Uganda @ 50: Are we food secure?

Kampala, Uganda | By Moses Hategeka | As Uganda, celebrates the Golden Jubilee on 9/10/2012 we need to reflect back and assess how far the country has travelled in its agricultural transformation attempts to become a food secure country and a regional food basket.

The country is blessed with fertile soils, good climate, cool temperatures, green vegetation, and receives rain fall throughout the year, which are all essential for agricultural development. Agriculture has always been and still is a backbone on which Uganda’s economy is largely dependent. Seventy percent of Uganda’s population is employed in the agricultural sector, from which they derive their livelihood. The sector is also contributing an estimated 40 percent to the overall National Growth Domestic product (GDP) figures.

As we assess how far the country has traveled in its agricultural transformation attempts, we need to note that even before the attainment of independence on 9/10/1962, especially beginning from 1950 to 1962, Ugandan farmers were producing large amounts of coffee, cotton, tobacco, tea, and maize, largely financed by British colonial office. It then used to distribute to them free seeds, hoes, tractors, and other agricultural inputs. Since the majority of these farmers were subsistence farmers scattered throughout the country, the British colonial office then encouraged the farmers to form cooperatives for them to easily coordinate buying their crops, which they then used to export back to their home country as raw materials to feed their industries back home. The British colonial government also established a co-operative bank along with fairly developed marketing systems, and also trained some people to become district cooperative officers. These cooperatives were so powerful that, with British colonial government help, they were able to build and own stores, cotton ginneries, maize mills, tobacco dryers and processing factories.

Joseph Matovu a resident of Bajja village, Kalungu district, was then part of the greater Masaka/southern Buganda sub region. He is now aged 85 years – a successful coffee and banana farmer. He still remembers that period with fond memories. He said, “During that period, we used to get free seeds for planting. In addition to that, agricultural extension workers used to visit our coffee farms regularly and in training us how properly maintain our farms to attain greater harvests. Because of this, we used to harvest a lot of coffee, which we used to sell to representatives from British colonial office. I can’t exactly remember how much we used to earn but the earnings were so good, with those earnings, I was able to build five iron roofed houses, educated my children, married four wives, in addition to buying a car and a motorcycle. In simplicity, life was so good then and we benefited a lot from farming.”

Matovu’s words were echoed by Opio Rafael, a resident of Mukuju sub county, Tororo district, which then used to be part of the greater Bukedi sub region. He was then an accomplished coffee and maize farmer both in Bukedi and Bugisu region. He told this writer that, “we used to get good quality free coffee and maize seeds in addition to being trained in proper land tillage as well as in crop rotation and harvesting techniques, which enabled us to get good yields from our farms.” He adds that, “this in addition to available ready market for our farm produce then, made us to enjoy our farming.”

The good earnings that the cooperatives enabled the farmers to get attracted many people to engage in farming. Towards independence, the number of people engaged in farming had risen exponentially as more and more people realized that to get money and lead a good life, they had to heavily engage in farming. Successful farmers commanded a lot of respect from their communities.

Even the educational institutions including the missionary schools then, as well as missionary hospitals, had big farms on which they practiced crop and livestock farming, growing various crops such as maize, beans, peas, plantains, vegetables, and reared cattle, goats, sheep and pigs. Schools and hospitals then used to produce enough food and a reasonable amount of milk for their students and patients.

On attaining independence on 9/10/1962, with Dr. Milton Obote as executive prime minister and Buganda’s Kabaka Edward Mutesa as president, the government continued supporting the farmers and even supported the establishment of more co-operatives, through which it extended seeds, fertilizers, hoes, drugs and tractors to the farmers. The government also embarked on training more agricultural and veterinary officers, who it dispatched to the rural areas as extension workers to train the farmers in various crop and livestock farming techniques. A full-fledged ministry in charge of cooperatives was also put in place to coordinate all the cooperatives in the country and to ensure that farmers were getting fair prices for their produce.

The government also established cooperative marketing institutions, which at first were involved in the production and export of traditional cash crops – mainly coffee and cotton, but which later on, also got involved in production and export of other crops, such as tea, maize, millet, sorghum, groundnuts and corn. The government had control over these institutions. The government also created marketing boards and granted the buying monopoly of coffee and cotton to the coffee and cotton cooperatives that existed at the time. Lint Marketing Board, Coffee Marketing Board and Produce Marketing Board were successful boards through which the government controlled agricultural marketing and ensured that its farmers financially gained from their farming by making sure that their farm produce were always bought at fair prices.

Nabudere Patrick of Namanyonyi sub county, Mbale district, who was a successful coffee farmer and a member of Bugisu coffee cooperative union during 1960s narrated to me that, “During our time, we had two tractors in our area fully fueled by government, which we used to use to till our lands. The government through our cooperative union also used to extend to us good quality seeds at times free of charge and some times at a fair price, in addition to extension workers who were always available to guide us. This coupled with available ready market for our coffee at the time, made many people in the area to engage in coffee farming.”

Dr. John James Okiror, an agricultural expert and senior lecturer from the college of agricultural and environmental sciences at Makerere University, told this writer that, during the 1960s Uganda had two tractors per 1,000 hectares, which according to the population at the time was enough to serve the farmers. During that period, the government was heavily involved in agriculture in that it also had its own crop farms and cattle ranches across the country. This made it self sufficient in food production and a regional food basket in the region, as it used to export the surplus to other countries in the region such as Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Zaire.

The Coffee Marketing Board at the time used to process coffee before it exported it, while the Lint Marketing Board used to grade the lint before it exported it. Uganda’s coffee was on high demand and in fact, during 1960s, the country was the leading coffee producer in Africa, earning an estimated $250 million per annum. It also had a thriving textile industry,

NYTIL based in Jinja, which provided market for cotton grown in the country.

When Amin Dada through his organized bloodless coup d’état of 1971 took over power, his government for the first four years in power, continued implementing 1960s government agricultural initiatives of supporting farmers and investing in agriculture. During his first four years in power Uganda was still the leading producer of coffee in Africa as well as a major cotton and tea exporter.

Thereafter, his government got riddled with rampant corruption, which led to the mismanagement of government corporations like Coffee Marketing Board, Lint Marketing Board.

At the same time, his government, increasingly became intolerant to divergent political views and to those who dared to question its policies, many of them lost their lives at the hands of notorious state security operatives. What then followed was many trained professionals, including agricultural professionals going to exile in countries. This negatively affected agricultural development programs in the country and resulted in decreased food production in the country, which was characterized with the period of political insecurity and economic turmoil. It made some Ugandans in exile mobilize resources, combine efforts and seek external help, which with the military help of Tanzania were able to overthrow Amin’s government.

When Milton Obote ascended to power again in 1980, following the 1980 general elections victory, his government was preoccupied with bringing on board political rivals, as a way of creating some sort of unity in the country, and on rehabilitating broken infrastructural facilities, broken during the 1979 war. It thus did not give much resources and time for the agricultural sector, like it did in the 1960s.

This explains why during his five-year rule of 1980-85, agricultural production levels were lower than in the 1960s. His government still managed to provide reasonable aid to farmers to restock their ranches, which had been affected by the late 1970s political turmoil. It also established 80 ranches fully stocked with cattle.

In 1986, President Museveni ascended to power and immediately prioritized developing the agricultural sector as a base on which Uganda was going to base future economic transformation. His NRA/M government then embarked on establishing a coffee rehabilitation program whose main aim was to improve coffee production in the country and to reduce on the amount of coffee that was being smuggled to neighboring Tanzania and Kenya. For the first two years his government ensured that coffee in the country was being bought at good prices. This spurred coffee production in the country in addition to increased coffee export earnings, as the country was able to earn US$264 million from coffee exports.

It also in 1987 signed a new policy package with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, in what was termed an economic recovery program that was aimed at creating monetary stability and rehabilitating the economic, social and institutional infrastructure.

However towards the end of 1988, the Coffee Marketing Board had financial difficulties and couldn’t afford to buy new deliveries of coffee. This in addition to the collapse of international coffee organization (ICO) on July 1989, of which Uganda was a member, greatly demoralized coffee farmers. The two years that followed saw a decline of coffee production and coffee export earnings reflected in US$142 million,which the country earned then.

This made the government start diversifying its agricultural sector by heavily promoting the growing of other crops like maize, sorghum, groundnuts, millet, cocoa, wheat, etc, and investing in fish and livestock subsector so as not to continue relying on coffee, tea, cotton, and sugar, which were traditionally major cash crops.

As the 1980s period neared the end, the NRM government fully adopted structural adjustment policies, which saw it adopting trade liberalization and privatization of former public corporations. This meant that from then onwards all trade activities in the country were to be determined by the forces of demand and supply. With this arrangement the cooperatives lost their buying monopoly and marketing boards were also abolished, followed with government stopping of crop finance arrangement.

It however through statutes like cooperative statute of 1991 and others, created bodies like Dairy Development Authority and Uganda Coffee Development Authority, among others, which to date, still play a supervisory role in ensuring that there is continuous development of the agricultural sector.

National agricultural research organization (NARO), whose mission is “To generate and disseminate appropriate, safe and cost effective technologies”, has indeed done and is doing tremendous work in disseminating research and cost effective technologies to the farmers. It is currently training rice farmers in proper rice-farming techniques and in post-harvest handling of rice techniques. Many rice farmers have registered increased rice yields as a result of this. Dr. H. Muyinza, who is in charge of post harvest handling of rice program at NARO, asserted that, “Ugandan rice farmers, have responded positively to our training and are registering increased rice yields.”

NARO has also developed and disseminated various disease-resistant seed varieties to the farmers. Through an ongoing collaboration with Korea Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative (KAFACI), developing aflatoxin resistant maize varieties, which will be distributed to the farmers and in so doing contribute to the improved food security in the country.

Agricultural research is a key component in the agricultural transformation drive. The government should therefore increasingly fund agricultural research programs, accord more scholarships for people training and those seeking to go for further studies in agricultural education. This is not effectively being done as there are many agricultural research programs, which have not been conclusively executed due to lack of funds.

NAADS program is to create options for financing and the delivery of the appropriate advisory and technical services for different types of farmers.

Betty Birra Akiiki, asubsistence mixed farmer from Karangura Sub County, Kabarole district, and a NAADS beneficiary had this to say, “The training in proper crop planting, land tillage and animal husbandry, I got from NAADSD extension agricultural worker which was followed with two improved goat breeds and good seeds, provided by Naads, has enabled me become a better farmer as I now harvest more from my two acres of land” she further said, “can you imagine from my mixed farming activities I now earn over four millions a year from these two acres of land and am comfortably paying school fees for all my four children which was not the case before this training.”

Thousands of subsistence farmers in the country have benefited from the NAADS program in regard to attaining increased food and household incomes in their homesteads. But for millions of subsistence farmers to continue benefiting, there is need for government to train more agricultural extension workers and to effectively curb corruption, which this program’s officials have been and are currently practicing.

Minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries Tress Buchanayandi recently stated that, “there is a gap in extension service delivery which government needs to respond to by training and recruiting more agricultural extension workers so as to reduce staff-to-farmer ratio.

” Information from the ministry indicates that the staff-to-farmer ration currently is 1:1,000, which is far below average and makes it impossible for government to attain its agricultural development objectives.

Like I have stated before in my other articles, those objectives, will only be arrived at when government starts to meaningfully fund agricultural interventions like mechanization, irrigation, and fertilizer application. Over the years and to date, soil fertility has been declining at an alarming rate due to overcultivation and poor agricultural practices. It’s a scenario, which if not curbed, will continue to be an obstacle to attaining food security across the country. Fertilizer usage in Uganda, which averages 1 kg per hectare, is far below average when compared to countries like South Africa, Malawi, Kenya and Nigeria, where fertilizer application is 9 kg and above.

A reasonable amount of funds, should also be used in strengthening the fish farming sub sector, particularly National Fisheries Resources Research institute, to enable it carry out more  fish farming awareness farming and to educate and draw more people to engage in fish farming, which today is very profitable sector. Cage farming across all 168 water bodies, which the country is endowed with needs to be stepped up. This will increase fish production in the country, which according to the information from the institute today stands at 90,000 tonnes.

In sum, though various attempts have for decades been made, in trying to transform agricultural sector in the country, more needs to be done as the sector is still dominated by millions of subsistence farmers who are still trapped in poverty cycle. According to the Uganda Bureau of statistics 65 percent of them are living on less than $2 a day. Our skyrocketing population of 3.4 percent is third highest in the world after Niger and Mayotte, is far higher than food production rate in the country, which according to agriculture ministry report of 2009, has made 17.7 million people food insecure. The country therefore has no other option but to do whatever it can to fully embrace agricultural mechanization if it is to become a food secure and a regional food basket in the region it once was.

MOSES HATEGEKA, is a Ugandan based independent governance researcher, public affairs analyst and writer