10 August 2018

Uganda: Go Back to the Land, Plant Your Money and Watch It Wither

analysis

A while ago, I wrote about the growing popularity of farming among Uganda's social elite, and how, contrary to popular urban myth, investing in agriculture is not always as lucrative as some people would have you believe.

There are many reasons well-heeled urbanites are returning to the land. One is that some have money to spare and so they decide to buy some land as an investment. In the tradition of one thing leading to another, they may decide to "do something" with their acquisition.

There is a whole range of activities to invest in. Some plant trees, hoping to sell them for a lot of money one day. Pine and eucalyptus are particularly popular. Others go into animal husbandry. They take to rearing pigs, rabbits, goats, chickens and cattle. Others invest in growing maize, bananas, coffee, beans, avocado, passion fruit, mangos and other "marketable crops."

Some are "forced" into farming by the need to supplement their incomes, which are not sufficient to maintain the lifestyle they have chosen and would like to continue enjoying.

It is difficult being a member of the middle class and keeping up with the standards expected of anyone aspiring to its membership if one does not earn "enough."

Also often forced into farming are the unemployed who decide to not sit around waiting for a job to turn up, and those who have retired from public service and feel they can't make ends meet using only their pensions.

Another good reason people are flocking to farming is the publicity the media accord successful farmers who are "minting millions" out of agriculture. And in recent years these successful farmers have been appearing in newspapers and on television and also been the subjects of discussions on radio.

Their stories are intended to inspire other members of the public to take farming seriously.

The publicity focuses on success stories and rarely looks into the challenges of working the land. And so it leads many with money to spare, those looking to make some extra cash, those who have failed to find work or are going into retirement and are on the lookout for something to do, to think "there is money in farming."

In reality, however, farming is anything but easy. Nor is it necessarily lucrative, even for those who have lots of money and are able and willing to pump vast amounts of it into farming ventures.

Personal experience, stories from friends and acquaintances and observations one makes when one encounters farmers, prove that whoever wants to go into farming as a money-making venture must approach it with a sense of proportion and keep their expectations realistic.

So what makes farming so challenging and hardly the easy option some people imagine it is? There is the cost and quality of labour.

Contrary to what many of us townies imagine, while the countryside gives the impression of being full of unemployed people we could hire easily as manual labourers, the reality can be quite different.

There are many unemployed people out there. Relatively few, however, are prepared to work and work hard for wages that keep a farmer's costs down.

Just as important, the idea some rural unemployed have of a job is very different from what urban would-be farmers imagine. A job means something more glamorous than tilling the land and certainly not in some village, but in town. They want to leave the village because they want to run away from "digging."

Then there is the issue of honesty. There are few investors in farming, those that live elsewhere and visit only now and then, who do not have stories about workers who help themselves to your livestock and produce to augment their wages.

Sometimes you discover that your herdsman, farm manager or caretaker has left his job without warning, and that before he did, he sold off a few animals and assets and took the money with him.

Interestingly, victims of this sort of dishonesty for the most part accept their losses and move on. Not because they want to, but because trying to get the offenders apprehended has its own challenges, not least the vast amounts of time and resources it would entail.

And then there are the challenges related to dealing with threats to the health of both animals and crops. It turns out that the most successful farmers are those who are able to employ their own veterinary doctors or assistants who possess the necessary scientific knowledge to diagnose and deal with disease outbreaks.

The reason for this is that state-funded and state-organised extension services are overstretched or non-existent, in which case counting on them is to condemn oneself to certain failure.

On a recent visit upcountry, I came face to face with the challenge of extension services. At the home of a farmer who rears chickens on small-scale, I noticed that some of the birds were diseased.

She knew they were but had decided to do nothing about it because she was unable to pay for veterinary services and because medicines on the market tend to be ineffective because... they are fake.

So much for farming as a lucrative undertaking and sure source of extra income!

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs.

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