Rural households don’t only engage in subsistence output

Thursday December 03 2020

Uganda is a country with rich black fertile soil, an agrarian climate that supports cropping throughout the year with two reasonably predictable planting seasons, with agriculture as the backbone of the Pearl of Africa. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics in 2019 reported that Uganda grows many food crops, 16 of which are major crops, according to the Uganda Census of Agriculture 2008/2009.

These include maize, millet, sorghum, rice, cassava, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, beans, cow peas, field peas, pigeon peas, groundnuts, bambara beans, simsim, plantain and coffee. The Bureau estimates that agriculture employs 80 per cent of the rural population and more than 64 per cent of the nation’s working population. Overall, agriculture contributes significantly to the country’s gross domestic product.

Uganda’s multilingual and multi-cultural complex suggests that people from all corners of the country have different languages, norms, practices and cultures through which their agrarian livelihoods exist.  Depending on where one comes from, be it from central, north, west or east, a rich heritage and expression are evident through the idioms, tales and amazing proverbs.

These tell of the powers of inter-dependence, the reliance on community, on neighbourhoods and diverse cultures at those local levels. Such rich entanglements and adaptive dynamics in people’s livelihoods cannot exist solely expressed through colonial language as “subsistence farming”. This is both wrong in analysis and insulting to our millions of capable smallholder farmers.

Any cross-examination of the complexities in indigenous languages, practices and patterns all speak to the powers of interdependence and a local agency in spirit. People’s lives are dynamic, whether that is practiced through community food preservation, seed storage and sharing, preservation of species or in water harvesting - it is a total contrast to the offensive, highly generalised and wrong notion of subsistence farming.

Every household, however poor or small, should engage in some surplus production to foster economic operations that allow for diverse cultural and food sovereignty. ‘Food sovereignty’ places greater emphasis on the rights of communities to define the processes that regulate their own food systems, from production to consumption.


Unfortunately, Uganda’s curriculum, starting at primary school, refers to the notion of subsistence farming, stating that it is prevalent and devoid of any surplus production for exchange in the markets. It wrongly assumes that these households grow crops only for their own consumption. Thereby representing a total contrast to how communities are actually organised, in well net worked dynamic contexts perfectly able to experiment with new crops and foods.

As innocuous as it appears, this concept of subsistence profoundly disempowers large parts of our society, denying them their exchange power and a genuine contribution to the economy in many ways. It asserts and perpetuates a subtle but invisible power of ongoing colonialism and ends up discrediting the contribution of millions of rural Ugandans who live at the “bottom” of a constructed hierarchy of economic status. 

It is grossly wrong and hard to accept. Shamefully, professors at our universities, academic researchers and many of our policymakers, deny their participation. The continuation of such demeaning and disempowering language must stop, especially in the education system.

The time is now for us to stop using this language and terminology invented early in the 20th century during the heights of colonial dominance.

We need to reflect and allow a transformative mind-set change.  It’s time to free our minds from all legacies of colonialism that are passed down one generation to another.

Ms Nakame is a development management practitioner and programme director at  Mentoring and Empowerment Programme for Young Women.