Uganda is making 54 years on October 9 as a post independent country, having been liberated from the British colonialists after years of subjugation since 1894. One of the motivations for the clamour for independence was to have the authority to control our own resources, allocate revenues accruing from these resources to relevant needs of our people so as to deal with the biting poverty among our people. Fifty-four years on, extreme poverty has scathingly claimed many, with millions still in its clutches across Sub-Saharan Africa.
Perhaps the fight against poverty may not have been the leading cause for revolt or demand for independence across Africa. Some argue that power hungry elites, after attaining quality education in European universities and other capitals of their colonisers, learnt the art of mobilising their populace against colonial masters. Many however alluded their struggles to the need to restore social justice and the dignity of their people. This may be true in some instances but not necessarily true across board.
The colonialists put in place strong systems that run social sectors like education, health, agriculture and housing, among others to the best standards possible. In fact, Uganda’s economy was at par with South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore in the early post-colonial era thanks to the firm foundation that the British left behind.
The economies of those countries are now ‘light years’ away with Uganda’s GDP per-capita income at $1,500 compared to $62,400 of Singapore, $17,500 for Malaysia and $33,200 for South Korea, thanks in part to the massive failures of post-independence leaders who seem to have faltered in their objectives. Power centres during colonialism were however in the United Kingdom and the local leaders acted as stooges for the white coloniser. This absolutely needed to be fought to give the common man a say on who governs them and how their resources are utilised.
A look at the current livelihoods and wellbeing of the people of the post independent Sub-Saharan Africa compared to that while still in captivity by colonial masters brings some questions to mind regarding the motivation by the post-colonial leaders and the ‘current crop’ of African leaders to restore social justice and dignity to their communities. Let’s take the case of Uganda and try to ignore the destruction in South Sudan, Burundi, Somalia and others for a moment.
According to the population census findings of 2014, 69 per cent of Ugandans (25.2 million) do not have a sustainable income source and are wallowing in poverty despite the huge potential in Agriculture and vast mineral wealth in this country. A FAO 2015 report on acute and chronic food insecurity shows that more than four million Ugandans are under threat with more than 45 per cent of the total population food insecure despite the fact that 65 per cent of Ugandans are farmers.
Massive failures in the agriculture sector have been attributed to numerous factors including poor quality planting material with 20-40 per cent of planting material in the local markets contaminated by weed seeds and other impurities; low access to agricultural credit at appreciable interest rates with loan sharks taking over the role of agriculture credit provision and grabbing property of farmers; inadequate knowledge on better agriculture technologies, thanks to the tinkering by the ministry of Agriculture on provision of extension services among other major bottlenecks.
It therefore becomes weird that more than two million children are malnourished with 38 per cent of those under five years stunted, resulting in an annual productivity loss worth $899 million in a country where 65 per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture production as the major livelihoods activity and more than 85 per cent directly depending on it.
The fact that a majority of the population thrives when the agriculture sector performs well, is a major indicator on where efforts should be placed in the poverty fight. It will take a massive shift in the manner in which extension services are being provided to farmers and how the whole sector is being funded and managed.
Experiential learning through farmer field schools (FFS), reviving farmer cooperatives and promoting communal farming practices may be the way to go. These approaches would promote peer to peer learning and adoption of improved technologies and simplify extension service provision. This has been tried by FAO in Uganda with great success and could be adopted by the ministry of Agriculture.
For the case of agriculture credit, promotion of community based saving and borrowing schemes that seem to be working as sources of credit for small scale farmers is the way to go. After all, many peasant farmers do not use the formal banking system and have lost trust in commercial bank loans.
This will protect them from money hungry individuals engaged in providing credit to farmers at exorbitant rates. Commercial farmers however require a farmer’s bank and regulation of the banking sector in their favour – a review of interest rates, collateral and agro-input loan services.
Liberating the “bottom millions” in Uganda will therefore need a concerted effort by all stakeholders who wish good for the transformation of Uganda. The target, however, should be the young people making up 75 per cent of this country and struggling to make ends meet, thanks to the 60-70 per cent unemployment rates among the youth.
This need will not be addressed by ‘one- off’ projects like the Youth Livelihoods programme (Estimated in 2014 by ACODE to reach a mere 2,000 youth as opposed to over 4 million job seekers), but by strengthening systems in the ministry of Agriculture.
History will judge us rightly if we try and fail rather than watch a whole generation go to waste.
Mr Ariong is a project pecialist - Agriculture Innovations (One Acre Fund Uganda)
Global Health Core Fellow and social justice activist. @ariongm