Mzee Fred Kaweesi used to ride ten miles on a bicycle from Naama in Mityana district to Kakungube along the Mityana-Mubende road to access their family garden almost on a daily basis. He repeated this routine for about thirty years until about two years ago when age got the better of him.
In the eighties and nineties, the family would produce up to 100 bags of dried coffee in a single harvest season.
They would also produce enough food to feed the family and sold the excess to people in nearby trading centres.
Today, all his daughters are married, and most of his sons moved into Kampala to do informal jobs or chase deals, as they say. A few others are working as drivers.
Last year, Mzee Kaweesi lost his wife to injuries she sustained in a boda boda accident. But besides the grief and pain that has consumed him ever since her death, he constantly worries about his next meal since he can no longer cultivate. But more importantly perhaps, he worries about the future of his estate and cattle heard that he tends to these days which he almost certainly knows will get dismantled and shared up among his children the moment he dies.
Mzee Kaweesi is not alone in this boat.
In fact, his is one of the thousands of families especially in Buganda whose wealth and years of toil have disappeared because of a wrong tradition of inheritance that promotes fragmentation rather than consolidation of property such as land and other businesses amongst the children.
The choice of the theme of this year’s World Food Day celebrations would not have been more appropriate for Uganda therefore.
Set to be marked on October 16, the United Nations has decided to recognize the role of family farmers in feeding the world under the theme: “Family Farming: “Feeding the world, caring for the earth”
There is probably no need for statistics to know just how important families are in feeding Uganda, since almost all of our food is produced by families. However, the day’s celebrations set to be held at the National Crop Resources Research Institute in Namulonge, come as an opportunity to reflect on the many challenges facing this model as well as other attendant problems arising from the environment.
Land fragmentation, as emphasized by President Museveni recently, is one of the biggest challenges that need to be addressed by consolidating the family farm as a business, where members take up shares rather than parcel out the land. By taking up shares, the business would require better management, better accountability and new technologies to improve its productivity and hence the welfare of its shareholders.
Because of years of fragmentation, some farms will inevitably become unsustainable and will be bought off by more innovative and enterprising neighbours whose expansion will benefit from economies of scale, greater mechanisation.
As Ambassador Phillip Idro, Uganda’s former envoy to China noted, countries only advance when agriculture modernises, enabling people to educate their children with the help of a good education system, which releases people into the productive labour market to work as technicians, engineers and other professionals in the manufacturing or services sector.
As Ambassador Alhaji Jallow, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) country representative to Uganda revealed last week, family farmers play a vital role in the effort to ensure food security.
Family farmers are not restricted to Uganda and other poor countries. Even in the industrialised countries, actual food production is primarily controlled by families, albeit with modern technologies and on bigger farms.
Unlike in the developed countries, family farmers in Uganda, most of which are small holder or cultivate on an average of one and half acres of land, face numerous challenges and are therefore unsustainable. He cited the obvious shortage of land, poor infrastructure, lack of knowledge and the weak extension system as some of the most binding constraints crippling farmers in Uganda.
Ambassador Jallow blamed the government for not fulfilling its promise to scale up budgetary allocation to agriculture to ten percent as agreed in 2004 under the Maputo protocol. In fact, Ambassador Jallow is not alone in observing that the government has paid lip service to a sector as important as agriculture.
As Prof. August Nuwagaba pointed out recently, it does not need a rocket scientist to know why poverty has persisted in Uganda, because the sector that supports 80 percent of the population, is growing much slower pace of 3 percent, as compared to the rate of population growth at 3.6%.
Added to this are years of constant mining of soil nutrients through subsistence farming, coupled with underinvestment into agriculture by the government that has made access to fertilizer, good quality seeds, and markets even more precarious.
The holding of the event at Uganda’s biggest agricultural research centre in Namulonge, is also another opportunity for Ugandan farmers to catch up on the latest crop varieties that have been developed by a team of dedicated researchers.
As Dr. James Ogwang, the institute director revealed at the Media launch of the World Food day celebrations last week, the Centre will use October 16, to showcase dozens of new and promising varieties that have been developed to counter some of the greatest challenges facing small holder farmers such as diseases, drought as well as combat diseases like anaemia.
In preparation to receive visiting farmers, the institute has developed small plots to showcase their products. These plots for example have some of the recently developed Nutri beans that have a higher content of zinc and iron which are essential micro-nutrients for pregnant mothers.
Researchers have also planted new varieties of high-yielding millet, maize, rice and disease resistant sweet potatoes and cassava. With climate change, which is associated with prolonged warmer or wetter periods than previously, and hence increased pests and diseases, scientists argue that farmers need the new varieties to be able to cope with the drought.
But more importantly perhaps, as noted by Dr. Ogwang, the visit to the research centre by farmers should help settle concerns about Genetically Modified Organisms, a subject that has attracted as much debate as well as anxiety among the population.
Dr. Ogwang reassured the visitors that majority of their new technologies have been developed using conventional means, implying that they have not used GM to produce those varieties.
But Ogwang was keen to remind intending visitors that the institute has used Genetic Modification to develop crop varieties to overcome some nasty diseases for which they could not find solutions using conventional technology.
Ogwang defied criticism especially from the NGO world that GM products developed by researchers at Namulonge have been distributed to farmers.
He said: “We are patriotic scientists and we have produced some really exciting products to combat pervasive diseases like cassava brown streak virus for which there is no solution using conventional means.”
This year’s World Food Day celebrations have also been organised with a bit of pomp. On October 14, farmers have an opportunity to taste some Ugandan food at the Food Festival scheduled to take place at Kololo independence grounds.