Lule: 20 years in horticulture

Lule explains a point during the interview. Photo by Dorothy Nakaweesi.

What you need to know:

Despite failing to gain from growing ginger, Lule didn’t give up farming as a business. Today, he does not regret his decision.

Deep in Butambala District about 40 kilometres south of Kampala in Lugo village is where I find John Lule, a renowned farmer and exporter with speciality in horticultural.

Lule is deeply involved in horticulture, an activity that many Ugandans think is a business for foreign investors.

His journey into the horticulture export business dates back to late 1980s after he was told about the boom in ginger.

“I started growing ginger but because I was doing it in a rudimentary way, it did not last much long,” he says.

“I had just rushed into ginger growing because I had been told of the benefits that would come with the crop. I entered the business as an opportunist thinking I would share into the proceeds of ginger farming,” he adds.

However, Lule says his major challenge in ginger growing was the competition from Kenyan farmers who had an edge in terms of transport due to the fact that the country is located near the sea.

“Ginger is a bulk commodity, so Uganda being a landlocked country required me to transport the produce to Mombasa, which of course would increase the cost of the business.”

Although Lule was disappointed he did not give up, and thought of diversifying into other crops.

With assistance from the United States Agency for International Development, Lule received training that would later expose him to new markets. The training boosted his capacity in market research on a number of products that could be exported by air and compete effectively with other countries.

During one of his tours in Europe as part of the Usaid training, Lule discovered that Scotch Bonnet (Hot Pepper) was on high demand but short on supply.

Getting into hot pepper
Moreover, according to his research, the weather back home [Uganda] was much favourable for growing Scotch Bonnet.

“In 1994, I embarked on a process that led to the introduction of the Hot Pepper seeds in the country.”

He did this through a partnership with a man from the Netherlands who had shown interest in the promotion of hot pepper in the country.

According to Lule, because the crop is harvested twice in a year, this gives Uganda an edge over other countries that produce the crop.

For instance, in Europe the crop is harvested once in a year.

On top of hot pepper, Lule later introduced on the list of his exports other exotic commodities including avocados, apple bananas, and passion fruits.

All these, according to Lule are grown on a 64 acre piece of land in Lugo Butambala District.

How he maintains consistent supply
In order to maintain the constant supply to the market, Lule could not afford to work alone, thus he formed a company under the Coseda trading name that would link him with other farmers to supplement on what he grows. Through Usaid we used Coseda to market our products as well as expose us to potential markets. We had to identify areas where hot pepper would grow best.

We identified Mpigi District as one of those areas that would easily favour hot pepper growing and that is where we had our first model farms before spreading to Masaka, Mukono and Kayunga.

Transporting perishables is not easy because in most cases they reach their destination after losing some of their quality. Thus we are always mindful of the hours that commodities have to spend on transit after they are harvested from the garden.

The concentration
Currently, we are mostly concentrated in the central region, however, we hope to spread to other areas as facilities, including infrastructure, continue to improve.

Keeping the products fresh
Lule established a pack house with a charcoal fridge that he uses to keep the products fresh before they are consumed for transportation to the airport for export.

Before production and export
Lule exports at least about three tonnes of the products every week to Europe. Hilo Supermarket in the Netherlands is Lule’s major buyer for hot pepper. Through other exporters including Amfri farms, he also supplies the supermarket with 500 kilogrammes of Avocado every week.

On average, Lule earns about Shs50 million in every six months that he supplies buyers. He has also embarked on producing and processing passion fruits for the local market, however the scheme is still on trial.

“Our main product is hot pepper with the main product species being red and yellow. The products are exported to specific markets due to the fact that there are some markets that want yellow pepper like Netherlands while the UK wants red hot peppers. Some don’t mind the type that they are supplied.

According to Lule, his supply and production season runs for six months between December and May. And during summer, the markets will show a decrease in the demand of the products.

Lule is basically involved in every step due to the fact that he has been involved at every beginning of any season. He also has to identify the type of products that the farmers can grow.

Lule has a nursery bed that supplies out growers with the right quality seedlings in order to make sure that the right kind of products are grown.

He has a packer house and demonstration plots that he uses to train out growers on crop and product protocols and exportation.

According to Lule, pests and viruses are some of the biggest challenges to his business. Pests affect the quality of our produces thus I have to see to it that I do whatever is possible to maintain the expected standards.

The other challenge is getting the right quality of seedlings, which as he says needs the government to get involved in order to develop Uganda’s seed industry.

Lule’s involvement in horticulture for the last 20 years has exposed him widely, thus helping the horticulture sector to register growth. He has also helped with building farmer’s capacity, which could in the end create a sustainable horticulture industry.

“I have managed to secure a number of contracts with importers abroad as we try to work on the Global Gap structures to get certification. I have also carried out awareness, training and we are in the process of getting certified.

“This job has become part of me and has helped me form a livelihood as well as giving me the capacity to look after my family. Using this business I have educated my children who have been able to graduate in different disciplines.

Lule says there is money to be made in agriculture as long as one has laid out the right plans.

“Most of the products produced here have got market but one has make sure that he has made research and trained in the necessary logistical handling practices. This applies to all kinds of producers including those producing for local or export markets.