At the height of the LRA insurgency in Northern Uganda a decade ago, many people in the region were displaced, with some moving to the neighbouring Kiryandongo district.
Faced with a grim future, those who remained behind sought to turn around their lives; they engaged in farming. "Previously, farmers here used not to grow maize on a commercial basis; it was grown with other crops for consumption at the subsistence level," says Charles Onenchan, a maize dealer at Cere Lendu in Gulu municipality.
Onenchan has been trading in maize for some years now, and is one of the best persons to go to in order to understand how trade in Acholi region has evolved. Koch Goma sub county in Gulu district is one of the areas in Acholi that are recording increased maize yields.
During the LRA insurgency, many farmers here fled to Bweyale in Kiryandongo district where they learnt that commercial maize farming is profitable. Their only worry, though, comes when there is overproduction as they will be forced to sell at lower prices. During the September - October harvesting season, the farm gate price for a kilogram of maize grains went for Shs 300.
The price is going up again - it is currently at Shs 500 - largely driven by a grain shortage.
"To enjoy better prices, farmers have to keep their maize in stores until such a time when the market prices are competitive enough. However, many farmers have poor post harvest handling systems that puts them at a loss because their maize may rot or get destroyed by weevils," says Onenchan.
Under President Barack Obama's Feed the Future program that seeks to improve lives of the rural farming communities, their productivity and competitiveness, the USAID funded Livelihoods and Enterprises for Agricultural Development (LEAD) project has over the past four years engaged maize and bean farmers in Acholi and Lango with the hope that farmers will improve quality of their crops to attract better pay.
"We want them to begin looking at maize and beans as commercial crops. They can make more money when they grow for commercial purposes," says Ronald Wankya, the USAID LEAD field officer for Acholi.
The LEAD project links farmers to traders like UNGA millers and East African Basic Foods Ltd, which offer a ready market and better prices. Farmers are trying hard to keep quality crops to meet the standards of buyers. Farmers in Koch Goma for instance meet in groups and help each other to shell their maize. In other instances, a farmer pays about Shs 2000 for a bag of maize to be shelled at the World Food Program (WFP) facility in the area.
In the Acholi region, the LEAD project is working with about 20 traders with storage facilities that can take up to 200 metric tonnes of maize grains. "The traders ensure that farmers bring grains with low moisture content; at least below 14%, with no weevils, no discloured and broken grains etc, and they are offered a price that is slightly higher," says Wankya.
With better prices for maize, the crop is steadily picking up among farmers in Gulu, Nwoya, Pader and Oyam districts.