In Summary
  • Pepper farming has turned a 28-year-old into a consultant farmer, writes Tobbias Jolly Owiny

Pepper farming has turned a 28-year-old into a consultant farmer, writes Tobbias Jolly Owiny
Whereas many learned and uneducated young people continue to scramble and cry for limited jobs on the market, a few exceptional youth are defying the odds by employing themselves as well as others.

Twenty-eight-year-old Denis Olam is one of those who opted to grow habanero peppers and chili cayenne diyene and white garden eggs. All these are exported. For the last three years, he has been selling to exporting companies.

The Gulu District based farmer owns a one acre farm at Pageya village. Barely a kilometre from Pageya Primary School, Bungatira Sub-county, the green bell pepper gardens welcome you. It is these gardens that are used as a seed multiplication site, storage facility and a research unit where he currently pilots two innovative projects on pepper and poultry.

Olam also has a four acre production site in Obul, Kochgoma Sub-county, Nwoya District where the bulk of his hot pepper is grown. Unlike most farmers who retail their produce, he mainly grows pepper for export.

Starting out
It has been a long journey for Olam as he explains. “My passion for farming started in childhood. It is this passion that prompted me to join Arapai Agricultural College where I finished a diploma in crop science from in 2009. After this, he managed a family farming project for a year.

It is while there that he got a scholarship to study a Bachelor’s degree in Crop Science at Kyambogo University in 2010. When he graduated in 2012, Olam was employed as a farm manager in South Sudan but left at the beginning of 2013 due the civil war there. With his little savings, Olam started a poultry project but lost most of the birds to New Castle disease.

“I did not give up; I instead took to horticulture, and grew three acres of tomatoes while I piloted hot pepper growing after researching about it. That season, tomatoes fetched low prices and a basin would go for Shs2,000,” Olam says before adding that in the second season of 2013 he expanded the pepper plots to an acre when it sold three times the price of tomatoes.

Olam said he discovered the viability of hot pepper growing through the Internet after reading a young man’s story about making Shs48 million in hot pepper export. He visited the young man at his farm in Mukono District and was convinced that he too could succeed. “He told me everything, guided me to the buyers and seed sellers where I started from,” Olam said.

From his 2015 records, Olam invested Shs5.6m on four acres and earned Shs26m from it. This money enabled him open up a consultation firm which fetches him Shs 8m annually.
When he started in out in 2013, he invested Shs780,000. This fetched him profits of Shs 3.5m. “In my second year of production, I increased my acreage and made of Shs7m.
Whereas he faces a number of challenges from pests, inconsistent transport for the hot pepper to Kampala as well as seasonality of the crop, Olam says he has been working day and night to have these challenges mitigated.

“To make sure pepper reaches the airport fresh, I now hire trucks to privately transport the pepper unlike previously when we used buses and would reach Kampala when the fruits are broken or are beginning to perish,” he said.

Olam now does constant pest monitoring and eradication measures to battle pests and moths infestations.

“Europe banned moths from their countries and export boxes are screened and those infected with moth are confiscated and owners are charged disposition costs. In July for example, 59 of my pepper boxes were confiscated at the airport.”

Apart from ensuring that he grows it timely, Olam who now does farmer-to-farmer pepper monitoring where he encourages and trains the farmers to strategically plant pepper so that they can ripen at the peak of demand.

“It is seasonal and when its demand is at peak in Uganda it is winter in Europe where their fields are frozen and can’t harvest or grow. This is the time they heavily rely on Africa,” he says. During summer, Europe consumes its own pepper and during such times, prices drop significantly and a lot of restrictions are put on farmers.
Olam’s passion for innovation has given him sleepless nights in trying to come up with ideas that would yield him high profits from minimal capital. In 2015, he piloted the construction of a pepper solar dryer that he used to dry 400 kg of hot pepper currently in his stores.

“Habanero peppers cannot be dried in the sun and can only be dried using solar power, and its dried form is currently on high demand in the US for tear gas manufacturing companies,” Olam shares. The machine means the excess pepper they dump during periods of low prices will be put to maximum use.

Apart from building and experimenting a kerosene hatchery at his Pageya-based farm, Olam also makes pesticides and fertilisers from low grade and moth-infested pepper and has been supplying them to farmers and agro-dealers in the sub-region for the past one year.

For the few years Olam has been exporting hot pepper, he believes that wooing more than 100 farmers to join him in pepper growing has so far been his biggest achievement since the big profits earned by farmers has changed their lives and farming dimensions. Olam’s records show that 68 farmers are active and have at least an acre of pepper where they earned not less than Shs10m from pepper last year.

As a professional farmer and a consultant, Olam trains farmers on agronomy, reaping big from farming and on animal management at no cost.

He also believes that his export production has earned him fame and recognition that has helped him achieve big in farming. “I have learnt a lot of things and my experience has grown. Many farmers call to consult and I have also made vital contacts both locally and across the world.

His consultancy firm has made him popular with nearby institutions like Gulu University, Bobi polytechnic and other farmers groups.

Olam has acquired 20 acres of land in Obiya, on the outskirts of Gulu town and Pageya where he now plans to build a pepper packaging unit.

It has not been a big battle for Olam to market his pepper since it is a commercial crop grown basically for export considering the low consumption in Uganda. Fortunately for him, he had networked early. “I had established my market before even growing pepper. I linked with friends and companies who export and when I got to plant, I knew where the market was,” he said.
Even when he sells that ripe pepper to Europe (with Britain statistically being the biggest consumer of Uganda pepper), Olam says last year he discovered high demand for raw (green) pepper in Asian countries.“It is equally good for us to market in Asia since farmers whose fields are infested by moths can sell off their pepper while green before they are eaten up by moths.” He added that last year the local market in Gulu District consumed only 93kg, meaning few people know about or eat hot pepper. Olam’s records show that he now receives orders between 100 to 200 export boxes of hot pepper on a weekly basis.

Although he advises farmers to divert from the traditional farming systems that have economically handicapped them, Olam says farmers should discard the mentality of growing crops that only have local markets.

“As farmers we should embrace cash crops and a farmer should not think of huge profits first as he joins commercial farming, rather than setting a foundation from which the huge profits come after,” he says.

Olam says he is already sampling okra, bird eye chilli and pumpkins and hopes to expand production to other farmers in next year.”

He says he is in the final stages of consultations with the ministries of Trade and Agriculture to have a packaging and screening unit in Gulu so that they can begin processing and doing direct export from Gulu but not through middlemen as is the practice.