Why orange farming has failed to deliver Teso out of poverty

Middlemen load oranges onto a truck in Ocapa Town Council, Serere District. PHOTOS | SIMON PETER EMWAMU

What you need to know:

  • In establishing the orange processing plant, the former Ngora County MP, Mr David Abala, says the government scored well, but failed to guarantee availability of authentic pesticides, fungicides and cheap fertiliser for the citrus industry.

For close to two decades since Teso Sub-region switched to orange farming, there have been minimum benefits that the crop has registered despite having been viewed as the next gem following the collapse of cotton and animal industry in the 1980s. 

The improved perennial cash crop, which National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO) introduced to Teso in the early 1990s, got national acclaim as government through its Teso intervention resettlement schemes engaged National Agriculture Advisory Services (Naads) to interest farmers to grow improved oranges as the next economic redeemer.

In the initial years, the crop offered high hope, on which the crusade for poverty eradication drive by President Museveni anchored on in his Teso tours as he strived to help the region rediscover its past glory.

Middlemen load oranges onto a truck in Ocapa Town Council, Serere District. 

However, a tirade of misfortune has since hit the orange industry despite the establishment of a multibillion fruit factory investment in Soroti.

The factory was established in 2014 following an outcry from farmers over the low gate prices and availability of surplus fruits. 

After a campaign by the Teso legislators and media coverage, the government together with the South Korean government delivered the Shs50b plant, however, its performance remains a cause of concern.

In establishing the orange processing plant, the former Ngora County MP, Mr David Abala, says the government scored well, but failed to guarantee availability of authentic pesticides, fungicides and cheap fertiliser for the citrus industry.

“Oranges are a delicate fruit that once mismanaged from the time they start fruiting, the mess can’t be reversed. We have a lot of fake pesticides and fungicides on the market.  That challenge has remained unfixed,” he says.

Mr Abala adds that some farmers have failed to meet the spraying schedules because of expensive drugs causin the fruits to rot. An orange tree takes five to seven years to fruit.

“The returns from the delicate fruit when harvested continue to get lower and lower, yet the cheapest pesticide a farmer has to use is not less than Shs140,000 per every one acre, that is just for a single pesticide yet you have to have other fungicides to deal with a multiplicity of diseases,” he narrates. 

Mr Abala says the gate prices for mature oranges is low, which affects the economic stand of a farmer.

Mr Jorem Opian Obicho, a subscribing member to Teso tropical fruit growers  cooperative union , says the region has more than 1 million orange trees.

He adds that demoralised farmers have cut down the trees, while other trees have dried due to dry spells.

Ms Harriet Pedun, an orange farmer in Mukura Village, Asuret Sub-county in Soroti District, says her five-acre farm has been unproductive for three years.

“We have had a spell of poor rainfall in the last three years. I have literally failed to contain the infections on my farm. I tried all recommended pesticides and fungicides but I have found out that the pesticides are fake,” she says.

The retired midwife says when the factory opened in 2017, she thought it was the turning point for the orange industry.

“We still have to compete for the limited middlemen, who buy 200kgs of oranges at Shs50,000. Their argument for buying the fruit cheaply is there is no market,” Ms Pedun says, adding that she is at the verge of abandoning her farm because the high cost of maintenance.

Ms Pedun last year registered Shs1.5m loss in fake pesticides and fungicides. “That money was savings from my pension, I have not recovered it. In oranges, we are like flogging a dead horse to move yet it can’t,” Ms Pedun says.

Prof Deo Olila, the proprietor for Olila High School, who is also an acclaimed scientist with stints in both Makerere and Busitema universities, says oranges are a heavy feeder that need fertilisers since they drain the soil of its fertility but farmers have failed on that.

He says plants have become food-stressed, and therefore susceptible to disease.

“Every tree needs about 4kgs of fertilizer. Which farmer can do that in this region? The orange economy is not for us, we need to refocus our niche on crossed animals,” Prof Olila says. 

Mr Daniel Epecu, an orange farmer in Kakure Sub-county, Kalaki District , says government extension workers have not been helpful. 

“We are basically gambling when it comes to disease and pest control. The same is the case for pesticides and fungicides on the market, we have not been guided which brands to buy,” he narrates.

Mr Epecu says they had petitioned the government to procure drugs from best citrus producing countries such as Spain, and Israel.

However, Mr Joseph Eriau, the Kalaki District production officer, says the production department is playing its role of sensitising farmers on the best practices.

“We shouldn’t let go of this cash crop, just because the fruit factory is not taking in everything we produce, we still have the ability to supply external markets.

“The problem the farmers have, is they want these pesticides, fungicides among others to be handed to them free of charge, which is not just possible, they have to put their farms right,” he says. 

Mr Robert Ogalo, the best orange farmer in Serere District, blames businessmen for the poor handling of pesticides. 

“They are exposed to heat, not stored well, by the time a farmer gets them, they are just inactive,” Mr Ogalo says.

 On matter of the market, Mr Ogalo says: “I am a supplier for fruits for Soroti fruit factory, but not all I produce goes there, most end up in Busia and Kampala. Let’s not just give up, we have a future in citrus farming, it is not yet doom for us.”

“As farmers, what we pray for is for the government to stop the importation of concentrates, and if done, the concentrates produced by our fruit factory in Soroti will fill the void, and I tell you that will be a big revolution for Teso,” he explains.  Mr Ogalo, however, acknowledges that low gate prices are demoralising farmers. Last week, even prices at Busia border had dropped from KSh3,500 to Ksh2,500 per bag of about 200 kilogrammes,” he says.

Govt says

During her visit to Katawi, Vice President Jessica Alupo, said government has allocated Shs54b towards the upgrade of Soroti fruit factory.

 She said the government was committed to ensuring proper practices are followed when producing seedlings.  Ms Alupo added that in government regionalisation policy, citrus fruits have been found to grow best in Teso, and that government would do what it takes to help farmers.


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