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AGRICULTURE is an important, versatile sector in Uganda. It employs 68% of the population, supporting millions of livelihoods and contributes substantially to the economy.
Notably, according to Morrison Rwakakamba, the CEO of Agency for Transformation (AFT), a farmer – focused non-government organization, there are plenty of institutions such as the Uganda National Farmers Federation, National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS), Coffee Development Authority, among others, to support farmers.
Rwakakamba, who was speaking at a smallholder farmers’ dialogue recently at Makerere University college of agricultural and environmental sciences, says the Government has also formulated policies and initiatives aimed at enhancing agricultural productivity.
The dialogue was aimed at assessing the position of small–holder farmers in the global market.
However, despite the existence of the mentioned institutions, policies and initiatives, productivity is low and most farmers are still struggling. Their quality of life is substandard.
Worse still, even when local and global food prices are soaring, farmers are not pocketing the windfall. Rwakakamba says, “On the other hand, production costs are rising at a higher rate than what can be recouped from local, regional and even global markets,” he observes.
Where are the obstacles?
Professor William Kyamuhangire of Makerere University faculty of food science and technology blames the low agricultural incomes and productivity on subsistence farming.
“Subsistence farming is dominating farming. For instance, you will find in most rural areas homes with a goat, a hen, a cow, a pig, a dog and a small garden,” he says.
It would be more productive, according to Kyamuhangire, if a farmer focused say on goats or cows or vegetables than attempting all of them on small piece of land.
Subsistence farming, he says, is a generational or cyclic problem – it cuts across the family, starting with the father to the son and then grandchildren.
Since subsistence farming, according to Kyamuhangire, is not income-focused, breaking the cycle is difficult, most farmers do not have money to educate their children up to university.
Conversely, it is children from the upper class, most of whose parents are not farmers, managing to attain university education.
So, children of peasant farmers who cannot make it, Kyamuhangire argues, recede to their parents’ rudimentary farming practices, with no additional skills.
Subsistence farming is wasteful in terms of time and energy since it largely depends on the hoe and the weather.
So once darkness sets in, Kyamugangire says there is no room for extension of work.
“As such, production is low for home consumption and whatever remains can only go to informal markets,” he says.
According to Rwakakamba, subsistence farming has persisted because of scarcity of labour-saving technology. For instance, tractor-hire services in most rural areas.
“The tractors there have broken down and there are no spare parts and mechanics to manage them,” he says, adding: “Even the alternative hand tractor is too expensive for subsistence farmers to afford.”
Additionally, Rwakakamba says few farmers access the services of extension workers. Under NAADS, for example, there are 1,600 extension workers to serve four million farmer households.
This, he argues, is unrealistic because there are 2,500 farmers per extension worker, thus it would take more than five years for an extension worker to meet each farmer.
Farmers have been neglected at all the three levels of policy that is, formulation, implementation and evaluation or monitoring.
For instance, Rwakakamba cites subsistence farmers are not represented in the national budget yet they take up a substantial percentage of the agricultural sector,” he says.
Those who are said to be farmers’ representatives, he observes, do not understand core budget issues to enable them strategically advocate for small hold farmers.
If they did, Rwakakamba observes, the 5% national budgetary allocation to agriculture for the last have years would have shot to at least 10%.
Worse still, he observes that even the 5% allocated has not been effectively used on service delivery.
Much of it is spent on administration costs, which have shot up over the years from 25% to 35%, for instance, fuel, paper and allowances, among others.
On the other hand, Rwakakamba observes that accessing regional markets is limiting because of the costly certification processes of approval as most farmers cannot afford them, resorting to informal markets.
There is hope
Transformation to modern small–scale farming, which produces for formal markets, is what subsistence farmers should embrace, advises Kyamuhangire.
Subsequently, he says, they will earn more due to increased inputs and machine usage as opposed to manual labour.
Kyamuhangire adds that more inputs should be added, to elongate the shelf life of the produce, minimizing perishability.
Medius Bihunirwa, the head of the farmer enterprise development unit at Kabarole Research and Resource Centre (KRC) advises that farmers, can benefit more from the markets if they are organized into formal groups such as associations.
This, she argues, gives them collective bargaining power, guarding against low prices. Gender agriculture, argues Bihunirwa, should be integrated into farming to encourage more women into the sector.
She observes that 83% of women are involved in agriculture yet they are not as financially stable as men because women are more involved in food crop growing and men in cash crop growing.
“Women should be encouraged to venture into growing cash crops such as coffee – this will not only increase production, but household income as well,” she argues.
“So a whole family of about nine depends on the food the woman grows using a hoe yet when the husband sells his cash crop, the woman has no claim to the money he earns,” she observes.
The youth, Bihunirwa observes, have shunned agriculture yet they are the most energetic. They have moved to towns, leaving farming for the old who are weak.
Uganda will continue to be haunted by food insecurity if this trend continues, she warns, suggesting that the youth can be back if mechanisation is scaled up.
Bihunirwa adds that farmers should get organised and get into contract farming with established companies that can help them with inputs and access to markets.
However, the move towards contract farming should be done with caution, warns Mohammed Shariff, the KRC deputy director and a research fellow at AFT.
He observes that between 80% and 90% of farmers are in informal marketing practices because of the obstacles in formal practices.
For instance, formal or organised buyers cut into the farmers’ profits by setting high hurdles of supply, for instance, sorting ground nuts to sell to a supermarket – whatever is removed is considered wasted.
Sometimes, according to Shariff, some contract obligations hold farmers at ransom.
They do not allow farmers to sell to other buyers, thus exploiting them. Farmers can use their social and tribal connections to collectively operate informally.
For example, they can contact their relatives in the urban areas to update them the current prices of goods in Kampala.
If the prices are good, they could travel to Kampala and sell.
“This is not only working for matooke, but other products such as cow ghee and peanut butter (odhi).
These are goods whose consumers have ethnic preferences and product attachment. So those who want them may not need to go to a supermarket, they just contact a relative back in the village.
Shariff, however, advises that if the future is to be made right for the 80%-90%, the question should not be how to make the markets work for the poor, but how the poor can make markets work for them.