What started as a hobby for him has now turned into a passion with plans to retire into farming when he completes his tractor loan in 2021.
He began his journey with rice growing which he says is marketable and plans to grow soy bean on his newly acquired 50 acres of land in Lakang.
Gulu-born Robert Kidega who has for all his adult life worked as truck driver plying the Kampala-Juba highway is now a happy farmer with a combined 64-acre piece of land.
Having been raised in a small holder farming family, Kidega, 35, never really liked farming as a child.
“I am a farmer’s son but I felt it was never going to be my way since we could only get food,” Kidega said.
After he bought 14 acres of land in Corner Bana in Amuru District, Kidega was enticed by the potential of feeding hungry mouths in Gulu Town.
“It was all about the prestige of having land as a grown up man. I never really dreamt of making money through farming,” he said.
In 2017, Kidega organised Shs7.7m which he used to acquire 14 acres of land. He hired a tractor to plough the land at a cost of Shs80,000 per acre for the initial six acres he opened up.
Buying rice seeds at Shs35,000 per basin from a seed supplier in Amuru Town, Kidega marked his beginning as a commercial farmer.
In 2018, which was his second season, he planted 10 acres of rice. The rest of the land is now used for the sesame also known as simsim.
He was content with his earnings until he learned of agriculture funding by Equity Bank that allowed farmers to acquire farm machinery.
Kidega was challenged, and vowed to take farming more seriously, considering he was spending a lot of money on hiring the tractor for a combined Shs160,000 for both the first and second ploughing every season.
He soon realised that farming could not just be a hobby for him.
Even though he still takes his driving job seriously as he transports building materials around Gulu on his truck, he is considering farming as a full-time job when he completes financing his loan.
He decided to plant fast growing hybrid varieties in order to be on time whenever his loan is due.
Kidega said that “rice, unlike other produce has a big market even in Gulu.”
The father of three has found rice growing greatly rewarding and a source of food security.
His turning point was the opportunity he took to acquire a New Holland tractor at Shs115m with his original piece of land as collateral for a loan from Equity Bank at an interest rate of 17 per cent payable in four instalments every after six months.
He devoted the entire land to growing a fast growing rice variety to enable him repay the loan on time.
With his first instalment due in November, he has deposited Shs14m so far. But he says although driving introduced him to farming, it is the latter that has given him the income boost he had never dreamt of.
Expecting to harvest between eight and 10 tonnes of rice, Kidega is hoping for the best.
“Despite the delayed rains this year, I am expecting a good harvest. I think rice is a good food crop.”
Kidega devotes much of his time on the farm where he employs three people – a driver, who is also his long-time friend, James Owot, a turn boy and supervisor. He still stays in his Gulu home which is about 94 kilometres from Amuru.
Sharing the bounty
Since Kidega now enjoys the fruits of mechanised farming, he has also taken the effort to reach out to other farmers who have yet to acquire tractors.
Amuru District is one of the most sparsely populated areas in Uganda with the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) estimating just over 200,000 people living there.
This coupled with the fact that they are still recovering from the Joseph Kony-led insurgency has denied most farmers the services of capable youth that can work on their farms. Consequently, most farmers import labour from West Nile during the weeding and harvesting seasons.
“We have a huge shortage of labour and most farm owners rent my tractor,” he said.
It is good business though. He charges Shs80,000 for each acre. This is the money he has used to maintain the tractor, pay the workers as well as make some deposits on his loan at the bank.
He also helps transport other farmers’ produce to Gulu for a fee. Lakang is accessible only through private means or via a boda-boda which costs Shs40,000 from Gulu. Taxis operate in the area only on Wednesday and Saturday, which are market days.
Kidega has become a model for other farmers trying mechanised farming that may help them open more land and get higher yields. Owot, who clears about 10 acres in a day said this has solved the plight of farmers who needed to import labour.
Kidega doesn’t mind that he doesn’t get enough from fellow farmers. But perhaps his service to the community is a win-win situation for him as he is now a model farmer who is among the first to benefit from government programmes.
In terms of income, a diligent farmer may earn a net income in millions of shilling if he is determined to pursue mechanised farming, Kidega attests.
With a great desire to open up huge chunk of land, he hopes to acquire a harvester.
“Agriculture financing is a relief to farmers like me even though some people are objecting fearing that they will lose their jobs as machines take over their work,” he said.
With the current market price for rice ranging between Shs2,300 to Shs2,500, it’s the beginning of a new journey for Kidega.
He hopes to start mixed farming although he feels a 17 per cent interest rate on agricultural machinery is high with the repayment period of two years too close.
“Sometimes the yield is poor like this season when we had late rains and one obviously gets concerned,” he added.
Farm inputs like fertiliser also remain a big impediment to his farm operation as he says some of those on the market are not good and he has to travel all the way to Kampala where he expects authentic products.