The much-touted Shs700 billion agriculture investment project Chinese investors set up in Luweero is moving at a snail pace, which casts doubt over its viability, Daily Monitor has established.
The project, Kehong China-Uganda Industrial Park, which occupies 927 acres of land at Lubenge trans-border and shared by the districts of Luweero and Nakasongola, was anticipated to be one of the largest investments in East Africa, employing 25,000 people.
However, five years since its commissioning, less than 30 people are employed at the project.
What welcomes one visiting the industrial park at Ndibulungi Village on the Kampala-Gulu highway is the bushy spacious site with a few structures and unutilised machinery.
Both residents and local leaders in the two districts [Luweero and Nakasongola] are perturbed by the slow progress of the project that was commissioned by President Museveni in April 2016.
One of the managers at the site is quick to blame the slow progress on the Covid-19 pandemic and the unreliable rainfall patterns that have frustrated the initial rice growing programme for hybrid rice, among other projects.
Access to the facility is restricted, and a police officer at the site says visitors will have to wait until President Museveni announces lifting of the Covid-19-induced lockdown.
“We are not supposed to let in anybody until President Museveni officially lifts the Covid-19 lockdown. But you can speak to the manager on the phone so that he can explain more,” a police officer manning the now bushy gate to the entrance of the agricultural park, explains.
At its launch in April 2016, the project investment manager, Mr Luo Heng, had projected that at its initial stage, one million poultry birds, horticulture farming, rice growing and vegetable and grain processing would be part of the estimated 600,000 tonnes of agro products produced annually to fulfill the domestic market demand and parts of the East African region.
The idea was supported by a declaration that a team of Chinese experts had three years earlier flown into the country from China to help boost the study and viability of the project, while a high-powered delegation led by then Vice President of Uganda Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi also visited China for benchmarking.
Mr John Wasswa, the chairperson of Ndibulungi Village and a former employee at the agriculture park, says he is among those frustrated after management of the park reduced the daily wages from Shs10,000 to Shs6,000, which forced him and some other workers to leave.
“At first, we worked at the rice fields of about 30 acres, but the yields were not good because of the poor rains. We also had about 5,000 birds kept at the poultry section, but the project was also halted a few months later. Interestingly, the project has machinery that has never been put to use. We cannot tell what happened to the project,” he says.
But Mr Richard Kibuuka, a human resource manager at the park, says the unreliable rainfall patterns have affected the hybrid rice gardens, leading to poor yields at the initial stages of the project.
“It is not true that everything has stopped. We were greatly affected by the unpredictable weather patterns that had low rainfall to support the hybrid rice fields. The two successive Covid-19-induced lockdowns have also been a big hindrance to the progress of farming projects. We have modern poultry farming machinery at the park. We are waiting to have the birds imported so that we can start the poultry project,” he says.
The management recently had a stakeholders meeting that included officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organisation and representatives from Luweero District.
“Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we only have a skeleton staff of about 30 people that reside within the park. The absence of a dependable water source greatly affected our productivity,” Mr Kibuuka reveals.
Sources from the Luweero District production office indicate that for the few times the district officials have visited the area, there seems to be lack of expert knowledge on the type of rice that is being grown on the land that would only suit upland rice and not the Chinese hybrid rice.
“The soils are quite different and may not successfully support the Chinese crop varieties that are being tried out for commercial agriculture,” a source that prefers anonymity, reveals.
But the Luweero District production officer, Dr Andrew Kidda, says except for the handful of meetings held, the district production office is not directly involved in the projects at the agriculture park.
“The most recent interaction is when they were introduced to our office through the former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, Mr Pius Wakabi Kasajja, through the office of the Luweero Chief Administrative Officer (CAO),” he says.
While officials in Luweero District claim they are yet to see the impact of Kehong China-Uganda Industrial Park as pledged by both government and the Chinese investors five years ago, a section of Nakasongola District officials claim they were left out of the project from the time of its inception and are yet to see any impact since nothing is visible on the ground except the buildings.
Daily Monitor has seen a May letter authored by Mr Wakabi introducing the Agriculture ministry project staff to Luweero District officials for the renewed implementation of the 3rd phase of the China Uganda South –South Cooperation Project. However, Kehong-Uganda Industrial Development is not mentioned in the letter.
The letter emphasises agricultural investment, agro- industrialisation, formulating and implementing the FAO-China South-South project of Phase III in Uganda, building capacity of policy and technical staff, private sector and farmers in utilising improved Chinese agriculture technologies.
Residents at Ndibulungi Village claim access to the facility by the community except the handful of workers deployed at the park was restricted yet the project was meant to help transform agriculture and livelihoods of the communities around.
What some of the key players say...
John Wasswa, Ndibulungi Village chairperson.
Those people [project proprietors] had a very big dream that we embraced as residents. At first, we worked at the rice fields of about 30 acres, but the yields were not good because of the poor rains. Interestingly, the project has machinery that has never been put to use. We cannot tell what happened to the project.
Sam Kigula, Nakasongola District chairperson.
They promised jobs for more than 25,000 people and a transformation in the agricultural farming systems from subsistence to modern farming through application of modern technology. This is the knowledge that our people need. It is now five years since the project was launched, but we are seeing nothing.
Enoch Ssentongo, Ndibulungi Village resident.
We are yet to benefit from the farming programmes that were promised. We also lost the communal farming land and water dams that were in that place before the land was taken over by the investors. They promised us boreholes and electricity but this has not been realised. The fact that the place is now bushy means the project is not progressing.
Richard Kibuuka, park human resource manager.
It is not true that everything has stopped. We were greatly affected by the unpredictable weather patterns that had low rainfall to support the hybrid rice fields. The two Covid-19 induced lockdowns have also been a big hindrance to the progress of the other farming projects. We are waiting to have the birds imported so we can start the poultry project.