The much hyped banana processing plant established by the government in Bushenyi District to add value to farmers’ produce has not lived up to their expectations, Daily Monitor has established.
Farmers had high expectations when the Shs22b factory was commissioned by President Museveni in January 2005, with the aim of adding value to bananas in form of processing into other products.
The project, which is being implemented under the Presidential Initiative on Banana Industrial Development (PIBID) in Nyaruzinga, Bushenyi District, would later support farmers on research and value addition.
The project’s patron, Dr Florence Muranga, a nutritionist, was sourced from Makerere University Faculty of Food Science and Technology to lead the project that would process matooke into a range of products for sale in local, regional and international markets.
Over the years, matooke has been grown widely in western Uganda as a food crop and the factory was expected to increase production and provide market for the crop.
But nearly 16 years later, the farmers’ fortunes have not changed. Currently, the price of bananas has fallen to as low as Shs500 per bunch and ideally, this would be the perfect timing for the project to save the farmer from extreme losses.
Farmers that Daily Monitor interviewed in a mini survey said they have continued to experience losses from bananas because of lack of market.
Ms Patricia Mwebesa, a banana farmer in Rwentaka Village, Bumbaire Sub-county in Bushenyi District, who owns about two-and-half acres of banana plantation, said before PIBID was commissioned in 2005, she used to harvest 50 bunches of matooke.
And upon its commissioning, he expanded his production to 110 bunches in anticipation that his excess produce could be bought off by the factory for processing. This was not to be.
She was motivated by the training by PIBID officials on better farming methods.
“Every after two weeks, I used to harvest 50 bunches of matooke but when PIBID came, and they started teaching us on how best we can grow matooke for commercial use, I started harvesting 110 bunches of matooke every two weeks,” Ms Mwebesa said last week.
She added: “PIBID has not helped us because they did not buy our matooke yet when they had started, they trained people and we started growing matooke but at the moment, our matooke gets ripe from the plantation and even we fail to get people to give it free of charge.”
Mr Stephen Barugahare, the former secretary of Shuuku Tooke Cooperative Society in Sheema District, said they invested a lot of money in bananas by applying modern farming methods such as mulching.
“We expected to get money from the yields but now a biggest bunch of matooke is sold at Shs2,000 yet we take loans to get mulches; so it means in the coming season, we might not get what to invest for good yields,” he said.
Mr Barugahare said officials at PIBID mobilised farmers to form groups so that they would supply matooke to the factory as a cooperative to have good bargaining capacity.
“In 2014, we formed a cooperative with the guidance of PIBID banana factory but the plans they had for us have never been implemented,” he said.
“While PIBID was starting in 2005, they told us we will not supply them to full capacity, but gave us assurance for constant weekly supply and weekly payments. This was a white elephant. Nothing materialised,” he added.
Mr Denis Earnest Kamurari, the chairperson of banana farmers in Kigarama, Kyangyenyi and Masheruka sub-counties in the neighbouring Sheema District, said the matooke prices are at their lowest yet they have a production capacity of about 60,000 bunches of matooke per week.
“Now we do not have good prices since most markets were closed due to Covid-19 and the banana factory we have at Nyaruzinga (PIBID) has never worked effectively. Right now, we supply them once in a while when they are in need and we have never had a memorandum of understanding with them as farmers where we would even agree on prices,” he said.
Mr George Kundabo, the chairperson of Nyabubare Tooke Farmers Cooperative that comprises120 farmers said people moved to villages as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which affected market for the crop.
Mr Paul Kahiigi, a banana farmer in Kyamuhunga Sub-county, Bushenyi District, said for the last 10 years, the government has injected $40m (about Shs140b) in the banana factory project yet there is little to show for the investment.
In Kabarole and Bunyangabo districts, the biggest producers of matooke in Tooro sub-region, the situation is not any different.
Over the last two months, prices have dropped from Shs5,000 per bunch to between Shs500 and Shs1,000.
Mr Luka Abigaba, a farmer with more than three acres of a banana plantation in Nyakitokoli Village, Karangura Sub-county in Kabarole District, said the low prices have left them frustrated.
“These days I spend the whole week without seeing anybody coming to ask me for a bunch of matooke; I sell matooke to buy other items at home like salt which is at Shs1,000. I need to sell two bunches to buy one packet of salt,” Mr Abigaba said.
Situation in Tooro
Mr Richard Byaruhanga, a matooke trader in Kabarole District, said supply has outstripped demand.
The main markets for matooke in Tooro are Fort Portal City and Bunyangabo District.
The coordinator of the Operation Wealth Creation programme, Gen Salim Saleh, in 2018 commissioned an agro-processing industrial park at Kyembogo in Rwegaju Sub-county, Kabarole District, with the aim of adding value to produce.
Among the factories that were to be established include those involved in banana processing. Farmers were mobilised to start producing bananas on a large scale but to date, the factories in the industrial park have not been established.
The Kabarole District chairperson, Mr Richard Rwabuhinga, said if banana farmers are to benefit from their harvest, the government needs to fulfill its pledge of establishing the agro-industrial park.
What officials say
When contacted last week, Prof Muranga, the director general of PIBID, said he could not talk to the media on issues concerning the project via telephone and that she could only meet journalists physically after the Covid-19 induced lockdown is lifted.
The Agriculture minister, Mr Frank Tumwebaze, while meeting grape farmers in Mbarara District recently, said banana farmers face challenges of low prices because they have not embraced value addition. He vowed to enable PIBID to be relevant to farmers in the region.
“It will be relevant if it gets more funds and more production takes place because you see when you sort production and now you have the issue of the market because since memorial, banana was and is still consumed as a raw product. Cook it, eat it,” Mr Tumwebaze said.
“How do we work with Prof Muranga to scale up her factory but also the export component? A number of our diaspora Africans want that matooke so we shall also look at how we can guide the farmers on how to join export associations,” he added.
WHAT AG FOUND
The office of the Auditor General carried out an independent assessment on the management of the project and found out that there was no feasibility study carried out before the government committed Shs14b into the project, which later increased to Shs40b. The same report discovered that despite failing to complete the project by 50 percent by the time of the report, there was increased funding which was attributed to expansion of the scope of the project. The audit report noted that despite Uganda producing estimated 9.9m tonnes of matooke in 2010, there was a post-harvest loss of more than 40 per cent of matooke produced in the country.