A few smiles as our cattle begin to deliver the cheese

Sunday August 5 2018

Bernard Tabaire

Bernard Tabaire  

By Bernard Tabaire

Uganda is looking up in terms of milk production and export of milk products.
It even appears a boom is within dream range. Efforts to increase production and productivity, collection and transportation, processing, plus finding markets are paying off.
And last week the country made a first beef export of 50 tonnes to Egypt. The knock-on effects of these sorts of developments are obviously salutary. Better income for dairy farmers, increase in foreign exchange earnings for the country, more jobs, increase in taxes for the government. Plus more.

This is steady progress. But why has it taken decades to get here? President Yoweri Museveni has talked like crazy trying to attract investment in sectors like agriculture. He has talked up availability of free arable land, dangled tax holidays, opened up access to State House where he has at times met quack investors.

The results have not been all that impressive. A large part of the problem has been lack of an overarching policy that is sound enough to be implemented with a singleness of purpose. In the agricultural sector, we have flailed from Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture to Naads and now Operation Wealth Creation, and who knows what else the cat may drag in.
Talk of adding value to raw food products through say, agro-processing, has been just that. After decades, not a single industrial park is up and running in any meaningful way.

The twiddling of the thumbs in civil service continues. So, the Big Man makes a splash with some big investment announcement and there is virtually no follow-up. It is either because the announcement was made in haste (the gossip/Mobile Money taxes come to mind) or there was consultation and there was no follow-up plan actually. Or all of these were done, but some technocrat was too lazy to do his or her job.

Of course, the President is to blame for not firing such people. He is the one in charge of the country. He just reminded us a few days ago. He is the (military) man in charge, not the judges. Why then not just abolish the Judiciary?
Mr Museveni can’t, but in denouncing the judges, he is staying true to the script as tried with the media: public denunciation, hoping to force self-censorship, second-guessing. In blunt terms, the President threatened the Judiciary. And no response has been registered.

But back to agriculture. When you look casually, steady progress turns out to be shaky progress. The maize sub-sector is in dire straits. As if we didn’t know. And that’s the tragedy.
We know that the good rains will bring a bumper crop. Yet we act like this was news. The price per kilo has plummeted from about Shs1,500 last season to Shs200 now. This is ridiculous. Frustration is everywhere amongst the smallholder farmers, who are the vast majority.\

It is not like Ugandans don’t want to work. They do their best, but, man, the sort of broader support needed such as setting and enforcing standards, seeking markets lags.
Only last month did the grain policy — which seeks to “increase the incomes of farmers and ensuring effective supply of quality grains and cereals” — breath to life with the launch of an implementation plan. Isn’t it weird that we didn’t have such a policy before? No matter — this is a government of the glacial pace.
I do not know what the details of the plan look like, but if it does not have quarterly deliverables, well, we may yet wait until the end of times to nudge the grains sector forward.

There is the matter of the eternal question: why export raw maize, why export coffee beans? Value-addition seems to be the hardest thing to do this side of heaven. When I look around, I don’t find explanations, nor good excuses. We just slog on fwaa. Except when we must expedite changes to the Constitution to entrench autarchy.

I have done zero research on this, but I think that if the Museveni State spent just one tenth of the amount of time, money, effort that goes into power-retention on the agricultural value chain, Uganda’ food basket claim would be the acclaim of all in the region and beyond. That accolade, however, has to wait for the time being. It belongs to some future, which maybe a distant one.
But kudos to the early cattle steps.