At 11a.m., Faith Mugote settles down to a breakfast of sweet potatoes and groundnut sauce. Usually she would have the breakfast with her husband but today, Balati-Mukungu Buluba is away surveying a 45-acre piece of land. For many years this couple and others in Kiwungu village, Kamuli District have lived a subsistence life, growing potatoes, ground nuts, maize, beans and cassava. They sold the surplus to raise school fees and money to pay for other needs but were primarily subsistence farmers.
It all started changing a few years ago. Encouraged by a government policy, through the National Agricultural Advisory Services programme, to increase household incomes, farmers are abandoning their traditional food crops for cash crops.
The policy shift, which encourages farmers to turn over some of their land to cash crops to earn an income, however, has some unintended consequences.
Buluba is one of several farmers in Busoga region who are turning their land over to sugarcane growing. With his 45 acres, he has enough land to grow sugarcane and food crops. But he is an exception. According to the report, African Agriculture: From Meeting Need to Creating Wealth (2011), 80 per cent of smallholders own less than two hectares of land.
Despite the denials, since smallholders are the majority, the sugarcane companies would have no choice but to approach such smallholders. Amil Wakabi, from Kaliro, and thousands of other farmers in the area are turning their land over to sugarcane growing but the income from relatively small land holdings, the crowding out of food crops, and the increase in food prices is leaving many of them unable to feed themselves and their families.
The population density (in per square kilometre) in Kaliro is 239, Kamuli (112), Jinja (693), Iganga (201), Mayuge (99) and Bugiri (75). According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos), whereas in 2011/12 the production of cash crops, including sugarcane, among others, grew by 16.2 per cent, food crop production increased by only 1.1 per cent.
Ubos says the production of beans, cassava and sweet potatoes declined from 949 (2010) to 915 (2011), cassava 3, 017 (2010) to 2, 712 (2011) and for sweet potatoes 1, 967 (2010) to 1, 798 (2011).
Food security compromised
Though this was not solely a result of sugarcane cultivation, local leaders say with more and more of their people switching to sugarcane, the region’s food security will be compromised since there is not enough land to grow both. In Kamuli alone, up to 70 per cent of its 500, 800 people live in rural areas.
The percentage of their expenditure on food, drink and tobacco rose from 50 per cent (2006) to 51 per cent (2010) compared with a decline from 34 per cent to 32 per cent recorded in the urban areas.
Meanwhile, the national population is growing at an annual rate of 3.2 per cent. “Everybody knows that besides cash crops, they have to cultivate food crops,” Buluba says, but he admits that the region is reeling from a food shortage, which he attributes to erratic rains and farmers turning to sugarcane growing.
For many farmers, the sweet smell of sugar and the promise of cash are in the air. Over the last eight months, three companies with a capacity to crush 2,000 tonnes of sugarcane per day have arrived to set up factories in Kamuli, Kaliro, Mayuge and Bugiri districts.
As the factories take shape, the three – Kenlon Sugar Factory, Kamuli Sugar Factory and Sugar and Allied Industries Ltd (SAIL) – are outdoing each other to get as many farmers as possible in the districts to feed their factories with raw material (sugarcane) on which their hopes rely.
Located in a fertile crescent bordered by Lake Victoria to the south, Lake Kyoga to the north, River Nile to the west and River Mpologoma to the east, this is one of the most fertile parts of the country and a key source of food.
Farmers in the area grow rice, maize, sweet potatoes, beans, soybean, cassava, groundnuts, cocoa, cotton, coffee, millet, sesame, sunflower, tomatoes, passion fruits, onions and cabbage.
Iganga, one of the districts in the area, is the highest producer of maize and sweet potatoes in the country. Official figures show that it produces almost twice as much maize as Mubende and almost three times more potatoes than Nakasongola, the next highest producing districts. The new sugar factories, which have an eye on those water resources that can be used for irrigation, provide an offer many farmers are unable to resist.
“If I could supply sugarcane to sugar factories over the next five years I would become a millionaire,” Mr Buluba says. Kakira Sugar Works Ltd., the country’s largest sugar factory, is based in the area on a core 9,700-hectare plantation that stretches as far as the eye can see.
The company, owned by the Madhvani Group, started operations in 1930 when the forebears of the Madhvani clan bought off leases held by failed European farmers and, later, native landowners. It has previously tried to expand its area, controversially taking over part of Butamira Forest Reserve with permission from the government in 1998.
It is now facing steep competition from the new sugar factories, which are trying to pry away existing out-growers or encouraging new farmers to turn their fields over to sugarcane or turn them over to the sugar barons. Peasants in the area are now reportedly leasing their parcels of land to the sugar companies for up to Shs300,000 per acre annually. For a five-year lease, one gets Shs1.5 million, which is a lot of money to rural folks.
With rampant unemployment and few sources of cash income, many peasants have jumped at the offer and suddenly sugarcane is the craze in Kamuli, Kaliro, Mayuge and Bugiri districts.
To commercially engage in sugarcane cultivation, a farmer would need above three acres. So far, SAIL says it has 24,000 acres (almost as big as Kakira’s nucleus 9,700 ha) cultivated with sugarcane. The start-up company is still urging more people, especially in Kamuli and Kaliro, to cultivate even more sugarcane.
In Butansi Sub-county, Kamuli District alone, 8,500 acres is reportedly covered with sugarcane. Those numbers include land from large tracts but it also includes smallholdings put forward by cash-hungry farmers. To win them over, SAIL offers to plough the fields, provides artificial fertiliser and seedlings, as well as pesticides.
The companies also promise peasants “stable prices” for the cane, unlike maize whose prices rise, only to fall every-other four months due to gluts that come with bumper harvests. These incentives are similar to those Naads offered to selected farmers growing rice, wheat, maize, tea, coffee and cocoa in an effort to address food insecurity and poverty. But with the collapse of cooperative societies such as Busoga Cooperative Growers Union, many farmers are taking individual decisions instead of zonal planning.
Government’s policy is to encourage farmers to move out of subsistence farming by planting commercially-viable crops but Prof. Zerubabel Nyiira, the state minister for Agriculture, admits that some of the farmers in Busoga who are turning to sugarcane growing “could have a problem because they could become financially secure but food insecure”.
However, he adds that it is not a deliberate policy by the government to invest in sugarcane cultivation at the expense of food crops. “Due to liberalisation, entrepreneurs are free to invest in sectors areas where they will profit most. Sugar has a ready market both within and outside Uganda. That is why many are moving in that direction,” says Prof. Nyiira.
“But I would discourage anyone with less than three acres from cultivating sugarcane commercially.”
Government’s policy is ambiguous. Under the Village Development Model, 100 farmers in each parish were to be supported not only to increase their food security but also to transform them from subsistence to commercial farmers. But, as Prof. Nyiira poses: “What happens to the other villagers who make up the parish? Do you leave them food insecure?”
Some of the commercial crops promoted by the government, such as upland rice, offer farmers a chance to make money while providing a source of food. But upland rice appears to have fallen out of favour with the departure of former vice president Gilbert Bukenya.
Aggrey Kyobuguzi, a National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) officer, says each household, by default, belongs to a village farmers’ forum. Through these forums, they get seeds, among others things, for cultivating. “We encourage them to plant high-yielding crops…to be food secure,” says Kyobuguzi. Sugarcane is not one of the crops encouraged by the policy but here in Busoga it has a ready market and is attractive to farmers.
The crop, however, takes 18 months to mature, exposing farmers to a year-and-a-half during which they have little or nothing to eat and no income. During that time a farmer who grows food crops like rice, maize or beans would have harvested three times.
The opportunity cost of growing sugarcane is also high. From one paddy acre a farmer can harvest up to 10 bags of rice of 100 kilogrammes each. Each bag is enough to feed a family of six for a month.
The same piece of land would yield close to seven tonnes of sugarcane and earn the farmer more money. Unlike other cash crops like coffee, one cannot inter-crop in a sugarcane plantation. Even fruit trees like mango and jackfruit are cut down when sugarcane is planted.
Francis Kaleebi, the Butansi sub-countychairperson, says the area is likely to suffer a severe food shortage in the next five years if farmland is turned over to sugarcane at the current rate. However, Syed Akter Abbas, the general manager SAIL, says they encourage the peasants not to neglect crop farming.
“We are also concerned about food security. So we are advising the people to continue cultivating food crops especially if they do not have ‘enough’ land,” Syed told Saturday Monitor. Kyobuguzi says Naads does not encourage people with less than two acres to cultivate sugarcane for sale but there is no law stopping peasants from doing just that.
Prof. Nyiira says the government has to teach peasants about food security. “People should know that one could be financially secure but at the same time not food secure,” he says. But in one of the poorest parts of the country, such words are easily drowned out by the sweet nothings that the sugar companies whisper in the ears of the poor landowners. It is hard to grow money on trees but many of the peasants here are willing to die trying.