Patrick Pande, a resident of Nsamule village in Nawaikoke sub-county, Kaliro district, has never known a better life than he has had in the year.
Yet he is now a worried man, following a directive from President Museveni. In 2011, after decades of growing food crops, Pande, who owned over 500 acres of land, decided to convert a fifth of his land to sugarcane growing on learning that Sugar and Allied Industries Limited (SAIL), was to be constructed near his home.
"This new factory [SAIL] promised and eventually gave me incentives that I needed to start sugarcane growing. After looking at their deal as being far better than what I was getting from food crops, I decided to enter sugarcane growing as my main business," he says.
For decades, Busoga and neighboring areas have been the heart of Uganda's sugar industry, hosting the Sugar Corporation of Uganda (Lugazi) and Kakira Sugar Works. But in recent years new factories like Kenlon, Kamuli Sugar Factory and SAIL have sprung up in the area, leading to a fierce competition for out growers, and fears that farmers were neglecting food crops in order to grow the cash-cane.
The sugar industry, which started in the early 1920s, has been growing at 20 per cent per annum since 1986. According to figures from the ministry of Trade, the sector contributes at least Shs 126bn in taxes as well as savings of $176m (Shs 457bn) in foreign exchange earnings as of 2009. In Busoga, it is estimated that at least 10,000 households are growing sugarcane as the main cash crop.
But President Museveni recently wrote to Trade, Industry and Cooperatives Minister Amelia Kyambadde, demanding the closure of new sugar factories within a radius of less than 25km from the existing ones as well as those that had disregarded their obligation to guarantee food security while carrying out their activities.
"I do not know what to do if this happens," says a worried Pande, unable to imagine life without the new factory.
Before venturing into sugarcane growing, Pande who is the current chairperson of Kaliro Sugarcane Out-Growers Association, had served as a local leader for over 20 years, including serving as a district councillor as well as vice chairperson of Kamuli district before his sub- county joined the newly created Kaliro district.
In all those years, Pande never managed to build a good house. However, within two years in sugarcane production, he is earning more than he would earn from food crop production.
"Initially, I would get in parts less than Shs 5m in a season, but today I can earn at least Shs 100m a season," he says.
"This was a dream in my life despite owning a very big chunk of land which people used to rent for subsistence agriculture or use as grazing fields for their animals," says Pande.
As part of the benefits from sugarcane growing, Pande easily sends his children to school, has put up a good residential house, and owns several commercial houses in a number of Busoga towns.
Like Pande, Sulaiman Muwolo a sugarcane grower with at least 30 acres of sugarcane plantation says, the benefits have prompted most farmers to abandon food crops in favour of sugarcane.
"One can earn at least Shs 4m from an acre which is not easy to get from normal food crop harvest," says Muwolo, who is currently the chairperson of Sugar Allied Out growers Association, an association that unites over 1,000 sugarcane out growers.
But the president's directive seems to be a dark cloud on the horizon.
"Without looking at how much investors are to lose if the directive is implemented, government should weigh what we as its citizens are going to lose, and how many people's dreams are to be shattered by that directive," says Yunus Idambo, a resident of Nawaikoke, Kaliro district.
Idambo, who planted seven acres of sugarcane out of his 30 acres, says that he does not know what to do with his sugar cane if government implements the directive.
"I got a loan from a bank to invest in this plantation and it's currently my main target but if they plan to close factories then who is going to buy sugarcane," he asks.
Pande says that as government plans to implement the directive, it has also to take into account of tens of thousands of youth who are employed by the new factories as well as farmers who are feeding these factories. "We tried to create employment for the youth but if they just go ahead to reverse the decision, how will these hopeless youth respond?" he said.
It is estimated that the new factories employ at least 10,000 people (including out growers). This figure accounts for those working in the factories, and those in private firms that work with the factory, including the trucks that ferry sugarcane. Sugarcane farmers and other stakeholders have threatened to challenge the government's decision through demonstrations and/or court action.
"We have to do whatever is in our reach to fight this if they go ahead with the implementation of the decision," says a worried Pande.
In reaction to the president's directive, SAIL's managing director Syed Akhtel Abbas told The Observer that there was need to understand what prompted the directive.
"We have not violated the policy and I don't know where that came from," he said.
"First, we built the factory more than 50km away and when it comes to the issue of food security, we have encouraged farmers to be cautious about it; that is why out of 35,000 hectares registered with us only 13,000 is used of sugarcane growing," he says.
According to sources, the new factories blame Kakira Sugar Works for being behind their woes. It is said that Kakira, which is based on 9,700 hectares, is worried that the new firms like SAIL pose a serious challenge to its operations.
"It is now facing competition and they have petitioned the president under the pretext that the national sugar policy has been violated," says one farmer, an out grower for more than 30 years.
He claims that the new factories have enticed Kakira's out growers by offering better incentives to famers than Kakira.
"The new factories buy a lorry at Shs 930, 000 yet Madhvani buys the same at Shs 730, 000," another farmer told us recently
But Bunya West MP Vincent Bagiire is more cautious, urging the public not to forget the implications of uncontrolled sugar production, especially for food security. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, in 2011/12, the production of cash crops including sugarcane, grew by 16.2 per cent.
By contrast, food crop production increased by only 1.1 per cent. The same statistics show that over 60 per cent of land in Jinja, Luuka and Mayuge districts, particularly in Bunya West converted to sugar plantation, a matter that worries Bagiire.
"This has to be controlled, much as people want money, they need to balance it with food crop production," he says.
However, some smallholder farmers, who are reported to be threatened by hunger, show no sign of worry.
"We have the money to buy food and those who are worried should look at the case study of Jinja. Despite Madhvani operating there for decades, how many people have died of hunger?" asks Simon Mukuve, who converted his four acres farm to sugarcane growing.
"I have no one in my family who has died of hunger. Those who are complaining (should) show us the figures," he says.
The Busoga Parliamentary Group, to which Bagiire belongs, and which was tasked to investigate the issue before the president's decision, says that the presidential directive is not justified.
"We cannot accept this directive because a factory like Mayuge sugar has exhibited bigger plans like employing more than 1,000 people, starting power generation...," the group chairperson, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga was quoted as having said.
Pande agrees with the group - that it is better for the factories and other stakeholders to find ways in which sugarcane production can continue without posing a threat to food security.
"For instance, in our association as KASOGA, we have advised our members not to plant only sugarcane but they should use part of their land to grow food crops," Pande says.
Pande adds that they don't encourage farmers with less than 10 acres to grow sugarcane. Indeed Kaliro, which is KASOGA's main operation zone, sugarcane plantations are separated by gardens of food crops.
Muwolo also advises that politicians should get involved in the issue through enacting laws that compel farmers to grow both food and cash crops.
The Trade ministry is yet to act on the presidential directive due to the new projections.
"We are still handling it and we shall make the final decision after we have done our investigation of the whole matter," minister Kyambadde told The Observer.