Coffee farmers are frothing at the mouth like overheated cappuccino milk over plans to bring them onto the radar. Government says it wants to register farmers in order to trace the origin of all coffee grown in the country. In a Robusta rejoinder (better puns next time, I promise!), farmers say the Bill talks of “licensing”, stipulates sanctions for non-compliance, and is thus punitive.
Instead of mulching their coffee bushes, farmers have been belching fire and have vowed to meet any clipboard-and-pen wielding bureaucrat seen wandering through their shambas with machetes. For nerds like your columnist, this is an excellent example of poor choice architecture killing what is otherwise a good idea.
We will return to this at the end but first, a separate but related story about land. In 2017 government introduced the Land Act (Amendment) Bill seeking, inter alia, to allow for the compulsory acquisition of land for public works and other projects of strategic national interest. Landlords all over the country girded their loincloths, drew a line in the sand with their big toes, spat some invectives, and dared the government to bring it on.
Around the same time the Kampala Capital City Authority was facing a land problem. KCCA had money from the World Bank to rebuild roads in and around the city, but the cost of compensation would have vacuumed up most of the cash. So KCCA officials did something so simple, it could even count as radical: They spoke to the landlords and asked them to cede some land for the road works.
They showed landowners how much of land they needed, promised to rebuild any infrastructure like perimeter roads that would be demolished, and pointed to the value the improved roads would add to the properties. Most landlords agreed to give up land, including in perhaps Uganda’s most premium neighbourhood, Kololo.
Why did a government Bill seeking land for road projects fail while KCCA’s village meetings seeking the same thing worked? There are many obvious reasons, including suspicion about the central government’s true motives, but two that stick out and are useful for our discussion stand out.
The most obvious is that the KCCA plan had very clear benefits. Landlords could see that for very little land, they were going to get a lot of road and improved access. The roads were theirs. On the other hand, the Bill was abstract and did not show how much land was needed, where, and for what project. It was all stick and no carrot. Secondly, the KCCA plan was conducted at the community level.
Once one neighbour agreed it was easier for the next and the next and so on. One would have to have a very good reason or a very bad heart to be the odd man out in such a setting.
There are at least three other reasons why government’s Bill has all but failed, and why other regulatory attempts often flounder. First, there is policy incoherence where government preaches the water of private sector-led free market non-interventionism while intoxicated on bailouts of cronies and handouts to phonies.
Two, there is policy incongruence where things that should be left to work are countermanded by human intervention. This applies anywhere from traffic cops ignoring traffic lights to play small traffic gods, to “orders from above” perverting due process.
Then there is the sheer incompetence where even our best intentions and regulatory efforts are not enough to keep out counterfeit medicines or fake seeds. We are a country in which the ‘beef’ in beef samosas is silent.
Whether the government wants to license or merely register coffee farmers – or whether it wants to get broader acceptance of its plans and policies – it should start with two basic rules. First, emphasise the reward over any risks. It shouldn’t be hard to show farmers they will get higher prices for their coffee if its provenance can be shown and a suitably tear-jerking story crafted around volcanic aromas or sun-kissed coffee berries kissed by the breeze from crater lakes.
Second, the solutions should come from those closest to the problem. Allowing farmer groups to register their members – basically what the cooperative societies used to do – is easier and allows for peer review if one of them has a habit of supplying high quality stones weighed down by poor quality coffee.
These are really basic concepts and one could go on and on. For a bit more than the price of a good cup of coffee I know many smart people who can help government solve half its problems by redesigning incentives. All the powers that be need to do is to wake up and smell the coffee.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.