Prices of vanilla in the central region have drastically reduced in the past six months, causing heavy losses to farmers.
Currently, a kilogramme of dried vanilla seeds costs Shs50,000 down from Shs300,000 per kilogramme.
Mr Peter Musisi, the chairperson of the vanilla farmers in Masaka District, said they had heavily invested in the crop this season.
“Growing vanilla requires huge investment, including hiring security guards to protect gardens from armed thugs who come from as far as Kampala,” Mr Musisi said at the weekend.
On average, vanilla farmers pay Sh900,000 per private guard during the entire season, which lasts six months.
Farmers say the high-value export commodity forces people to steal immature vanilla from the farm.
In Buikwe District, vanilla farmers blame the fall in prices on the coronavirus pandemic that halted international buyers from coming into the country.
Mr Semaino Ssekisaka, the chairperson of Galikokolima Vanilla Farmers Group in Makonge Village, Malogwe Sub-county, said major local buyers told them that they were finding it hard to export the produce.
Low international demand
“Buyers no longer export vanilla to the world markets as it was the case previously, and this has caused a fall in vanilla prices,” Mr Ssekisaka said.
Mr Swaibu Kavuma, the coordinator of Kayunga Uganda Vanilla Growers Association (Uvan), said local vanilla buyers have taken the risk of buying the crop even without knowing what price they will sell it to international buyers.
The crop is harvested twice a year in June-July and December –January.
“We are not sure of the quantity produced in the district since the number of vanilla farmers keeps increasing,” he said.
However, industry experts say the price is still far better than other commodities such as coffee priced at Shs2,500 per kilogramme.
“Although price had dropped, vanilla still fetches good prices from the market because there is no any other crop which can be bought at Shs50,000 per kilogramme,” Mr Henry Kimera, a vanilla farmer in Kyotera District, said.
He urged fellow farmers to bear with price fluctuation because there is no crop or product with stable prices every year.
Mr Charlton Namuwooza , a global marketing expert and consultant, said the drop in vanilla prices is a combination of many factors .
“The coronavirus pandemic cannot be ruled out , but also Madagascar being a leading vanilla producer is reclaiming its market position because its season was previously interrupted,” he said.
Statistics indicate that Ugandan vanilla farmers produce 31.4 metric tonnes annually.
Recently, Mr Aga Sekalala (Sr), the managing director of Uvan (U) Ltd, said despite the challenges, they are in touch with the farmers to ensure that they do not abandon the crop.
“We extended a loan of Shs200 million to farmers to cater for security services for their respective gardens. They agreed to pay back the money after harvesting. This is one way of ensuring that we support our farmers,” Mr Sekalala said.
He appealed to the government to create a clear strategy of securing vanilla gardens.
“Vanilla is one of the best-selling cash crops on the international market and should be guarded by the state,” he said.
Several years ago, vanilla farmers in Buikwe met President Museveni and asked for guns to protect themselves against thugs that raid their vanilla fields at night.
But the President rejected the idea and instead sent a team of army officers led by the deputy Chief of Defence Forces, Lt Gen Wilson Mbadi, who resolved that Local Defence Unit personnel made up of locals be recruited to guard vanilla fields.
Some LDUs have since been deployed to guard vanilla fields in the district.
Police have often arrested suspected vanilla thieves.
Compiled by Al-Mahdi Ssenkabirwa, Fred Muzaale, Wilson Kutamba & Denis Edema