Cassava leaves bitter taste in mouths of Acholi farmers

President Museveni (left), flanked by Finance minister Matiya Kasaija and then Trade minister Amelia Kymabadde during the commissioing of the factory in March 2020.  PHOTOS / TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY.


What you need to know:

  • In the final instalment of our three-part series titled Going South, Tobbias Jolly Owiny lifts the lid on how the shifting goalposts of Bukona Agro Processors Limited have shattered dreams of cassava farmers in northern Uganda.

Along the banks of River Ayago on the Gulu-Olwiyo Highway sits a multibillion factory built to process ethanol from cassava.

Situated in Lapem Village, Kochgoma Sub-county, Nwoya District, Bukona Agro Processors Limited is considered one of the three key technological wonders of northern Uganda.

Together with the Atiak Sugar Factory in Atiak Sub-county, Amuru District, and the Aswa Hydropower Dam in Angagura Sub-county, Pader District, Bukona Agro Processors was widely expected to positively impact households in northern Uganda.

It was at the back-end of 2019 when the company completed the establishment of a cassava distillery plant valued at Shs22.5b. The plan, which also involved assembling environmental friendly ethanol-powered stoves, sounded straightforward—even simple enough.

On March 9, 2020, while officiating at the launch of the factory, President Museveni called upon farmers to embrace cassava production to supply the factory raw materials. Mr Museveni also asked the leaders of Nwoya to show the Trade minister land where an industrial park would be established.

Earlier in 2019, Gulu Archdiocese signed a memorandum of understanding with Bukona Agro Processors to create an internal market for cassava farmers in the Acholi Sub-region. In partnership with the archdiocese, the firm quickly mobilised more than 22,000 farmers under 33 cooperative societies in the region to grow cassava meant for consistent supply to the factory.

Saturday Monitor has, however, learnt that the firm is struggling to position itself to gain the capacity to absorb the unbelievably huge quantities of cassava now in the region.

It is feared that this 70th foreign investment to be established in Nwoya District since 2010 is likely to collapse. Of the 70 foreign investments, 12 are commercial farmers, utilising between 2,500 and 20,000 acres of land. The other 58 are running between 125 and 1,250 acres of land.

Whereas Mr Museveni said the establishment of such firms would help alleviate poverty, the realisation of that dream appears to be fading—slowly but surely. Reports of sloppy and sluggish operations don’t bode well for the firm. Discontent among the cassava farming communities in the Acholi sub-region has also continued to build over the lack of market for the huge volumes of cassava grown.

Mr Raymond Ocira, the chairperson of the Cassava Growers’ Cooperative Society in Nwoya, said that cassava farmers in the district have since failed to negotiate a fair deal with the company. He added that the investor was not willing to move to villages to buy the stock.

“We have failed to negotiate a favorable price to trade the ready cassava because they want to buy from us so cheaply. We instead find the South Sudan market better, although it buys a very limited quantity of cassava,” Mr Ocira said.

He added: “You cannot sell at Shs500 per kilogramme when other markets are offering between Shs700 and Shs800.”

Mr Ocira further revealed that attempts to plead with the investor to secure simple equipment for farmers to chip and dry cassava have been unsuccessful.

The situation is so bad that Mr Geoffrey Okello, the Nwoya County MP, wants Uganda Development Corporation and other government agencies to be summoned before the parliamentary Committee on Trade, Tourism, and Industry to clear the haze around the project.


Change of tack

Saturday Monitor has also established that Bukona Agro Processors’ woes and failure started when the Indian investor originally destined to invest in sugar production in the Busoga sub-region was reportedly diverted by the Trade ministry to northern Uganda. A source at the ministry, who did not want to be named, said the investor came into the region to invest in sugar production, but resorted to cassava processing after the sugar idea hit a dead end.

“He wanted to establish himself in Busoga, but on arrival in Acholi, realised that sugar was not being grown yet he got the licence for sugar … he only found cassava and that is how he then shifted to cassava and secured the equipment,” our source said.

We have established that the first licence the company secured from the Trade ministry was to participate in the sugar industry. When the ministry gave Bukona Agro Processors the all clear, the company, for an unspecified reason, opted to set up shop in the north instead of the east. We also understand that the company is reportedly contemplating investing in other crops in the northern region after failing to establish itself as a cassava processor.

Mr Emmanuel Orac, the Nwoya District chairperson, said the company hit a speed bump after failing to secure raw materials from farmers.

“Recently, when Bukona Agro Processors was trying to shake up the dust and revamp, there were no supplies of raw materials. Much as many farmers grew cassava, their pricing was low to convince farmers to supply them,” Mr Orac said, adding that the price agreed with the farmers was not what the firm was willing to give when the harvest was ready.

Bukona Agro Processors conditioned farmers to chip and dry the cassava before it could be bought. But once farmers computed all the production costs, they saw that it was a raw deal.

Mr Orac said thus: “After many farmers left their cassava to rot in the gardens due to the low prices, they folded their hands the following year and at the time they wanted raw materials, there was nothing because farmers had losses and lost hope. It forced them to begin looking for the raw materials up to Pader, Lira, Kitgum and even Soroti.”

Mr Orac said they have since advised the company to move to villages to collect the cassava by themselves instead of waiting by the factory gates.

He added: “They should move to the field and stock. We have also asked them to find a way of buying raw cassava, and chip and dry it themselves. We also told them to revise the rate of buying the cassava, this will interest farmers once again to grow cassava and supply them.”


Bukona speaks out

Mr Praviin Kekal, the company’s managing director, told Saturday Monitor that their scale of operations had been constrained by the size of their current market despite the huge production capacity of the factory.

“The scale of operations depends on our market and is not a guarantee that we run all through the 360 days a year,” Mr Kekal said, adding, “that is not possible [because] we produce what our market can consume.”

Mr Kekal also disputes the narrative that Bukona Agro Processors has duped famers into producing huge volumes of cassava.

“I don’t go and buy the cassava from the farm. It is the farmer who is supposed to bring his cassava and we buy it. Anybody can even bring one kilogramme or one tonne and we buy it in cash from the factory. I don’t go door-to-door because it is not possible for me.”

A section of Bukona Agro Processors Limited factory in Lapem Village, Kochgoma Sub-county, Nwoya District.

Mr Kekal said any attempt to buy cassava from the villages would fail because a lack of financing would inhibit the company’s capacity to manoeuvre around villages and adequately stock cassava from farmers. He also said farmers were not willing to process their cassava into a form they deal in.

“There are farmers who expect to sell to us the cassava while still in the gardens yet we deal in the chipped and dried cassava,” he said, adding, “When we don’t buy, they turn tomorrow and start crying foul that we are not buying from them.”


Appeal

Recently, the company reportedly sought President Museveni’s intervention. Mr Museveni is believed to have directed the Uganda Development Corporation (UDC) to disburse Shs11.9b to the company; although it has requested a Shs25b bailout.

Ms Catherine Lamwaka, the vice-chairperson of the parliamentary Committee on Trade, Tourism and Industry, confirmed the developments, stating that the firm currently has switched to dealing in sorghum processing after receiving the bailout.

“They were given 11.9b by UDC. When they came back, they started buying sorghum instead and supply at the moment is not much and could not sustain the factory,” Ms Lamwaka revealed.

Last week, the members of the parliamentary Committee on Trade, Tourism, and Industry, were at the factory to assess its progress. The lawmakers wanted to ascertain whether the continued government injection of financial resources into the factory was yielding fruits. According to Ms Lamwaka, the factory management told the committee that the Shs11.9b had not solved their problems.

“When we interacted with them, they told us that they now want to try and process wet cassava from the gardens since farmers find it difficult to process and dry cassava, and that they will be doing a trial for the machine,” Ms Lamwaka said, adding, “Overall, the management is still complaining that they asked for Shs25b and they were only given Shs11.9b and that their hurdles in regards to lack of finances had not been solved by the bailout. But they are optimistic to sell the waste as wet cake for animal feeds while processing ethanol.”

The committee also established that farmers could not acquire cassava processing equipment. The few with capacity were discouraged by prices offered by the investor.

“The cassava needs farmers to have their chippers and driers. It is not easy to do it manually on a large scale and the community also has a challenge with the price offered. But Bukona itself didn’t have their farm to grow the cassava to feed the plant in situations of low supply,” Lamwaka said, adding that UDC did not conduct a feasibility study on the factory before making the Shs11.9b bailout.

Shaky beginnings

At the prompting of Archbishop John Baptist Odama, Gulu Archdiocese—in 2017—embarked on creating a new Catholic parish at Acholibur Town Council in Pader District, dubbed Acholibur Parish Project (APP). Neither the prelate nor the archdiocese had a single idea that the 2017 initiative to establish a new catholic parish translated into a market for the billions of tonnes of cassava commercially produced in the north.

To steer the initiative, an 11-member committee headed by Fr Mathew Lagoro was formed. It was charged to come up with a strategic plan for the project, which would comprise the church building, priests’, nuns’ catechists’ residences, schools, health units, among others. To raise the money, the committee was to mobilise the nearly 10,000 farmers (Christians) in the area to engage in cassava growing. The cassava, with seeds supplied by Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), would be sold to raise money for the construction works.

A year later in 2018, APP had released nearly 6,000 farmers when it started to diversify into other strategies, including food security achievement, livelihood enhancement, savings, and value addition through industrial processing, among others. Things were not looking up. It, therefore, took the APP committee and Bishop Odama by surprise when Mr Museveni invited them to State House, Entebbe, in October 2019 to discuss prospects of collaboration with the State in commercialising cassava growing in the Acholi Sub-region.

Mr Museveni wanted the Archdiocese of Gulu to partner with the government in the field of agricultural development for the Acholi Sub-region and subsequently the whole of northern Uganda, specifically to market cassava. Government believed that it would use the same church to commercialise and industrialise cassava production in northern Uganda since it could quickly mobilise its Christians into a force comprising thousands of farmers to grow the crop.

After OWC embarked on cassava seed distribution more than five years ago, cassava production in the region tripled. Without any realistic market to offload the produce since there were no structures (in the form of association or cooperative societies), apprehension was never far away. Consequently, farmers either dumped the product cheaply or left it to rot in the fields. A few others brewed it into alcohol and sold it cheaply and locally.

Because the church could quickly mobilise its Christians into a force comprising thousands of farmers to grow cassava, Mr Museveni knew he would use the same church to commercialise and industrialise the crop.

During a special meeting with the clerics and other stakeholders at Aringomone Irrigation Project in Pader District, Mr Museveni told the leaders that the Cabinet had approved a Shs33b budget to support the archdiocese in the financial year 2020/2021. That was in March 2020. The funding was meant for the commercialisation and industrialisation of cassava production not only in the Acholi Sub-region but across northern Uganda.

The President also instructed that the lead role in the implementation of the project is undertaken by Bishop Odama.

The Agriculture and Finance ministries were ordered to urgently follow up on the matter. And indeed Shs33b was released towards the cause in August 2020. The funds were to be used to mobilise more farmers, supply inputs, as well as establish facilities to ease the marketing of cassava in the region.

Since it was approaching a political period (the 2021 General Election), critics took the deal for a political cohabitation between the Catholic Church of Gulu Archdiocese and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. But Bishop Odama was quick to set the record straight.

“This project intends to build up a farming community that believes in farming, cultivating cassava, and working together without religious, political, clan, tribal, and gender boundaries,” he stated, adding that when people work together in development, they build peace, which leads to holistic development.


Having another go

Last August, an agreement was signed between the Catholic Church under the Gulu Archdiocese and the government through the National Agriculture Advisory Services (Naads) at the archdiocese headquarters in Gulu. The fresh agreement signed by Bishop Odama and Naads executive director Dr Samuel Mugasi amalgamated Agago Kitgum and Amuru districts to be part of the cassava commercialisation scheme.

Other signatories to the agreement included bishops Santus Linos Wanok (Lira Diocese) Raphael Wokorach (Nebbi) and Sabino Odoki (Arua Diocese).

The agreement signing then witnessed by chief administrative officers from districts across the Acholi Sub-region meant that all the districts in the Acholi sub-region joined the cassava programme.

Youth show a sample of cassava harvest in Nwoya District recently. 

In the memorandum of understanding (MoU), Naads was to provide financial, technical, and expatriate support to strengthen farmers’ capacity. The Church’s main role was mobilising farmers into groups to make sure they are ready to receive the planting materials.

To fortify the agreement, Shs2.9b was immediately availed by Naads in the Financial Year 2021/2022 to provide more cassava (cuttings) planting materials. This, noted Dr Mugasi, was “to prove that cassava is a crop that can be commercialised.”

He added: “As we continue to plant cassava, we are also embarking on building another starch factory in Acholibur to make sure we have the processing capacity to absorb all the cassava.”

After initiating the same in the Lango area, Bishop Odama then said they would soon descend on the West Nile region. He added that the Catholic Church structures across the West Nile region were already mobilising believers. Bishop Odama is confident the MoU will be enforced with action to build inter-stakeholder cooperation in the agriculture sector for the sake of the people.

About Cassava in Uganda

Currently, cassava is the second main staple food in Uganda and has been identified to have the potential of improving the livelihood of smallholder farmers in Uganda.

The major players in cassava product marketing in Uganda are retailers and itinerant traders.

Cassava is recognised as the main crop for poverty alleviation, increasing food and nutrition security, animal feed manufacturing, and for biofuel ethanol industries, as well as alcohol.

Due to its huge consumption by beer-making firms around the country, cassava also has a huge potential to reduce the import bill on wheat, modified starch, liquid glucose, and others.

In Uganda, the National Agriculture Advisory Services (Naads) supports the production and distribution of disease-free cassava planting material and also supports cassava farmers and small-to-medium enterprises to engage in the processing of quality flour and chips, as well as agribusiness enterprises.

A report by Sustainable Agriculture Kigoma Regional Projects states that Uganda currently has an annual net deficit of cassava and cassava-derived products of more than 70,000 metric tonnes.

The annual demand for cassava and cassava-derived products in Uganda stood at 2.85 million metric tonnes (fresh root equivalent) in 2014 and was expected to increase by 31 percent by the end of 2020.

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