OWC project: Missed targets, lessons and way forward

Sunday June 2 2019

Cassava cuttings that were abandoned by

Cassava cuttings that were abandoned by farmers in Ogur Sub-county, Lira District last year. The farmers claimed the cuttings were of poor quality. PHOTO BY TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY.  

By Ivan Okuda & Leonard Mukooli

What is the problem with transforming Uganda’s agriculture sector? What is it that we just can’t get right to achieve structural transformation that can exploit our maximum possible potential as a people?

There are no easy answers. A journey down memory lane could offer some insight, but even pose more questions on why lessons from the past don’t inform present and future actions. Is the problem political? May be. Is it a question of ownership or lack thereof, of our public policy journey, seen through the wider and oft-time cynical configuration of the post-colonial African state? May be. More questions and more questions.

Funders
In 2001, donors, including the World Bank, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), European Union (EU), Department for International Development (DFID-UK), Danish International Development Assistance (Danida), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Belgian Survival Fund (BSF), Netherlands and Irish Aid, pumped billions of shillings into the National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) programme, then projected as a radical reform of the country’s agricultural advisory (extension) services and a, “paradigm-changing policy-shift, a radical move away from a traditional, top-down government-led extension service to a privatised, demand-led, one in which farmers were supposed to define their own requirements for advice.”

President Museveni launched the programme as part of the broader Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA) before the 2001 elections.
However, Anne Mette Kjær from the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University in Denmark and James Joughin (then working with the Agriculture ministry), in a 2012 paper, ‘The reversal of agricultural reform in Uganda: Ownership and values, Policy and Society’, argued that “Although the reform was always conceived as an ambitious, long-term programme that might take 25 years to succeed, it has been suspended twice, drastically re-moulded, and finally turned on its head, to re-emerge as a government extension service once again. Values, political interests, and elections all played a role in reversing Naads.”

They contend that ownership of Naads was, “never as deep or as encompassing as it appeared on the surface,” and advance four reasons to build their case.

First, the role of the donors, they argue, was more complex than just supporting a home-grown reform. Indeed, among many stakeholders, the programme came to be perceived as donor-driven. Second, a number of stakeholders, most notably officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries (MAAIF) and local politicians, felt marginalised in respect of Naads implementation.
Thirdly, “the design of the Naads programme followed a basically liberal approach to reform, but pro-interventionist forces within the Ugandan polity continued to prevail. Fourth, the political processes in Uganda and the electoral cycles complicated the nature of ownership of Naads.”

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Despite their “rhetoric, donors were not equipped to react flexibly to the complex and, at times, unpredictable domestic political processes that influence policy implementation. This is true in the case of the reversal of Naads but is probably also the case more generally.”

OWC ownership
Although there was a long process of programme formulation in which all stakeholders were heard, ownership was not as encompassing as it first appeared. In essence, Uganda’s “agricultural reform programme represented market-oriented values that were not echoed in large parts of the Ugandan polity. The eventual reversal of policy, back to government-provided extension, and to a large programme of heavily subsidised input supply, testifies to that.”

Naads itself didn’t emerge from the blue. With economic liberalisation in the late 1980s, that came hot on the heels of the NRM’s ascent to power in 1986, there was an atmosphere ripe for reorientation of the public sector. Before Naads, there was the World Bank-funded Agricultural Extension Project (AEP), which didn’t give the most impressive results so much so that its Implementation Completion Report criticised in no uncertain terms, the programme’s top-down less approach that “seemed to ignore almost entirely the importance of empowering farmers and creating a sense of ownership among beneficiaries”.

From this analysis emerged the idea of developing a new project based around “the delivery of extension (and research) services through a mix of private and public arrangements and not through a public body. This was an idea which fitted well within the emerging paradigm of the time, the policy framework that was the Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP) and its sectoral counterpart, the Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA).”

Additionally, key stakeholders, notably local politicians and officials in the Ministry of Agriculture “were shut out from the original programme and this threatened its viability. If a genuine analysis of the economic and political context had been carried out, the donors might have anticipated this. Instead, they were revealed as ill-equipped to counteract the politicisation and re-claiming of ownership by the Ugandan government”.

By 2012, the President had for all intents and purposes given up on Naads just as the World Bank had thrown in the towel on their baby, AEP.

It is against this background that Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) was birthed with the mission of improvement of household incomes through poverty alleviation, wealth creation and overall prosperity of Ugandans through facilitation of sustainable commercial agricultural production. The overall goal was, enhancing household participation in commercial agricultural production through community mobilisation, equitable and timely distribution of agricultural inputs, and facilitation of agricultural production chains.

However, as we have seen in these series, and other media reports on the bottlenecks of OWC, we seem to be walking the same path we abandoned, forgotten nothing, learnt nothing. The promise of a radical shift appears to be drying on the lips of those who made it.

Sooner than later, the government will give up on OWC too, forming a repetitive yet predictable pattern. What exactly is the problem?
In an April 2018 study titled ‘Public Sector Provision of Free Agricultural Inputs in Uganda: The Rationale and Challenges of Operation Wealth Creation Programme’ published in the Journal of Public Administration and Governance, researchers, Robert Tabaro of Kyambogo University and Meshach Katusiime of Makerere University Business School, write: “Our findings revealed that although OWC is well intended (creation of wealth and reduction of poverty at household level), it faces numerous challenges that hamper smooth implementation. The most common identified challenges are small quantities of inputs supplied due to limited budget, poor quality inputs, elite capture and stringent entry requirements.”

Other challenges they identified include fear of the military by farmers, late deliveries of inputs and poor information flow between suppliers, district leadership and farmers.

Recommendations
The researchers recommended that government should increase the agriculture sector budget, improve quality of inputs and information flow between suppliers, district leaders and farmers, but also fully involve the district leadership in the programme implementation.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture Standing Orders of procedure for OWC (2015), district local governments are responsible for selection of beneficiaries, which should be done in a participatory process at the parish level at the beginning of every season at meetings presided over by sub-county chiefs, facilitated by agricultural technical officers and addressed by OWC officers.
Our investigation reveals that on ground, this appears to have remained on paper.

In April 2018, the Independent magazine reported that “In Lira District, the fisheries department rejected a total of 39,000 tilapia fingerlings that were supplied under the programme on the ground that they did not meet the required specification and quality. Farmers in Nakaseke District also complained that they were given too many mangoes and oranges yet they preferred food crops such as maize and beans.”
Several others complained that inputs were supplied long after the planting season.
Gen Charles Angina, the deputy OWC chief, told this newspaper then that the late delivery was beyond the mandate of OWC because procurement of inputs is the reserve of the Naads secretariat, while Maj Kiconco Tabaro, the OWC spokesperson, said they were making efforts to blacklist all suppliers named in the repeated distribution of fake inputs.

Makerere University Business School Economics don Ramathan Ggoobi opines: “Failure of most agricultural interventions in Uganda, let alone OWC, is on account of the historical mistake of promoting agriculture in line with ‘Say’s Law’ - supply creates its own demand.”
In Dr Ggoobi’s view, “Government thinks they could convince peasant farmers, often through mobilisation and supply them with planting materials and other inputs to boost agricultural production. Indeed whenever the peasants fail to produce enough, the leaders accuse them of being lazy”. He adds: “Yet agriculture may only be transformed if demand is stabilised to provide incentives to the farmers.

Stable demand will stabilise farm-gate prices that farmers receive for their produce and also reduce post-harvest losses.”

This special report series was made possible by a story grant from the Open Society Initiative for East Africa (OSIEA).

Background

When OWC was being thought through in 2013, the government sought views of farmers, economists and other experts like Makerere University Business School Economics don Ramathan Ggoobi, who appraised a concept that involved government investing more in establishment of well-equipped regional agro-industrial centres to supply farmers with quality inputs (seeds, fertiliser, herbicides, pesticides), buy farmers’ produce on contract farming basis, add value to the produce, and secure markets for the produce and products.

“Along the way, its implementation was politicised and the results have been mixed,” Dr Ggoobi shares, but is quick to add that OWC “hasn’t been wholly a failure since it has generated debate in agriculture that gave it more resources and private sector interest, the current (supply-side) model led to elite capture. It has benefited more the elite who have been minting billions from supplying poor-quality-pest-infested seedlings to the people”.

For OWC to work, he opines, “it must change strategy and approach from supply to demand side approach. It should promote agriculture based on practical incentives (build agro-industries to buy people’s produce at good prices, reduce post-harvest losses, add value to produce to fetch higher prices) not ‘mobilisation’ or ‘sensitisation’ of people.”

As of 2012, Anne Mette Kjær and James Joughin wrote: “The situation with Naads was a mess. A well-intended project with significant potential for improving agricultural productivity and reducing rural poverty had been subverted and undermined. Policy makers, decentralised governments, NGOs, farmers, service providers, the private sector, the development partners, and several other relevant institutions had all been consulted and the programme was regarded as “widely accepted at home”, to use the words of the Naads director. Why was it then gradually dismantled?”

It is tempting to extract that same vivid description in respect of OWC but we shall be patient and not write obituaries too early. What is clear, though, is that between the politics, the donor community, policy formulation and actual implementation, the magic bullet to agricultural transformation of Uganda eludes us, ever so irritatingly. There are millions of dollars lost, generations missing opportunities, a high population growth trajectory to worry about and yet, we take four steps forward, three backwards. The question is, who will bell the cat?

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