used to improve his plantation and bought a pickup truck.

Planting materials, fighting banana wilt disease
Since Benywanira needs a lot of planting materials that are healthy, he has discovered that the stems where he harvests matooke could still be used as planting materials.
“These stem bases can be planted all year round irrespective of the availability of the rain because the rotting upper part acts as water reservoir and will allow growth to continue,” the model farmer says of his discoveries.
Much as many people are hit by BWD, with proper management, Benywanira was able to stem it off.
“I never allow traders to use their pangas thus making it nearly impossible to get the wilt from other sources.”

This success has not come without challenges. Benywanira says wind, hailstorms and drought, are some of the things that he cannot plan for.
Isingiro District is prone to droughts because of lack of trees and bare hills. Tree cover would act as wind breakers and as a source of rain.
Price fluctuations also eat into his profits. When there is bumper harvest, banana prices fall to Shs18,000 and it goes up again during scarcity and he sells at Shs25,000. He now employs 20 permanent labourers and 30 causal ones.

Benywanira has since established a farmers’ school at his home where he teaches fellow farmers without charging them a fee.
“I want to improve the status of other farmers to my level so that they too can produce like me and we move this country to another level,” he said.
“My love for education has never died so I have given my children the best education money can offer by taking them to the best schools in the country since they are my ears in the languages I don’t understand.”
Of his nine children two are at university while the rest are in primary and secondary sections.

Land acquisition
Benywanira has continued to buy land so as to produce more matooke. He targets to be the biggest matooke grower in the country and may be in the world since Uganda is the biggest matooke producer. He also wants his district Isingiro to become the biggest producer in the country.
Benywanira has diversified to a string of commercial houses in Rugaaga town, Mbarara and is planning to build rental houses in Kampala.

The market is still a big problem not only for him but also other farmers in general.
“We have formed Rugaaga Traders and Farmers Association so that we can speak with one voice when it comes to marketing.
There is a big market in Europe and East African countries like Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi.”
Benywanira has been exporting to South London, Sudan and Rwanda but as an individual.

Advice to farmers
Benywanira wants farmers especially those in urban centres to stop practicing “telephone farming” and come to the ground to look at farming practically like him.
“There is a lot of money in farming,” says Benywanira, estimating to take home about Shs40m per month.

I would want to see fellow matooke farmers come together and we start a value addition venture, to export this matooke in another form other than the raw style we are doing.
He also plans to buy a truck to ferry the matooke to the market himself, and a tractor for farm use.