In the 1991 National Population and Housing Census, the population of Nakapiripirit District was estimated at 66,250, shooting up to 90,922 people as of the 2002 census and 161,600 when the last census was done in 2012.
The district with an area of 4,196 square kilometres comprises two counties, seven sub-counties and one town council. A 2014 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) district hazard, risk and vulnerability profile noted that the district’s human development index (at 0.25) ranks among the lowest in Uganda.
According to the UNDP report, prolonged drought lasting six to seven months usually hit the entire district accompanied by strong destructive winds while unpredictable climatic conditions result in food insecurity, shortage of pasture, water, social disintegration and migration.
For any agricultural intervention to make impact, it must, bearing in mind this context (climatic conditions and social life of the Karamojong), set its eyes on solutions to these challenges before it can embark on distribution of seedlings or animals, experts say.
Whether OWC did that and to what extent its action or inaction, and omission impact the success of the programme on ground, is the question.
“The sub-region can fairly be described as a land of pastoralists and agro-pastoralists. Despite several setbacks that have afflicted Karamoja Sub-region in livestock production, livestock still forms the fabric of the social system. Studies have shown that for both income maximisation and for resilience, livestock-based herding has proven the best livelihood undertaking in Karamoja. Despite its importance in sustaining livelihoods of pastoral and agro-pastoral communities, livestock production is, however, undermined by inadequate water resources,” Mr Swidiq Mugerwa, an official from the National Livestock Resources Research Institute in Tororo, in a paper, Status of Livestock Water Sources in Karamoja Sub-Region, notes.
About 35km southwards as one exits Karamoja to join Kween District, lies Namalu Sub-county with mountain Kadam, called Debasien during the colonial era, eastwards, rising towards Kenya. It is a fairly cosmopolitan area with high chances of bumping into Baganda, Bagisu, Iteso and the predominant Karimojong. Between smiling faces and innocent village chuckles bordering on bouts of shyness when speaking to strangers, especially through a translator, poverty reigns supreme here.
Even with malfunctioned nostrils one can smell penury from the outset. Up-close and personal with some of the poorest inhabitants of planet earth, to whom the next meal is a game of chance, it is then that one is struck with the importance, at least in the ideal, of efforts such as Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) to lift some of these Ugandans, whose resilience and goodwill towards such interventions is noticeable.
Sixty-six-year-old Rosemary Lochoro from Lokumat Village in Namalu is a mother of five who was, unlike many of her village mates, lucky to benefit from OWC, receiving 10 kilogrammes of both maize and beans which she planted on her one-acre piece of land, later harvesting 150 kilos of beans and 200 kilos of maize.
“I got high yield because we have relatively fertile soil and moderate rainfall in Namalu. I am now going to increase on the acreage so I can benefit more,” Lochoro shared in an interview.
She can afford a smile that corresponds with the glow in her aged but fairly bright eyes as she happily shares about increased household income and enhanced food security. She has also been lucky to get agriculture extension officers coming in to teach her about basic farming skills that can guarantee her increased output.
The story of her experience with OWC has its own bloated pages that instantly steal away the smile and plunge her into a more reflective mood, the soprano voice now getting a little croaky. With a minute or two allowance for her to collect her views together into one consistent and intelligible stream of thought, she shares about the ordeal of having to wait, wait and wait till one almost gave up on OWC supplies.
“By the time the seeds were delivered, the rains had almost stopped falling, then came pests such as the army worm in 2017,” she shares.
Her frustration is not unique. Complaints of OWC supplying inputs with heart breaking inconsistency and disregard to weather conditions and patterns are a consistent complaint across the country.
In a separate interview with this writer, Lt Col Alfred Olak, OWC, District Coordinator for Nwoya, at his Gulu Town home, shared on the challenges in that part of the country.
“There have been constraints in regard to the quantities supplied with no notice given by our colleagues from Naads that they are set to deliver items to Nwoya, so you end up getting information when they are at Karuma bridge and you are expected to organise to have them distributed. When they are delivered, we then have to pick from the lorry direct to the beneficiary, something that comes with its own complications,” he says.
Between the suppliers and Naads which does the procurement, is an umbilical cord of mediocrity which gives both OWC (as the final distributors) and farmers migraines. It is a complaint in the west, east, north and south of the country but despite its prevalence, Naads and its suppliers appear determined to continue doing business as usual. It takes a no-nonsense OWC coordinator and farmers such as Olak to stand up to the late deliveries for there to be a change.
“There’s also been a challenge of late deliveries although in 2018 this improved. At times we have had to reject items delivered after the planting season for example in 2017 ginger was brought here during the dry season and we rejected it,” he says.
Col Olak advocates for reduction in price and increase in access of pesticides for farmers to be able to tap into their full potential.
With poverty levels as high as those in Namalu, distributing seedlings and animals then leaving farmers to find their way around the maze of farming demands renders the programme’s intensely publicised vision a paper tiger.
“We should also have more farmers benefiting from this programme, especially farmer groups so that we can organise ourselves better and produce more,” Col Olak says.
Her proposal holds water, especially if one considers the fact that in some villages across Karamoja, a handful of beneficiaries will have received inputs from OWC, a laughable number for a country that seeks to uplift its poor from abject poverty where more than 80 per cent rely on the soil to for livelihood. These challenges, which were associated with Naads, are not only recycling themselves with OWC but doing so with even more ferocity.
It is not uncommon to find villages where two or three people have received a heifer, four farmers maize and a couple of others beans. One would then need to drive to another sub-county to be shown OWC beneficiaries and they too would have received inputs that can at most keep them chained to the shackles of poverty and subsistence farming.
Who then is benefiting from OWC? The farmer or those in the supply chain, their procurement compradors (to use Marxist language) and officials living large in Kampala while farmers struggle to fix their agricultural needs? The evidence on ground speaks volumes.
In a study this writer participated in with the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies a few months ago, a visit to Pader District in Acholi Sub-region was revealing and similar to the situation in Karamoja.
In Pader District, right from the district headquarters to remote villages, it was difficult to locate beneficiaries of OWC, an indicator that the programme is thin on ground. Pajule Sub-county for instance, is at least 15 kilometres from the town centre but between the two places there was no recognisable OWC activity on ground.
At Lupara Village, Oryang Parish, in Pajule Sub-county, Aruu North County, is a group of youthful farmers under the umbrella Ayeekikoma Youth Group who are beneficiaries of OWC supplies but whose experience exemplifies the situation in this particular district.
Mr James Odongtto, a 32-year-old father of two, received 15 kilogrammes of maize in March 2016 after what he says was delayed delivery and received no financial literacy training. He has never heard from OWC since then.
Ayeekikoma Youth Group, which has 20 members, got 30kg of maize, which when shared among members left each with a cupful of maize grain.
One member yelled in an interview: “They say we are lazy and we drink all the time but surely how can one cup of grain change your life and take you to middle income status?”
These complaints were prevalent in western Uganda too where several farmers interviewed had no kind words for OWC with one sub-county official in Bushenyi saying it has not made a difference in his area and he was appalled that they were only being, “used to justify procurement deals for those people in Kampala.”
The frustration there, in the north and Karamoja is what Ms Lochoro shares, “a distribution mechanism for seedlings that is negligent and oblivious of weather patterns, distribution of inputs for the sake of fulfilling duty and when inputs are received by farmers, leaving them to sort themselves out.”
Mr Richard Lochoti, 38, a father of four and farmer in Kaiku Village benefited from OWC.
Mr Lochoti, who is also the Namalu Sub-county LC5 councillor and the Nakapiripirit District speaker, says overtime, he has been able to receive one heifer, 40 kilogrammes of maize, 20 kilogrammes of beans, 25 kilogrammes of cowpeas and 25 mango tree seedlings from OWC.
It is common to find leaders such as him often benefiting more from the programme in the different districts, partly because they are at the frontline of execution of the distribution, selection of potential beneficiaries and their enterprises. They are also fairly better off in terms of income levels than the average village mate, so they have demonstrated ability to take up projects.
The challenge with that though is the village’s richer grow richer while the poor remain stuck in the cycle of poverty. Officials such as Lochoti are always a darling for OWC officials trying to show success stories of the programme but the devil is in the detail.
Lochoti is a happy farmer who attributes his success to availability of enough grass and water for animals to feed on in the area as well as provision of better shelter and constant treatment. He can, as the district speaker, afford to construct decent shelter and even summon a veterinary doctor or purchase pesticides as he rides back from a district meeting. It is a privileged position many can only dream of in their afterlife.
For many farmers in Karamoja, the line between OWC inputs making a difference in their lives and watching their potential go to waste is usually in the income one needs to get through the hurdles of agriculture which better planning from the State would, in the ideal at least, be able to address.
Even a success story such as Lochoti is not complete without him noting that prolonged drought is such a challenge to the farmers that grass dries up, making it expensive for them to feed the freshian cows that are not used to loitering for a long distance in search of grass and water such as the local breed cows. He, too, has complaints about late and inferior quality deliveries in respect of seedlings.
Like Naads and programmes before it, OWC’s policy statements and documents read flatteringly fine but up-close and personal with Nakapiripirit farmers and their leaders, the journey to transforming agriculture and lifting Ugandans out of poverty remains a fishing expedition, one with heart breaking consequences especially considering that hundreds of billions have been sunk into this programme. Who actually benefits from this? The story in Nakapiripirit leaves more questions than answers.
Mr Job Ilukol, the Nakapiripirit District assistant chief administrative officer, is one of the farmers who have benefited from OWC, re-enforcing the narrative that the big boys and girls such as him always have it easy accessing the inputs in most districts and leaving the left-overs for the wannaichi (common people).
The 52-year-old Ilukol, a father of eight, received one boran bull, one heifer, 40 kilogrammes of maize, 40 kilogrammes of beans and 50 kilogrammes of sorghum.
He is one of the four-acre model farmers in Loregae Sub-county who has been able to improve on his livestock with more than six cross breed cows and bulls that are more valuable and provide more milk.
“I get over 30 litres of milk especially during the wet season when there is enough water and feeds for the animals. Out of the 30 litres my home consumes only five litres while the rest is sold at Shs1,000 per litre,” he shares.
He harvested 900 kilogrammes of beans, 850 kilos of maize and 600 kilogrammes of sorghum and beans and shares with joy about how much his household income has improved. The dry spells and high cost of pesticides is a challenge he shares with other farmers in the area.
“The programme should also have tractors on loan for successful farmers to venture into large scale farming,” he proposed.
The Namalu agriculture officer, Mr Atibu Loyese, says: “There is limited variety of farm inputs delivered, with maize and beans dominating the supply chain. The programme has failed to consider the farmer enterprise selection though farmers in Namalu have on their own initiative diversified using the OWC inputs as a starting point.”
The Nakapiripirit District production officer, Ms Annah Lemukol, says: “Instead of the programme focusing on delivering seeds all the time, it should educate and build the capacity of farmers to reduce over dependence on government.”
She adds: “The government is talking about middle income economy but a hoe is not going to drive the Karimojong into middle income status. If mechanisation is not put in place, government is simply cracking a joke. There is also need for value addition of the farm produce to increase income of farmers.”
The challenge for district officials such as Lemukol is a clear appreciation of what the challenges are, what must be done to address those challenges and a mismatch in terms of what actually obtains on ground as OWC officials in their planning and implementation appear more enthusiastic about delivering on the supply side of inputs and hoping that the somewhat, nature will deal with the gaps inherent in the country’s agriculture sector.
This special report series was made possible by a story grant from the Open Society Initiative for East Africa (OSIEA).