Vanilla farmers spend nights in gardens as thieves go on rampage
What you need to know:
- Although harvest season is in July, vanilla farmers say thieves are raiding their gardens for immature vanilla beans.
On the night of March 24 , thieves raided Mr Edward Kisubika’s vanilla garden at Nsanja Village, Ntenjeru/ Kisoga Town Council, Mukono District, and made off with an unspecified quantity of immature vanilla beans.
The following day, Mr Kisubika reported a case of vanilla theft at Katosi Police Station, but the thieves have not yet been apprehended. There is general concern that many such cases are reported but none is arrested.
“Victims are only promised that investigations are underway.” Mr Kisubika says.
There are many vanilla farmers in central and south west Uganda experiencing the same frustration as Kisubika. The farmers have now resorted to spending nights in gardens guarding their vanilla crops while those with money have hired private security guards to man their gardens.
In the central region, theft of immature vanilla is rampant in Mukono, Buikwe, Kayunga, Kyotera, and Masaka districts.
Mr Ronald Katongole, the chairperson of Lwankoni Vanilla Farmers Association in Kyotera District, says their combined effort to stop thieves has proved futile.
“Theft of green vanilla in the district has now forced many farmers to stay outside during the night so that they can protect their gardens,” he says.
In some villages, Mr Katongole says, vanilla thieves strike during day when farmers are asleep after spending the entire night awake.
“It seems the current theft of vanilla is a syndicate and the gang has agents in villages who give them information about a particular garden they should raid, this is why they are able to beat our security,” Mr Katongole adds.
He says some of their members have tried to hire private guards, but this has proved to be expensive.
“Those that hire private guards spend Shs400, 000 on each guard every month yet they need like six guards to man the entire garden for at least six months,” Mr Katongole reveals.
Mr Luke Owoyesigire , the Kampala Metropolitan deputy police spokesperson, says their officers in Mukono are investigating some vanilla theft cases and once the suspects are arrested, they will be arraigned in court.
Mr Lotan Ssejja, the chairperson of Mukono Vanilla Association, attributes vanilla theft to agents of speculators in the business.
‘‘The harvesting period is expected in July, but theft of immature vanilla is alarming. The thieves raid our gardens and we really don’t know who is buying immature vanilla,’’ Mr Ssejja says.
‘‘We tried to hire security guards but we could not maintain them due to higher costs involved . It’s also very dangerous to have armed guns in vanilla gardens, some ended up using the guns to kill garden owners,’’ Mr Ssejja says.
Mr Umar Kityo, the Uganda Vanilla Growers Association (UVAN) field coordinator in Buikwe District, says they no longer hire Local Defense Unit personnel (LDUs) because they were conniving with the thieves.
“At Lubongo Village in Buikwe District, Mr Nsambu Abubakali hired six LDUs to guard the garden but still his vanilla was stolen ,’’Mr Kityo, who is also a farmer in the area, reveals.
He says UVAN has embarked on forming partnerships with individual farmers by providing them security at a cost, which money they deduct when buying vanilla from them.
A kilogramme of green vanilla has in the first three month dropped to Shs4,000, but it is expected to cost up to Shs100,000 by July .
However, on the international market, Mr Kityo says a kilogramme currently goes for $612 (about Shs2.2m).
Mr Gerald Mukwaya, a famous vanilla farmer and trader in Lusaka Village, Kyotera District, has called for a statutory instrument that bans vanilla trade before harvesting time.
“If the law is put in place and well enforced, cases of vanilla theft will reduce and the quality of vanilla produced in Uganda will greatly improve,” he says.
Vanilla growing has increasingly become a key source of economic livelihood for many people.
To curb theft of immature vanilla, Mr Hassan Hiwulumbire , the Kyotera District police commander, says they have advised village chairpersons to form security committees which will work closely with police.
“Village security committees have proved, in areas like Masaka, that they can fight crime.They help in information gathering which we eventually use in court against the suspects,” he says. In Greater Masaka , at least 2000 farmers are growing vanilla of which 56 are doing the business on a large scale.
In Bundibugyo District, vanilla farmers have intensified their community local defense units commonly known as “Wembule teams” at every parish to curb the theft.
“Wembule teams have helped us to protect our cocoa farming so it’s the same system we have opted for our vanilla farms,” Mr Moses Kyahurwenda, a farmer with one acre of vanilla, says.
He says some village chairpersons have been conniving with thieves in the area which has forced farmers to intensify village teams who constantly patrol gardens at all times.
Mr Aineah Sikabyaholo, a vanilla farmer in Karugutu Village, Ntoroko District, says all farmers in the area have agreed to guard their gardens during day and night.
“As a family, we have formed our own security squad where some of us guard gardens during the day while others sleep in the garden at night,” he reveals.
Mr George Kamugisha, the chairperson of Kadidimo Village in Bunyangabu District and vanilla farmer, says many cases of vanilla theft have been reported to his office and that police have arrested two people in connection with vanilla theft.
“Thieves come with spears, machetes and other weapons to steal vanilla. If you block them they either harm or kill you. They usually come at night. In my village, we are about 15 farmers and we have decided to start sleeping in our gardens,” he says.
In 2019 , vanilla farmers asked President Museveni to allow them acquire guns to protect themselves against thugs that raid their fields at night.
But the President rejected the idea of giving guns to untrained civilians and instead tasked the army leadership to train an auxiliary force of Local Defence Units (LDUs) which is made up of people from respective districts to guard vanilla fields.
Some LDUs have since been deployed to guard vanilla fields in various districts.
Vanilla takes three years to start flowering from the time it is planted. It grows best in humid climate at 1500m above sea level. It is harvested twice a year; in June-July and December –January.
Available statistics indicate that Ugandan vanilla farmers produce 31.4 metric tonnes annually. Uganda has some of the best vanilla in the world and this puts it at a competitive advantage with other vanilla producers. Most of Uganda’s black gourmet vanilla is exported to Europe with the extract grades sold to US.
Compiled by Al-Mahdi Ssenkabirwa, Ivan Ssenabulya, Alex Ashaba ,Longino Muhindo & Richard Kyanjo