Looking at me in the eyes, she innocently asked, “Daddy, why do people get surprised when I tell them I want to become a farmer?” Before I could answer, her brother responded, “Because they don’t expect that. They think you should be a doctor or an engineer.”
This interaction with my children drove me back to the debate I have always had with people who tend to look at farming as a part-time or second rate profession that they opt for due to retirement or when everything else has failed.
The situation has been worsened by the mindset that the society has about farmers. They are usually depicted as poor uneducated peasants living in leaky grass-thatched houses with barely enough to clothe, educate or feed their children.
They are always associated with having a begging bowl for whoever cares to throw some pennies their way.
Such stereotyping is deeply engrained in the adult generation and slowly being passed on to the younger generation.
In a speech to close a Youth Agriculture Event hosted by USAID, the US Ambassador had this to say, “The average age of a Ugandan farmer today is 54 years old and now, more than ever, we urgently need to inject the energy of Uganda’s youth into the agriculture sector in order to realise the potential for expanded production, and for expanded profit.”
This implies that the youth and the highly productive age group of 25-45 years are hardly active participants.
A compelling definition of a farmer as given by yourdictionary.com goes like this: “A farmer is a person who owns, works on or operates an agricultural enterprise, either commercially or to sustain himself or his family.”
In my Agriculture class of 1997 at Makerere University, I am certain that if we had been asked on graduation day how many of us were going to be farmers on leaving the university, not more than one per cent would have responded in the affirmative.
We all looked up to office jobs and at worst being extension service agents for the government or private companies.
Most of us took on agricultural studies as a result of failing to get enough marks to pursue Medicine, Pharmacy, Engineering, among other “highly ranked” courses.
With the increasing urbanisation, there seems to be an growing appreciation of the role farmers play in our survival. However, this only gets noticed when commonly demanded food items become scarce.
As a result, it has led a number of urbanites to consider part-time careers as farmers albeit in an absentee manner.
The choice of farming as a primary profession is still not regarded by many among the educated lot of Ugandans. Whoever gets a semblance of schooling believes they are worth more than merely tilling the land.
Uganda has time and again been regarded as the most entrepreneurial country in the world.
The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report of 2014 revealed that 60 per cent of Ugandans, from 18 to 64 years of age, had entrepreneurial intentions (percentage of individuals expecting to start a business within the next three years). The country came second in the world to Botswana.
The same report indicated that 76.9 per cent of Ugandans in the same age bracket perceived that there were opportunities within their immediate environment to start a business venture in the next six months. Why is this information important?
Farming is largely an entrepreneurial activity. Dan Sullivan of Strategic Coach once defined an entrepreneur as, “... someone who does not expect compensation until he has created value for someone else.”
This fits in well with the justification of farming as a form of entrepreneurship. No farmer expects to be paid any money until their produce is on the market.
With the high affinity towards entrepreneurship by most Ugandans, why is it that we do not patronise farming as one of those core areas we can delve into?
The youthful generation is moved by what is perceived as ‘cool.’ Previously underlooked professions in sports and music have gained the ‘cool’ tag and are much sought after by today’s youths.
Farming, on the other hand, is even failing to attract agriculture professionals due to its failure to establish career progression routes.
Intervention in farming often on investment in machinery and other inputs.
Not much effort is put in recruiting, skills development and attracting top talent. With the entrepreneurial streak in most Ugandans as per the study mentioned earlier, it should not be too hard to appeal to the average youth.
An effort, however, has to consciously be made to reach out especially to those fatigued with the corporate lifestyles and yet have the talent to make positive impacts in agriculture.
Here are some ways farming can be made more attractive.
Entrepreneurship in general in Uganda has been promoted by the continuous coverage certain leading businessmen and women get regularly in the media. This has led many youths to aspire to be like them. Events such as Pakasa are such a good opportunity to front the gospel of farming.
Before long, the fruits will start to bear. Urban farming and, in particular, chicken rearing has been massively adopted my many families with the end result being more youthful participants entering the trade.
Farming as a subsistence activity is the impression that many have about farming.
Most people imagine themselves waking up and toiling day in day out digging with a hand hoe, struggling through the rainless seasons until a paltry produce is harvested only to be offered a measly sum for their efforts by middlemen.
Value addition of most farm produce has the potential of increasing returns by more than 50 per cent. A kilogramme of maize seeds costs as low as Shs400 during the peak production season. Milling the same maize will make it fetch at least Shs1,000 (wholesale price).
The more people learn inexpensive ways of making tomato sauce from their tomatoes, wine from jackfruit, sausages from chicken or rabbit meat, glue from rice, packaged juice from mangoes et cetera, the greater the lure will be towards farming. This information has to be proactively shared.
Many would have made efforts to venture into farming full time but it is the lack of proactive policies aimed at making their entry easier that is still hurting.
Take the case of agricultural loans, the interest rates charged are way too high for any aspiring farmer to make sense of.
Even in cases like the Bank of Uganda-managed Agricultural Credit Facility that guarantees a farmer to borrow at no more than 10 per cent interest rate from the bank, there is a ‘conspiracy’ by participating banks not to promote such an obviously good loan facility in preference for their own higher interest loan schemes.
Land usage policies need to be addressed to make it easier for those who do not own land to acquire some for productive use.
Anyone familiar with the countryside knows too well the poor state of our feeder roads, access to electricity and water.
Apart from a few highways that give a semblance of good roads, one can hardly drive more than five kilometres off the highway without facing traction challenges especially during the wet season.
Electricity coverage by the main grid has improved over the last 10 years but is still pathetic, same with the piped water that is largely restricted to the urban areas.
Most that have ventured into farming have had to set up their own water sources as well as embrace the use of generators thereby making their capital expenditure much higher than it should normally be.
These barriers are likely to limit new entrants that do not have much money to spare especially after spending a generous sum purchasing land.
Agritourism involves any agriculturally based operation or activity that brings visitors to a farm or ranch. Schools are a good starting point as they have already structured programmes in their syllabus aimed at field exposure of their students. The next target is the largely urban corporate populace that spends most of its time in the confines of their offices.
Getting them acquainted with farm operations and arming them with an understanding of how food leaves the ground to eventually reach the supermarket shelves could encourage quite a number to try their hand at farming.
In line with value addition outlined earlier, the more educated entrants into the farming space are more inclined to appeal to commercial farming as opposed to the basic subsistence farming.
Efforts to promote commercial farming are definitely more likely to attract investment from the corporate class.
To quote the US Ambassador once again, “Unlike many young people, you have had the opportunity to get a valuable education but we all know that the job market is tough for graduates.
Perhaps now is the time to follow the example of some of those you have met in the past few days. Take your education and critical thinking skills and apply them in a field where you can make a true difference: Agriculture.”
We may have lost out on the love for farming, however, can we give the younger generation the right opportunity to venture into it?
The writer is an agribusiness and ICT consultant. Follow @wirejames