Achieving middle income status by commercialising farming has been government’s mantra, and has guided several national projects, for many years now.
Yet progress on the ground in achieving this golden goal doesn’t quite reflect the several projects implemented and the billions of money that have been spent. Should policy makers and programme implementers be doing anything differently to ensure that we achieve this goal? What is the missing link?
I have had the opportunity to work closely with small-scale farmers in parts of eastern, central and northern Uganda over the last eight years and have noted several issues.
First, the gap between policy and practice on the one hand and local reality on the other hand is extremely big and seems to be getting bigger. For example, policy makers have always complained about market access for small-scale rural farmers. The message implied in these messages is that these small-scale farmers often lack markets, and this is what has driven road construction across Uganda, for example.
The reality, however, is that small-scale farmers across rural Uganda are already highly integrated in markets of various kinds. They sell their produce to all kinds of small and large middlemen, as they also purchase their household goods from various small and large retailers.
Often missing from the discussion regarding market access is what kind of markets these are, in which small-scale producers are heavily integrated.
The reality is that these markets are highly volatile, unpredictable, and the prices they offer to farmers are often low and render farming unviable. Attempts have been made to bring market information to farmers using various phone applications, however, this often doesn’t achieve any meaningful impact because those markets are either too far or remain unpredictable and their prices too low.
Second, consider the usual talk about commercialising farming and, simultaneously, eliminating subsistence farming. The reality, however, is that many small-scale farmers have already commercialised, or they strive to commercialise their farming. Peasants or subsistence farmers, as we know them, do not exist in many parts of Uganda today.
Those that have commercialised, or attempt to commercialise, encounter fake farming inputs, ranging from farm implements such as fake hoes to seeds that often fail to germinate. Many small-scale farmers, having made huge losses abandon farming altogether and migrate to the cities or remain in the villages with uncertain future.
These are the boda bodas, the hawkers, patrons at betting shops and unemployed idle youth roaming around.
Third, with farming heavily dependent upon household labour, healthy bodies become especially key to farming activities.
But our health centres are too far from homes, or if they are close, they may be ill-equipped, and have neither drugs and nor qualified medical personnel. The resulting high morbidity and mortality profoundly erode farmers’ physical labour and time spent on farming activities.
Farmers’ capital base is wasted on medicines that have no effect on disease, and their labour on avoidable burials and related rituals.
Others have argued, perhaps rightly, that small-scale farmers should modernise; that they should abandon use of rudimentary tools such as hand hoes and adopt more efficient tools such as motor-driven tractors, if they should produce more. However, it is now well known that small-scale farmers produce, for the same unit of land, relatively more than large-scale modern monocrop farms.
On the same unit of land, small-scale farmers raise chicken, goats, maize, beans, pawpaw, mangoes, avocado, etc., producing more volume per unit of land, compared to large scale monocropping.
These intensive, highly integrated small-scale farming systems, have a greater potential for organic farming practices, maintaining soil fertility, and keeping our environment cool and lash. Can we strive for a healthy balance between modernity and ecologically sound practices? If so, what would it look like?
The idea that small scale farming is backward is tied into the narrative that casts rural producers as lazy, and that they could produce more if they employed modern farming methods. The reality again is that many modern technologies that have been brought to rural farmers are unsuitable for our ecological conditions.
For example, the Boer goats imported by Naads couldn’t survive in our tropical environment. Tractor blades, not well employed, turn soil too deep and bury rich topsoil further into the ground, adversely affecting soil fertility.
I develop these insights by sitting with small-scale farmers and listening to their stories, without the bias brought about by my identity as a wealthy Kampala expert that is judging their ways, to whom they aren’t afraid of revealing their deeper stories and personal struggles.
Collecting my data this way, makes me wonder how I might better enrich the rapid rural appraisal methods so often employed by mainstream experts as they develop national development policies and programmess.
Daniel Lumonya, PhD, is agrarian change and farming systems consultant.