President Museveni should be commended for his inspired state of the nation address last Thursday. Although the reality for the majority of Ugandans remains far from inspiring, the president appeared to point at the right buttons and the country will be hoping his government will go ahead and press them.
Mr Museveni identifiedfour wealth-creation priority areas for the immediate future. These are agriculture, industry, services, and information and communication technology. We particularly noted that the president dedicated nearly 40 per cent of his speech to agriculture, which, according to the 2002 census, employs 68 per cent of Ugandan households.
As we have argued before, the government needs to play a more active role in agriculture, if for no other reason, because to do otherwise would be to neglect more than two-thirds of the population. However, we think the president and his government need to step back and do some soul-searching on how best to support agriculture. It is now abundantly clear that all the billions and policies in the sector have only worked modestly.
On this, the president's popular punching bag has been the National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads), which is branded a total failure. But Naads may be more of a victim of the problem than the main cause. First, by design, many of the Naads interventions had a strong 'demonstration' element, meaning that farmers would learn from their beneficiary neighbours.
These beneficiaries have often got ample support from Naads and there are many across the country.Yet it is now clear that having a successful neighbour will not necessarily give one the means and conviction to thrive as a farmer. On Thursday, Museveni spoke highly of the "soldiers" who have been distributing seedlings in Luweero. This suggests that he realises that smart demonstration without mass facilitation just may not work.
Still, the question of what will actually work remains unanswered. Only last November, Bank of Uganda Governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile argued against distribution of subsidised inputs. He believes that the pillar for modernisation of agriculture should be a fully functional national agricultural extension service. The ultimate solution might be somewhere between Naads, Museveni's soldiers, and Mutebile.