Let’s promote sunflower growing

On June 19, while at Entebbe International Airport, I bumped into Mr Businge Rwabwogo, the General Manager Operations at Mukwano Group of Companies.

We stayed together at the concourse and engaged in different conversations. One area that crowned our discussions was sunseed cooking oil (made out of sunflower) scarcity in Uganda and the region at large.

Sometime in March, I had approached Mr Rwabogo to inquire about the availability of sunseed cooking oil since I had a prospective customer that needed 2,800 metric tonnes of sunseed cooking oil in the neighbouring country. But his answer was no.

He assured me that whatever is being produced is consumed and in fact, it was not enough to serve the internal market in Uganda.

He also informed me that the little quota reserved for export was booked for the next two or so years.

Earlier in May, another person  approached me to inquire about availability of sunseed cooking oil as they had an agent who needed 100 metric tonnes of it to export to the USA.

Of course, my answer was discouraging. My mind was baffled by many questions as to why there is huge demand for sunflower oil but less production.

However, when I contacted a director at Mukwano Group of companies, I received detailed information right from purchase of seeds to bottling/packaging of sunflower oil. By the end of the conversation, it was clear that there is a variance between the sunflower oil produced and needed.

Sunflower growing in Uganda began around the 1920s with little production, with mostly the harvested products for export.

The peak was around the 1960s when Uganda exported 276 metric tonnes. In the 1970s, production dropped drastically due to Amin’s economic war. In fact, between 1973-1979 Uganda exported less than 10 metric tonnes.  In early 1980s, Uganda suffered acute shortage of cooking oil due to the economic meltdown at that time cushioned on the expulsion of Indians and Asians. Bishop Kihangire Scalabrini of Gulu Catholic Diocese, installed two machines to process sunflower oil.

In 1991 or so, Mukwano industries through the Lira factory engaged the locals in growing sunflowers. The arrangement was and has been that Mukwano procures high yielding seed varieties, distributed to the local population who in turn plants, looks after the gardens, harvests and supplies to the factory. In total, through this initiative, Mukwano has collaborated with 107,000 farmers directly in only the Lango sub-region. 

The potential socio-economic importance of sunflower can be perceived in light of its ability to satisfy the edible oil needs of Uganda and as a source of cash income for the farming population.

It has been estimated that sunflowers can satisfy approximately 60 percent of Uganda’s edible oil needs.

It has been heralded as the only hope for Uganda’s edible oil industry in the short-run because of its potentially high oil content (20-50 percent). Rita Laker-Ojok (1986), that sunflower production has been observed and its processing offers one of the few rays of hope for revitalizing the local economy in Northern Uganda in particular in the long run.

However, this product if well promoted can be a source of livelihood to the West Nile, Bunyoro and some parts of Buganda region. 

  And because oils are high in calorie content and contain certain essential fatty acids, it has been suggested that increased edible oil consumption can improve the overall nutritional status of the country’s population.

Uganda’s need for edible oil is estimated to be 200,000 metric tonnes per year by 2017. If sunflower farmers were to supply 60 percent of this, there would be a need for 120,000 metric tonnes of sunflower oil.

If expanded, sunflower production would generate agro-based industrial activities, create employment, and increase household incomes. Before over-estimating the possible contribution of sunflowers, however, it is important to note that sunflower will be grown only where the infrastructure can support a cash crop. Sunflower is not a subsistence food crop. If sustained production for cash sale is to take place, the producer must be able to realize an attractive net profit over the full costs of production including family labour.

Similarly, the demand for sunflower is a derived demand, depending directly on the demand for edible oil in the economy and the ability of local processors to compete effectively with alternative sources of oils and fats on the international market.

Through the many current economic emancipation initiatives, the government should procure sunflower seeds and distribute them to farmers.

Sunflower takes between 85-105 days to mature. If substantial tonnes of seeds are procured and supplied, grown and processed, the cooking oil scarcity will be sorted in just a few months.  Government can actually use the parish development model money to buy sunflower seeds.

Finally, sunflower oil is higher in unsaturated fats and vitamin E compared to palm oil, which is a combination of saturated fats and vitamin K. Therefore, the government should make a quick intervention on this dire need. 

Samson Tinka

Safety and security consultant

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