Excitement spread across Teso Sub-region following news that President Museveni was due to launch the now controversial Soroti Fruit Factory.
The factory was launched in April 2019 to tap into the abundant citrus fruits for commercial production of oranges and mangoes.
The joy of farmers, who had anticipated to reap from the sale of their produce, has since died out due to lack of market for the fruits.
Mr Moses Okello, a farmer based in Dokolo Parish, Gweri Sub-county, Soroti District with 900 trees of oranges, says he sold off his fruits at Shs20,000 per bag, which he says is too little.
“I expected to earn more than Shs5m, but I almost settled for nothing, it pains, it haunts,” the father of three said.
He had anticipated to sell a bag at Shs75,000.
Leaders had projected that the development would improve farmers’ livelihoods and also create jobs for locals.
However, between November 2019 and January, more farmers a cross Teso watched in disbelief their fruits got rotten.
Out of desperation, some farmers allegedly ferried trucks of fruits to Busia border in a hunt for market but in vain.
Appearing before the Parliamentary committee on Finance on Monday, the State minister for Finance-in-charge of Planning, Mr David Bahati, said the major challenge that the Shs48b plant faced is “farmers grew fruits which are not suitable for juice production”.
Minister for Agriculture Vincent Ssempijja also addressed a press conference at the media centre in which he admitted that the plant is ineffective.
Currently, 98 enlisted farmer groups from within and others from 36 districts outside the sub-region are supplying to the factory.
Farmer’s point of view
Mr Wilson Emuge, an orange farmer in Agule, Pallisa District, told Daily Monitor in a telephone interview yesterday that the challenge is funding.
“Let’s not say the plant is ineffective, what I know as a farmer who has interfaced with officials at the plant is, government has not given enough operation capital for Soroti fruit factory, There is no money to match the amount of fruits among the farmers,” he said.
“We are being taken for a ride, let’s not be derailed, the plant is financially handicapped,” Mr Emuge said.
He said the Shs1.5b that was first advanced to the factory was exhausted after production started in October 2019.
The plant allegedly closed production until they received more funding in late December.
Mr Emuge said Soroti Fruit Factory through Uganda Development Corporation opted to work with individual farmers, leaving out Teso Tropical Fruit Growers Cooperative Union, with 20 per cent shares against 80 per cent for UDC.
“As farmers under Teso Tropical Fruit Growers Cooperative Union, it’s the union that was meant to supply fruits on behalf of the farmers, but because we demanded for what would be a fair price for farmers, our union is seemingly sidelined,” the Pallisa based farmer says.
Mr Emuge added: “Last year was my worst year in citrus farming. I had a lot of fruits worth seven tonnes to be sold but I registered more than 90 per cent loss. The Kenyans and Tanzanians who always bought also never came,” he told this paper.
Chairperson farmers union
Mr Jorem Opian Obicho, the chairperson of Teso Tropical Fruit Cooperative Union (TEFCU), said the oranges being grown that the factory is processing include Hamelin, Washington, and Valencia including improved mangoes.
He said the capacity of the factory is too small compared to the surplus produce.
“Gweri Sub-county alone in Soroti District can produce oranges that can run that factory, but you will find that a Union buys oranges from the farmers at a cost of Shs400 a kilo then sells to the factory at Shs600 a kilo,” Mr Opian said.
“The interest Shs200 they get from the factory is used for hiring trucks and facilitation while in the field,” the union chairperson said.
Mr Opian said they pick oranges from farmers on credit because they do not have working capital.
He said the union has 59 primary farmer cooperative societies across the 79 sub-counties in Teso registered under TEFCU with a capacity to produce 800,000 tonnes of oranges every year.
Mr Opian said by the time the President launched Soroti fruit factory, Teso had an estimated eight million trees of oranges, these statistics are also supported by the findings of Uganda Development Corporation (UDC).
Ms Jane Akiror, the Principal Assistant Secretary (PAS) of Soroti District, said: “The factory is functional, but we need more of such factories in Teso and that’s why I’m appealing to MPs to lobby for more factories for Teso Sub-region.”
Mr Charles Ilukor, the Kumi County MP, who sits on the committee of Finance, says it is unfair for the planners of this country to claim that the fruits grown are not the right ones.
He said government, through UDC used feasibility studies, which informed the construction of Soroti fruit factory.
Factory head dispels allegations
However, the Chief Executive Officer of Soroti Fruits Limited, Mr Douglas Kakyukyu Ndawula, says the fruit factory is functional and the orange line is fully operational.
“The only line that is defective is the mango line, and I can tell you that we are procuring a new mango line which will increase capacity from two metric tonnes to 48 metric tonnes per day.
Mr Ndawula said the current orange production ranges from 50 to 80 metric tonnes of oranges per day, but as business picks up, they will add two to three shifts a day.
“The project objective is enhance house hold income, buy volumes, create demand and earn more,” he said.
Mr Ndawula also dispelled rumours that the plant is not being capitalised.
“The truth of the matter is we first received Shs1.4b as purchase capital for the fruits for the plant, later in the second quarter managed to receive Shs8b, which we have been using to purchase fruits from 98 enlisted farmer groups across the sub-region,” Mr Ndawula said.
He said the factory is into full commercial production of fruits from farmer groupings, cooperative unions, primary societies, farmer companies and associations spread over 39 districts.
“We make Teso Juice (TEJU) concentrate (Mango and orange) and ready to drink juice (mango and orange),” he said.
Mr Ndawula said contrary to reports, the factory is procuring and processing locally available varieties such as Valencia, Hamline, Washington-navy.
“For the case of mangoes, we are purchasing, Tommy atkins, kakule, boribo, zellet, apple mango, Ngowe, Kent, keitt and Haden, among other improved mango varieties,” the officer said.
Mr Ndawula said they advise farmers to join various farmer groups to enable them efficiently supply the factory.
“It is therefore prudent for all local and national leaders to advise and inform the public objectively,” he said.
Mr Ndawula pledged to sort out the capacity issues of the plant through installation of extra equipment.
Soroti Fruit Factory was constructed by the government of Uganda with support from Korea International Corporation Agency (KOICA), at estimated cost of Shs48 billion.
In October, Soroti Fruit Factory produced its first processed product, the Teso Juice dubbed ‘Teju’.
The juice was going to be part of the snacks or meals served on the newly launched Uganda Airlines, the Finance ministry posted on its Facebook page.
The Minister of Trade, Ms Amelia Kyambadde, then said the fruit factory was fully functional.
“The fruit factory started production. Their juice is already on the market,” she said.
According to the ministry’s Facebook post, Teju juice would hit the Kampala market. The 350ml bottle would be at only Shs1,000.