Kampala — There is good news on Uganda's food security front. The agriculture ministry estimates that Uganda has harvested about 5.5 million metric tonnes from the last planting season; which is a 38% increase from the usual harvest of about 4 million metric tonnes.
But the bad news follows. Charles Ogang, the president of the Uganda National Farmers Federation says the bumper harvest of maize - and beans - has exposed another problem smallholder farmers face; a lack of storage facilities.
"It's the biggest headache Ugandan farmers are still grappling with," Ogang told The Independent recently.
Ogang was speaking after the Minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry, and Fisheries, Vincent Bamulangaki Ssempijja, released the bumper harvest figures. Ssempijja said they are based on findings from supervision and monitoring conducted in all the districts.
"Last season, we had good rains across the country and we had a good crop," Sempijja told The Independent at the Media Centre in Kampala where he briefed journalists. He had called the briefing to urge the media to encourage farmers to prepare early for the next rainy season that begins in March and ends in May.
"We learnt big lessons from last year's devastating drought. After the lessons from the previous season we need to fight back so that we don't encounter the same problems," he said.
Ssempijja also attributed the good harvest to the government's efforts to control the Fall Army Worm coupled with the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS)'s efforts to supply quality seed and the efforts put in by individual farmers.
He advised farmers to properly dry the maize, beans, and groundnuts, which have already been harvested, on tarpaulins or raised platforms to maintain the quality. He said the dry harvest should be stored in hermetic bags to prevent attacks by weevils and cautioned that if the grain is stored when it is still wet, it becomes discoloured and of reduced quality.
"Wet grain is also attacked by mold which produces aflatoxins which make the grain unsafe for consumption by humans and livestock," he said.
Pius Kasajja, the Agriculture Ministry's Permanent Secretary, Dr. Samuel Mugasi, the executive director of the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS), and Beatrice Byarugaba, the director agricultural extension services at the agriculture ministry, were also on hand to brief journalists.
Other experts, like Dr. Alex Barekye, the director of Research at the Kabale-based Kachwekano Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute in southern Uganda, said the 2016 season grain scarcity that had seen maize prices go to as high as Shs 1500 a kilo, also became a major stimulus for many farmers to grow maize this time round. Many farmers have also adapted to the current environmental challenges and quite a good number of them have embraced irrigation, Ogang added.
The positive mood all round is in sharp contrast to the situation the country faced exactly 12 months ago, in February 2017.
Back then, when Ministry of Agriculture officials showed up at the Uganda Media Centre, it was mainly to brief the country about the worsening food insecurity, with close to 11 million Ugandans staring hunger and possible starvation in the face.
The gloom had started earlier, in 2016, when the September to December rains failed amidst a severe drought. Things got worse when the next crop from the March to May 2017 planting season was ravaged by a never before seen pest in Uganda; the Fall Army Worm.
Caught unprepared and under-resourced, the government response led by Ssempijja was more of lip-service than actual interventions. The government pledged billions of shillings to procure temporary relief food but little was delivered; mainly because President Yoweri Museveni argued against habituating starving Ugandans to government food relief. So the Office of the Prime Minister delivered a few bags of maize flour and beans to the most severely affected populations in Karamoja, Teso, Bukedi and the Cattle Corridor, including the southern district of Isingiro. The Chinese government also donated 119,660 bags which were distributed across the country.
Fortunately as the year progressed, the weather improved in the second planting season in September to December and farmers worked their gardens with determination. The results are being enjoyed today.
Grain storage facilities
But the bumper maize harvest has exposed what could be the weakest point in ensuring food security in Uganda; the lack of proper post-harvest storage facilities. Ogang told The Independent that the maize crop is not the only one that did well. He said Uganda also now has a good amount of beans. But he said smallholder farmers are now grappling with poor storage facilities.
"This is the reason why most Ugandan farmers cannot manage to store their produce for more than 100 days," he added, " because they have poor storage, they sell it at giveaway prices."
Emmanuel Kabaale, the team leader at Ten Mangoes Agribusiness Initiative in Kamuli District told The Independent on Feb.02 that the favoured storage facility; the hermetic kits that are promoted as the most effective are, at Shs450,000, currently too costly for most smallholder farmers. He advised farmers to form cooperatives to jointly access credit from the government to buy them.
Post-harvest losses are a major constraint to development of the grain sector, not only in Uganda, but in the East African region and it continues to worsen food security concerns. It is partly why agricultural experts are recommending post-harvest technologies like hermetic kits.
These are insulated airtight storage kits (bags and bins) that cut off oxygen from any pests in the harvested crop. They eliminate insect infestation without use of pesticides making it safer, environmentally friendly, and cost effective in reducing post-harvest losses.
Ogang also told The Independent that his farmers' federation encourages its members to get into groups, build modern storage facilities to ensure they keep their produce longer for better prices.
On the marketing front, the Ministry of Agriculture appears caught with a double message; one capturing what is desirable and the other addressing the reality.
On one hand, the Ministry is advising smallholder farmers not to sell all the maize and beans they harvest, and instead preserve some for their own consumption.
But the government also appears to be pursuing an aggressive marketing campaign. Ssempijja, for example, had earlier noted that the government is now negotiating with members of the Grain Council of Uganda to invest in buying the maize from the farmers.
"We now have a lot of maize and we are negotiating with people who can store the maize in clean and safe silos but also with those who can buy it from us; especially the World Food Programme and our neighbours."
"We don't support everybody to go inside the villages to buy this maize because they just buy anything, including poor quality maize," he said, "When you buy from the Grain Council, you buy what is dry, clean and, already weighed maize."
"Big buyers cannot buy our maize because they say Uganda's maize is of poor quality and infested with aflatoxins because we have not standardized our systems," he said, "Unless we standardize we are not going to attract these bigger markets, we will continue getting the smaller buyers."
Chris Kaijuka, the Chairperson of the Grain Council of Uganda told The Independent on Feb.02 that, for the last four years, the council's members have invested in the development of silos, warehouses, cleaners, driers, and graders.
"At least the country has a sizeable capacity of about 750,000 metric tonnes available with close to 250,000 metric tonnes having been developed in the last four years," he said.
Hard lessons learnt
It appears the government learnt some important lessons from the 2017 hunger and is already taking precautionary measures as the farmers get back into their gardens to prepare for this year's first season which has short rains. Uganda's first rain season starts in March and ends in May.
In his pre-season message to farmers, minister Ssempijja urged farmers to plant quick maturing or drought tolerant seed varieties. In the districts which were devastated by the Fall Army Worm, farmers should practice crop rotation for maize with other crops to break the pest / disease cycles.
"Repeated planting of similar crops in the same fields leads to pest and disease population build up and outbreaks due to constant availability of food for pests and diseases. So rotation of crops is a good agricultural practice that should be carried out by all farmers," he said.
The minister also asked extension workers to guide households on growing nutritious foods such as leafy vegetables, pumpkins, yams and orange flesh sweet potatoes, and fruits (oranges and other citrus).
He said communities in drought prone areas should de-silt dams and harvest enough rain water while those in flood-prone areas should open canals before rains begin to avoid flooding.
"I am happy that people have really responded to this practice," he said, "When you go to the countryside, you will see people producing tomatoes and cabbages using water they are holding in tarpaulins."