Situation: Despite investing heavily and expecting huge returns on produce, farmers are yet to realise profits as the demand for maize flour and grain is low following bumper harvests across East Africa. As such, many farmers countrywide have not recovered their return on investment writes Paul Tajuba.
Among Russians is a popular saying that “to get more milk from your cow and spend less on food, you should feed your cow less and milk it more”.
This is expressed in another way by the Dutch as “to want the very best seat at the front row but only want to spend 10 cents [for it].”
The two sayings best describe the manner in which Uganda has been handling its agricultural sector over the last years. Ugandan farmers are now faced with similar scenarios where buyers of produce do not want to pay the right prices for the real value of the commodities.
What farmers say
Mr Moses Mbaziira, a large-scale maize farmer in Buteke village in Luweero District, is part of the 80 per cent labour force employed in the agriculture sector, the majority of them women and youth.
Mbaziira says at the beginning of the season in March, he prepared 10 acres, bought improved seeds, and carried out proper weeding.
That with the accompanying good weather offered Mbaziira, like many farmers across the country, a bountiful harvest.
“But we have not benefited from the good harvest. The prices are too low. How can you sell a bag of maize at only Shs20,000?” Mr Mbaziira asks.
But he is not the only one lamenting the low prices. Mr John Sitati Cherot of Agule Village, Pingire Sub-county in Serere District, is also dismayed by the low maize prices.
“I cultivated six acres of maize, each garden cost me Shs100,000 for hybrid seeds, weeding per acre was Shs350,000, now with each kilogramme of maize [grain] going for only Shs200 to Shs300, I cannot raise Shs3m, which I invested, yet we have to take care of children and other basics,” he says.
In other districts as Kamwenge, Tororo, Busia, and Kiryandongo, the price of maize ranges between Shs280 to Shs300 per kilogramme.
Most buyers, says the Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFF), are traders from Rwanda.
Mr Moses Tuma, the Kisenyi Millers Association chairman, one of the biggest grain processors in the country, has mixed feelings about the fall in maize prices.
He says from a business perspective, this is the best time to buy and stock maize.
“But it is only good if you have enough capital to buy without selling for now,” Mr Tuma says.
He says across the country, the demand for maize flour is low, following good rainfall that yielded bumper harvests.
“We are selling a kilo of maize flour at Shs900 but last year it was at Shs1,600. But even at Shs900, it is only schools that are buying,” Mr Tuma adds.
In Kampala, there has been a registered drop of nearly Shs5,000 on a bunch of matooke, one of the popular staple foods.
From the foregoing, analysts now think investment in the agricultural sector is akin to the proverbial milking of a cow without feeding it. Yet agriculture is one of the biggest earners of export revenues, fetching $1.82b (6.72 trillion) in 2015. The sector also contributed 26 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to data from the Agriculture ministry.
“By now, we should not be crying that we have bountiful harvest but cannot find markets,” says Ms Agnes Kirabo, the executive director of Food Rights Alliance (FRA), a coalition of civil society organisations championing sustainable agriculture and food security.
“Government would now be buying maize from farmers, store it and later sell on behalf of farmers at higher price. But they have decided to leave the sector in the hands of private people who are exploiting the farmers,” she adds.
Uganda does not have big silos across the country that would store the bumper farm produce, with the few which are available, being privately owned.
Mr Chris Kaijuka, the chairman of Grain Council of Uganda, says Kenya and Rwanda provide the biggest market for Uganda’s grains, but the two countries have also produced “a lot more grains” compared to the previous years.
“But it is temporary. They will soon run out of stock and come to us. We only need to help our farmers to sort, dry and standardize the maize grains,” Mr Kaijuka says.
“The prices are down partly because of good weather. We had good rainfall and we had a bountiful harvest,” he adds.
Uganda exported a total of 59,545 tonnes of maize to Kenya between March and June, down from the 87,282 tonnes exported between January and March, according to the latest cross-border trade data.
Appearing before Parliament last week, Trade and Agriculture ministers in a joint statement said government was to buy 500,000 metric tonnes of maize from farmers at Shs500 per a kilo. This, they said, would address the current low prices.
Agriculture minister Vincent Ssempijja said government would carry out the buying through the Agriculture Credit Fund to the Grain Council.
But that pricing has been considered unfair by Mr Dick Kamuganga, the UNFF president, and hopes that government buys a kilo of maize at Shs700.
As farmers cry out over the low prices, educational institutions that depend on maize to feed learners, have a different view.
Mr Patrick Kaboyo, the secretary Federation of Non-State Education Institutions (Fenei), an umbrella organisation for all private schools in Uganda, says the bumper harvest is an opportunity for schools to “improve the learners’ nutritional and food rations.”
“Overall, as a sector, we are going to benefit from low prices to improve our nutritional and food rations,” Mr Kaboyo says.
“Unfortunately, the drop is going to be temporary and we do not think it will reduce the cost of education,” he adds.
Over the years, government has committed to making the sector a backbone of the economy by signing to global declarations, including the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa in 2003. This required countries investing 10 per cent of their national budgets in respective agriculture sectors.
Implementation was meant to have come into force within five years of signing of the declaration, but a quick look at Uganda’s allocations to the sector over the last couple of years reveals this has not been happening.
The sector has had fluctuations in budgetary allocations. For instance, in the Financial Year 2011/2012, government gave the agriculture sector Shs447.16b, representing 4.8 per cent of the budget, but this dropped to Shs336.04b (3.2 per cent) in the next financial year.
Following protests from civil society organisations, government was forced to have a rethink and upped the allocation to Shs473.7b in the 2014/15 budget, but that still fell short of what it had committed to doing under the Maputo Declaration.
In the financial year 2016/17 the allocation was raised to Shs823.4b. In the budget for this financial year (2017/2018) the allocations were increased by Shs5.1b to make it Shs828.5b, something that has excited farmers.
In its 2018/2019 Budget Framework Paper, government lists a host of areas that have to be dealt with in order to increase production and productivity.
These included ensuring proper coordination and synergies between agricultural researchers, supply of inputs and extension services as well as agro-processing and value addition and improving post-harvest handling services and accessibility to the market.
Ms Kirabo says the focus on increasing production across all seasons will require setting up irrigation schemes and markets for the produce. “That is the only way we can ensure food security and incomes for farmers,” Ms Kirabo said.
Before he retired last month, Mr Opolot Okasaai, then Director of Crop Resources in the Ministry of Agriculture, said Uganda needed to establish silos that would keep farmers produce whenever there is surplus and release it when there is scarcity.
“You can tell farmers to keep their produce until prices are good but they also have needs,” Mr Opolot said.
“The alternative should be government advancing money to farmers through their cooperatives and when prices are good, government then sells the produce at good prices and refunds the farmers,” he added.
Mr Opolot said the Agriculture ministry is working with that of Water and Environment to avail water to farmers for small-scale irrigation across the country, including during drought. He said for this to happen a policy has to be instituted to get people out of wetlands where water will be pumped from.
Still, the sector has inadequate extension workers who would advise farmers on what to plant, when and also ensure quality produce. A study done by Uganda Episcopal Conference titled to ascertain the cost of agricultural extension to performance of key productive sectors reveals that extension services are “dead” and required fixing.
“Most farmers in Uganda do not know the crop technologies in their farms. Adoption of improved technologies is very low and technology misuse is very rampant. In livestock, the quality of veterinary services is particularly very low and use of animal production services compared to crops is very low. There is certainly need to invest in agricultural extension both in crop and livestock sectors,” the findings stated in part.
Mr Opolot concurs with the findings, adding that the recruitment of extension workers to guide farmers on what to do is an area that the Ministry has since set into motion.
“We are looking at every sub-county having two extension workers and the numbers will increase with more budget,” he said, adding that the ministry is looking at recruiting 4,000 extension workers over the next three years.
Currently, there are about 1,250 agricultural extension workers for a total population of 34.6 million people, in a country where more than 80 per cent of the population depends on agriculture.
In sum, agriculture has rightly been regarded among the key sectors to deliver Uganda to middle income status by 2020. But the big question is, will it really play that role when farmers still sell a whole 10 kilogrammes of maize grain to pay social media tax for only a week?