Early this year, 26-year-old Robert Ningo, a resident of Anai Parish in Uganda’s northern Lira District, planted four acres of improved variety of soybean.
He had hired labourers to till his land, plant and weed the garden, but the poor harvest left him disconsolate.
“I spent around Shs600,000 to pay labourers, buying seeds and weeding. But I harvested only four sacks of soybean that I sold at Shs250,000,” Mr Ningo revealed.
Declining soil fertility, pests and drought that hit the plants at the stage of flowering failed the yield.
Resigned to fate, Mr Ningo picked the Shs250,000 earned from the sale of soybeans harvest, bid goodbye to the farm and sprinted to Lira City centre to work as a broker.
Ningo’s tale of being enveloped in frustration while trying to eke out a living from land, mirrors the agony of millions of Ugandan farmers handicapped by inadequate irrigation and agricultural production knowledge.
Declining agricultural productivity in the wake of rising population and food demand means food insecurity or hunger for the penniless, a vulnerability variously highlighted in the UN food agency’s annual reports.
Part of the explanation for the less-than-satisfactory performance of the agricultural sector lies in inadequate government resourcing.
For instance, Uganda, under the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, has over the decades on average allocated only 3.5 per cent of the national budget to agriculture, 17 years after signing the 2003 Maputo Protocol under which the government, like other counterparts in Africa, committed to assign 10 per cent of the budget to the agriculture sector.
That Uganda’s budget for agriculture increased marginally by Shs300b this financial year perhaps signals that not much is likely to change for the sector if NRM flag bearer Yoweri Tibuhaburwa Museveni, who has been President for 34 years, won a sixth elective term next year.
To citizens like Ningo, Uganda may not be working in the manner they expect, but candidate Museveni in the manifesto chest-thumps about superintending a progressive agricultural sector despite the low funding.
From high coffee exports from which the country last year grossed $613m (Shs1.8 trillion), about $78 million higher than the earning a year earlier, to rebooted milk companies processing 2.7 million litres of milk per day, a sprinkling of gains are visible.
Fish stock has regenerated in the waters after the state inserted soldiers to beat back catchers of immature fish and a $177 million earned in fish exports last year, which is the highest in five years, suggests the widely-condemned army brutality may have dividends.
NRM is also waving inauguration of agro-processing factories such as Soroti Fruit Factory and Amuru Sugar Works Ltd in eastern and northern Uganda respectively as evidence of things that are working.
But the ruling party has not issued a report card on how of many Uganda’s nine million-plus households are earning at least Shs20m a year from the four acre-acre multiple enterprise agriculture model as Mr Museveni promised in his campaign for the 2016 vote. However, NRM re-emphasises the model in its re-election manifesto.
To other presidential contenders, the ruling party, whose attempt to reboot the agricultural sector has staggered from Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA) to National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads) now to the army-run Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), is heavy about the financial chest and thin on the ground to make small farmers prosper.
Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party flag bearer Patrick Oboi Amuriat, like Democratic Party and Alliance for National Transformation counterparts Nobert Mao and Maj Gen Muntu Mugisha as well as Independents Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, Lt Gen Henry Tumukunde and financial liberation crusader Joseph Kabuleta, commit in their manifestos to revive farmers cooperatives.
Cooperatives, which in Uganda date back to 1913, were both economic and political powerhouses, galvanising millions of farmers to bargain for higher output prices and influence in governance decision-making.
However, political instability in the 1980s coupled with market liberalisation and internal mismanagement decimated most of the farmers’ groups, according to International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Worse, the flagship Uganda Cooperative Bank folded in 1999.
The bank’s closure deprived farmers of cheap credit line and the collapse of cooperative and marketing groups have emasculated rural farmers whose potential profits are creamed off by middlemen.
“The cooperatives had a lot of money before Mr Museveni came to power but after he captured power, he started dismantling them one by one to make Ugandans poor and enslave them,” Mr Kabuleta said.
The government has instead introduced Savings Credit and Cooperative Societies (Saccos) which, lacking in mass membership and financial clout, operate more or less like adulterated forms of the original farmers’ cooperatives.
The agricultural sector is important, and requires a higher seating in candidates’ manifesto, because two-thirds of the estimated 41.6 million Ugandans live off agriculture, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries (MAAIF).
However, small farmers are encumbered with a raft of constraints, among them, poor-quality inputs, climate change, low production and productivity, hefty post-harvest losses, costly agriculture credit, low prices and lack of a competitive markets for their products.
Thus, ideas about reforming the agricultural sector such as those bandied by presidential candidates on the campaign trail require to address supply and demand aspects, tackling inputs, farm extension services and productivity, post-harvest handling and market access.
With the country going to the polls in roughly six weeks, rural Ugandans who constitute majority voters and are clinging for survival on subsistence farming, are again, as they have been in past election cycles, a primary target for political bidders.
Ms Agnes Kirabo, the executive director of Food Rights Alliance, argued that most of the promises are simply gimmicks to attract votes.
She said farmers are being used as ladders and they are abandoned after the politicians reach positions of leadership.
“When talking about smallholder farmers, we mean the farmer who is stuck in poverty deep in the village, has been used, yet he helps in providing food on people’s tables,” she said.
Mr Ningo, who fled from agriculture in Uganda’s northern Lira District, is the kind of smallholder farmer whose agony and adversity should preoccupy presidential candidates while talking.
Otherwise, like millions of younger and out-of-school citizens before him, more Ugandans who find themselves in life’s trap of Ningo’s kind will flee to crowd in urban areas to chase elusive dreams and create secondary problems.
Already Uganda’s agricultural sector productivity slackened by 1.1 per centage points last year compared to the 5.3 per cent growth registered in the 2018/2019 Financial Year.
It remains unclear how the Covid-19 pandemic, which has cast gloom over economies and disrupted life globally, will impact Uganda’s agricultural sector.
In addition, the pandemic has triggered a 10 percentage-point rise in poverty in Uganda, according to a Finance Ministry report.
With agriculture contributing 26 per cent of Uganda’s wealth (Gross Domestic Product) and accounting for 53 per cent of total export earnings, it means what is done right or wrong with the sector has wide-ranging ramifications for the country and citizens.
It includes decision about how to bring more of Uganda’s 85 per cent arable land – the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that 35 per cent is currently being utilised – to agricultural productivity.
Whereas candidate Tumukunde, without giving details, offers to introduce technology and small engine mechanised agricultural tools, FDC’s Amuriat, like Bobi Wine and Mr Mao, promise higher investment in scientific research to boost agricultural productivity.
Mr Amuriat pledges to dedicate 2 per cent of the agriculture budget to research, which would dramatically raise the funding for National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO) and all its affiliates that, besides underfunding, are losing land to grabbers.
He also promises to restock cattle in northern and north-eastern Uganda, reviving a political hot-button issue that on the campaign put President Museveni on the defence in Teso sub-region.
On the other hand, Mr Mao, though vaguely, commits to ensuring Ugandans repossess their stolen land and other property – a pledge likely to rattle large- scale commercial farmers who may have used underhand methods to take control of huge chunks of land.
Bobi Wine, in a policy proposal likely to reverberate across the global food chain, wants to accelerate investment in local seeds and inputs production in Uganda to make them accessible and cheaper to farmers.
Seeds may to farmers just be raw materials for the next yield, but they carry international political value, enabling a mass producer to influence agricultural policies in countries, control food supply chain and lives.
Other of Bobi’s stand-out proposal on agriculture include reviving the Beach Management Units and reinstating fishing rights, scaling up agricultural extension services and reviewing international trade agreements that Uganda has signed to ensure market for agricultural products are assured.
FDC’s related approach is promoting commercial diplomacy and tasking diplomats to secure markets for Ugandan exports, environmental protection to safeguard water catchment areas and bringing persons with disabilities in the centre of agricultural practice.
Whereas Mao’s 14-point agriculture strategy proposes establishment of silos to buffer stock and stabilise prices, Ms Nancy Kalembe, the only woman in the crowded presidential race, offer no policy alternatives about agriculture.
This newspaper was unable to access manifestos of the other candidates such as Fred Mwesigye, who is yet to hit the campaign trail. We could not establish their policy alternatives on agriculture, if any.
Gen Muntu argues that the trick of solving problems in agriculture lies in promoting the agriculture value chain.
The party plans to do this by reviving the Cooperative Bank where farmers can easily access loans at a low-interest rate.
Independent presidential candidate Tumukunde, on the other hand, says he will do away with the use of hoes for farming in the country. Without stating the cost of implementing such radical policy departure, the conversation about its feasibility remains open-ended.
The former spymaster also promises to initiate, support and fast track public and private food supply chain linkage and value-addition initiatives to ensure regionally-balanced self-sufficiency in food production.
Climate change is a big issue to farmers because about 85 per cent of them have around 2.5 acres of land and they don’t have adaptive mechanisms like commercial farmers do, the Uganda National Farmers’ Federation (UNFFE) notes. About 3 per cent of the farmers practice large-scale commercial agriculture.
Currently, Uganda’s ratio of cultivated area under irrigation to the irrigation potential is only 0.5 per cent, according to the Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE).
World Bank report of 2013, however, estimated irrigation coverage in the country to be at 0.07 per cent. Tanzania has a coverage of 3.6 per cent and Kenya is at 2 per cent.
The Agriculture ministry said in September that $40m (about Shs148 billion) had been earmarked to create 3.75 million acres of land under irrigation across the country.
The Ministry has also established valley dams in cattle corridors of the country to mitigate to avoid animals dying because of drought.
Although Mr Kyagulanyi doesn’t detail how he is going to expand the water, according to the executive director of the UNFFE chief, Mr Kenneth Katungisha, building the technical capacity of local governments on investment in small irrigation infrastructure would help to develop a sustainable irrigation system.
Mr Katungisha said the plan to mechanise and add value to agriculture products will only yield if government sensitises farmers on post-harvest handling technologies, especially with regard to storage using available cost-effective and available technologies.
“This is in order to eliminate post-harvest losses and increase income for farmers, food security, and provision of good quality products for the farmers,” Mr Katungisha said.
According to the UNFFE, “the next government should provide adequate supervision of the agricultural inputs, to ensure proper facilities and environment for quality inputs.”
Until this is done as the presidential candidates are promising, smallholder Ugandan farmers such as Ningo will find agriculture unappealing, deepening the country unemployment and food insecurity problems.
Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party flag bearer Patrick Oboi Amuriat, like Democratic Party and Alliance for National Transformation counterparts Nobert Mao and Maj Gen Muntu Mugisha as well as Independents Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, Lt Gen Henry Tumukunde and financial liberation crusader Joseph Kabuleta, commit in their manifestos to revive farmers cooperatives. Cooperatives, which in Uganda date back to 1913, were both economic and political power houses, galvanising millions of farmers to bargain for higher output prices and influence in governance decision-making