6 December 2012

Uganda: How to Get Agriculture Working Again

Bugangaizi West MP Kasirivu Atwooki's recent proposal for mapping of farming land indicates the some thinking is beginning to emerge in an area government has so much neglected over the years to the extent that agriculture, which, for many years was the backbone of Uganda's economy, has significantly declined.

In the 1990s, agriculture's contribution to GDP averaged 37 per cent annually. This has continuously declined. In 2001/2, agriculture's contribution to GDP stood at 39.9 percent and dropped to 23.7 per cent in 2008/9.

More recent figures show that the trend has not changed; with agriculture's share to GDP standing at 21.8 per cent for 2011, and at 23.4 per cent for 2012.

Yet Uganda still considers herself an agricultural country!

Yes, the country has achieved some growth in the services and industrial sector (industry: 26.1 per cent; services: 52.1 per cent according to 2011 figures) but this gives us little advantage in fulfilling the needs of our people, and competing in the region.

This new structure of Uganda's economy should not have been a problem considering that the economic structure of a developing country will reflect greater growth in industrial and service sectors.

The trouble is that not only has the sector contribution of agriculture declined, even overall output has declined with many areas now consistently facing famine both at a community and household level, which was not the case in the past.

It is difficult to put real figures to agricultural production today, especially with regard to food, considering the absence of a monitoring mechanism to record output at household, village, sub-country, district and therefore national level.

So, we do not know how much we produce, how much we should have produced, and how much we need to produce in order to create a surplus. So, is this new thinking going to make a difference in agriculture and in the lives of farmers?

I doubt. What will happen is that a so-called mapping exercise will only give bureaucrats an opportunity to spend and earn money in per diem, seminars, workshops, consultations, etc - the real enemy of agriculture in Uganda - as we have witnessed in the billions spent through Naads workshops.

The idea of mapping farming land, apparently, is to designate which soils/areas are good for particular crops but this is something many farmers already know! It is not like we are beginning a new practice altogether; farmers have been growing different crops in their gardens for years and now already know what does well where and what will not do well.

What we need to address ourselves to is the basic needs of farmers that will help them produce more, cheaply and with less trouble, and a starting point should be having extension workers that are knowledgeable and are available to the farmers paid by the government, not the farmer.

Right now the few extension workers available through NAADS are like gods and charge farmers an arm and a leg for their advice, partly to supplement their measly government salaries.

Then we need to work on agricultural mechanization even at a very modest level. The walking tractors that cost about Shs 5m (Chinese and Indian models) should be made available to farmers through cooperatives at the village level to enable them produce more through cultivation of more fields.

The hand-hoe, which has been the tool of choice for years in this country since it was introduced by the colonialists, cannot take us into the future. Then we need to think about agro storage and marketing both for crop and livestock farmers.

Today many maize farmers sell off their maize cheaply because they cannot store it for just one month as they lack the space as well as the preservation tools. This plays to the advantage of the middlemen who in the end earn more from a kilo of maize than the farmer who has invested energy and time in producing the maize.

We also need to put in place an agricultural bank that will provide financing to farmers at minimal interest rates. An agricultural bank will also have the advantage of providing technical finance advice to farmers, especially commercial farmers just like the Cooperative bank used to do.

The Agricultural Bank of Kenya has played a significant role in the country's agri-business. And very importantly, there is need to harmonise agriculture and trade policies. For instance, government encourages unrestricted export of unprocessed grain and at the same time is trying to promote a livestock and poultry industry.

Yet by exporting unprocessed grain, a key ingredient in the feeding of livestock and poultry - bran is unwittingly exported, making it very expensive for farmers to feed their animals.

You could argue that the crop farmers benefit as the livestock farmers lose but this is not true; the beneficiary is the middleman and the foreign country that receives the unprocessed grain!

It is, therefore, good that we are beginning to think about agriculture again but the country's planners must exert themselves a little more by moving away from theory and textbook ideas and coming to the ground where the real farming takes place.

And it is best we sort out agriculture now before we touch oil money as oil has tended to kill off agriculture production if a country does not plan well.

The author is a political and social critic. He is a former editor of Sunday Monitor and The Independent.

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