Is new Quest on farming know-how a turning point for Uganda?
Umaru Ndawula keeps broiler chickens on his small plot of land in Kitende, Ndawula has become less content with his broiler farm on which he raises about 500 birds every six weeks. He told me that profit margins for broilers have reduced in recent months as more farmers have ventured into the business.
Besides, he noted, as the family has expanded, so have the demands for fees and other domestic needs, forcing him to look for new and alternative sources of income.
In an effort to diversify his earnings, Ndawula thought of venturing into fish farming, perhaps because of the current high demand for fish both on the local and international markets as seen from the high price of the protein source.
Other sectors of agriculture have recorded some growth, though at slower speeds, thanks in part to hardships such as crop pests and drought.
So when Ndawula heard of a one-day practical training session on fish farming in confined places, which was organised somewhere in Makindye, a suburb of Kampala, he enlisted without hesitation.
According to Ndawula, up to 300 people turned up for the session and paid Ushs50,000. If you’re interested, the organisers of the session made a killing from the day’s activities.
But Ndawula is not alone. Perhaps realising the hunger for farming know-how prevalent among Ugandans, expositions and demonstrations are now major attractions these days.
From Vision’s Pakasa Forum, to CBS’s Pewosa and similar forums organised by institutions and individuals, there’s palpable hunger for information among Ugandans on how to make money from farming.
In fact, results of the latest Panel Survey by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics UBOS, which tracks selected households over a period of time, revealed that more Ugandans are venturing into agriculture.
But while a significant number of Ugandans have always done farming, the latest trend suggests that more people are serious about farming than before which is probably the reason they want to cut losses by getting better acquainted with business before they venture into it.
But why now?
Ndawula told me that majority of the people he attended the fish-farming seminar with, were civil servants.
“They were office bearers who want to diversify their incomes through farming. A number of civil servants feel insecure with their salaries and look at farming as an enterprise they can easily engage in without being there full time, ” added Ndawula.
Civil servants are probably right about supplementing their incomes. The increase in average prices of goods and services being experienced these days, known as inflation in economic speak, has eroded the value of money and salaries and pushed many to the wall. Salaries on the other hand, have not increased at the same rate as inflation.
The high level of interest across Uganda suggests that moving into farming is not a desire of civil servants alone but rather a wish by greater number of people. Growing one’s own food would after all save the money people spend on food, many believe.
Government reluctance to hire
While government spending has increased in recent years, as seen from the increase in the government budget, the bloated expenditure is going to fewer people as fewer rather than more Ugandans get direct employment from government or projects implemented by foreign infrastructure firms.
A recent statement by the Ministry of Public service shows that more than 32, 000 positions in public service remain unoccupied. On top of that, several high ranking positions remain occupied by people who should have retired years back but due to political interventions are still on job.
This means that the government is deliberately preventing hundreds of thousands of people, especially young people from actively participating in the economy either as consumers or producers of goods and services. And the trickle-down effect of this deprived employment, is significant.
According to Ndawula, agriculture is thus considered by many Ugandans as the sector where they can make some money on the side. Unlike other businesses, with abundant land, agriculture needs less capital to start for a determined soul. But as many people have witnessed, making a difference in farming requires more than just elementary knowledge.
Besides the government’s reluctance to hire, experts see growing interest by Ugandans to invest in agriculture as a positive attitude change that could spark a turning point in the lives of Ugandans.
A combination of factors ranging from favourable climate, vast arable land and moderate temperatures puts agriculture in a unique position as lucrative sector that many Ugandans had neglected.
Dan Lubega, the chairman of Mukono Farmers Association adds that farmer shows are trying to fill the vacuum created by the absence of extension service providers, a role that was previously played by government in the past.
“Agriculture has always been a knowledge-intensive exercise. You need to learn a lot about raising crops of animals in order to be able to benefit from them. That is why people are willing to part with their money,” argues Lubega.
Increased media attention including profiling of successful farmers in Uganda, coupled with President Museveni’s relentless urge for people to turn to farming, cannot be overlooked.
However, many experts remain sceptical about the potential of the current rally being sustained over a long time.
Godbar Tumushabe, the Associate Director of the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS) argues that farming remains a high-risk venture because of the meagre investments by the government towards the sector.
With a mere two percent allocation dedicated to agriculture, Tumushabe says that farmers are neglected.
Andrew McKims, the coordinator of the Feed the Future programme under USAID, pointed out recently that government policies undermine agriculture in Uganda. Despite the government’s repeated promises to promote cooperatives, farmer organisation remains one of the major stumbling blocks to the advancement of agriculture in Uganda.
McKims also pointed out a number of challenges including the prevalence of fake seeds, high cost of inputs, lack of extension services compared to neighbouring countries, as binding constraints that make farming a high risk enterprise.
If McKims and Tumushabe’s arguments are anything to go by, the farmers’ overwhelming interest in agriculture is likely to yield a lot of frustrations. But one cannot rule out potentially transformative enterprises popping up the way Ugachick and Biyinzika poultry entrepreneurs did over the past decade.