Kampala — Semu Nderema smiles as he stands under a cocoa tree. This is the biggest cocoa harvest he has had in almost 10 years. In 1999, he had a small harvest and last year there was none.
Nderema, a resident of Kikindu village in Bundibugyo district, was affected by the Allied Democratic Front war from 1999 to 2001 as well as the drought in 2009.
Some residents of Kikindu walk for three days to Fort Portal to get food, while others do manual labour on people's farmers to eke a living.
Nderema sometimes takes on construction jobs to support his two wives and 20 children. When one of his wives goes to work, he tends to their 300-cocoa-tree farm as well as the children.
"I harvest about seven kilos of cocoa from each tree. The rains have been consistent and the harvest good. As a result, my life has improved," the 50-year-old says. This season Nderema has harvested 2,100kg of cocoa beans. After drying them to remove the moisture, they reduce to about 1,990kg.
Cocoa booms in Bundibugyo
Edmund Bishaka, the district agriculture officer, says the district produced over 11,000 tonnes of cocoa this season and 7,000 tonnes in 2008. "This is because of the heavy and consistent rains that give cocoa enough moisture. Farmers also maintained the gardens well," he says.
Buyers grade their cocoa in two categories; conventional (where chemical fertilisers and pesticides are used) and organic (where farm yard manure is used to improve the fertility of the soil and also boost yields).
Organic cocoa fetches a higher price. A kilo of dry conventional cocoa costs sh3,500, while wet conventional cocoa costs sh2,500.
Nderema says on the world market, the price of dry cocoa beans is about $7.5 (sh15,000) per kilo. He says Scandinavians countries like Netherlands and Sweden prefer organic cocoa because they believe it is free from harmful chemicals.
"I got about sh15m from my harvest. I have been able to send my children to school and I am building a permanent house," he explains.
Moses Matte, a farmer in Kikindu, says he got sh30m from cocoa sales. It has helped him start a dairy farm. "I have also opened an electrical appliance shop in Bundibugyo town from my cocoa sales," he says.
Bundibugyo is earning a lot from cocoa. Bishaka says farmers in the district make sh22b annually compared to the annual district budget of sh16m.
Bishaka says the district collects sh300m annually in farmers' tax. Statistics from the district chief administrator's office indicate that from 2007 to date, the district constructed over 52 classrooms and 12 teachers' houses using revenue from cocoa. Over 200km of roads have also been maintained.
Bishaka says cocoa growth has created severe food insecurity with over 55% of the population lacking food security. "Much of the land which would have been used to grow food crops is taken up by cocoa. It is hard to convince people to spare at least 20% of the land for food crops," says Bishaka.
A surveys in Bundibugyo reveals that a kilo of rice costs sh2,500. In Kampala, it costs about sh2,000; while a bunch of gonja or sweet bananas costs sh15,000 in Bundibugyo, and sh16,000 in Kampala.
Statistics from the district planning office indicate that about 60% of the people in Bundibugyo live below the poverty line compared to the national rate of 31%.
At a function in Bundibugyo recently, Dr. Kamanda Bataringaya, the state minister for primary education, said: "As much as cocoa brings in money, it has also brought polygamy. When a man gets money from selling cocoa, he marries more women. This has increased family break-ups. Malnutrition among children is also high."
The World Food Programme (WFP) reveals that over 45% of the children in Bundibugyo are malnourished, compared to the national average of about 38%. WFP blames it on cocoa production, lack of a balanced diet and ignorance.
Education standards in Bundibugyo have also dropped. The Bundibugyo district education officer, Esau Willy Nshabiirwe, says whenever there is a cocoa harvest, almost three quarters of the children stay home. "Out of about 2,000 candidates who sat Primary Leaving Education last year, only 66 passed in first grades," he says.
History of cocoa growing
Bishaka says over-production of cocoa and subsequent troubles stem from historical problems. He says Bundibugyo was a great coffee-producing region. "But in the 1940s, the wilt disease attacked all the coffee. People lost 90% of it to the wilt, which discouraged the farmers," he explains.
The first trials of cocoa were carried out in Bundibugyo in the 1950s. When the crop did well due to its humid, dry and volcanic soil conditions, almost everybody switched to cocoa production, Bishaka says. "Cocoa prices are ever increasing and the crop is easy to grow. When you transplant cocoa from a nursery bed, all you need is to weed; you don't have to prune.
You harvest within three years," he says. Cocoa has two harvesting seasons. However, "due to weather changes, people in Bundibugyo are harvesting the crop monthly." Mukono and Hoima districts also grow cocoa. Cocoa products include chocolate and beverages.
Edmund Bishaka, the district agriculture officer of Bundibugyo, says the district is sensitising people to devote at least 20% of their land to food crop production.
"This will improve the food security and diversify people's income. If a disease affects cocoa, it means disaster." The LC3 chairman of Bubandi sub-county in Bundibugyo district, says they have set up by-laws to encourage people to grow food crops. "There is a by-law that requires every household to plant at least 25 banana stems," he says.
Bubandi sub-county speaker Aba Edison says they have set up a Police team that patrols villages to arrest parents who keep their children at home to harvest cocoa.