Following years of incapacitation by the Lord's Resistance Army war, people in northern Uganda and West Nile regions were always going to find it hard to resettle.
When they finally did, they had to come up with sustainable means of surviving, especially in agriculture, as their major economic activity. Oil seeds offered a sustainable way out. Seeds of soybean, groundnuts, sesame and sunflower have become an economic lifeline for a region coming out of a financial coma.
Things, however, have not been all merry. A recent stakeholders' meeting by the national Oilseed Sub-sector Platform (Ossup), revealed that Acholi sub-region had, in the last five years, faced a problem of unmet oilseed demand.
It had unmet seed demand of 30-40 per cent in soybean, groundnuts and sesame, while that of sunflower was as high as 90 per cent. This meant that despite the high productive potentials, the region could only meet 60 per cent of the available market. This was partly attributed to bureaucracies in import authorisation, limited research in seed multiplication, high taxes on seed imports and limited government support.
However, Dr John Bananuka, the oilseed coordinator for Ossup, notes that oil seed demand deficits came about due to disintegrated farmers' networks, which made it hard for seed companies to supply inputs.
"Most farmers work in sole proprietorship and companies cannot commit resources and expertise to deal with individuals," he said.
As a result, farmers either had to remain growing local varieties or bear the extra cost of moving to urban areas, where such seed companies are located.
"It would be better if they made organised groups that have capacity to buy and plant in bulk," he said.
In the meantime, government was trying its best to boost this sub-sector. Vegetable oilseed sub-sector was earmarked in 2004 as one of seven strategic areas in the Poverty Eradication Action Plan. In similar fashion, the 2006 Seed Act, called for increased production of oilseeds in order to make them more available and affordable for smallholder farmers operating mostly in rural communities.
This necessitated the formation of Ossup in 2007, with a primary focus of tackling the deficiencies in national seed multiplication programme. The plan was to increase capacity among seed houses, to produce sufficient seed planting materials and change the trends from over reliance on expensive imported seed varieties, to production of locally modified seeds.
The platform, with funding from the Dutch development organisation SNV, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, formed regional hubs including Lira, Gulu, West Nile and Mbale with Makerere university as the research centre. Bonny Obua, a research fellow from Makerere university college of Agriculture and Extension services, says that had so far paid off.
"As research partners, we have been involved in developing foundation seeds that are favourable for target areas," he said, adding that the seeds could then be used by profit-making seed companies and NGOs for multiplication and dissemination to farmers.
Teddy Okello, for instance, is a member of a group in Oyam district, which has benefited from improved soybean varieties.
"We used to plant our local seeds and the yields were not satisfactory. But the introduction of improved seeds helped us," she said.
Ossup collaborated with private companies such as Mukwano group and Mt Meru, who would multiply the seed varieties from Makerere and supply them to farmers, at reasonable prices.
"They also offer favourable prices. Soybeans used to go for Shs 450 but they now give us Shs 1,200," added Okello, who said their group currently has a 24 tone soybean stock.
On the other hand, Peter Ajungo, the Lira district production and marketing officer, said that it had not only improved people's livelihoods on the firm but also the value chain.
"The Lira region used to have two oil mills but today there are over 30 mills that provide market for small scale farmers and cheap oil to the communities," he said.
On a national scale, it is estimated that oilseeds account for over 60 per cent of the country's vegetable oil production, and directly affect the livelihoods of over 12 million Ugandans. Today, there are over 200,000 farmers whose lives have been impacted through this platform.