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Hoe economics: From farmers to diggers

By Morrison Rwakakamba

In due honesty, the hoe will and can never transform agriculture in Uganda but tractors will.

The Uganda 2011/2012 budget has been exhaustively discussed, debated and reflected on in the wider media, blog dashboards, twitter, facebook, trading centres, bars, wedding meetings, saunas and sports clubs etc. Ugandans are now awaiting its full implementation. Fast forward, one year from now when a new budget (2012/2013) is read, winners and losers could be different. Why? The endemic fault-line in our budget architecture is largely embedded in implementation and not the smart budget speeches studded with admirable fund allocation efficiency.

Citizens must be keen on budget implementation, follow the budget figures line by line and shilling by shilling to ensure it achieves its objectives. The farmers fraternity remains in dilemma for policy actors and economists continue to argue that most budget lines/allocations be it energy, infrastructure, water etc, have a direct and indirect link to fortunes of the agriculture sector. When prices of farm produce hit the roof, they say farmers are in things (reaping huge benefits]! In spite of the foregoing, farmers have remained at the bottom of the wealth pyramid, productivity for crop farmers has plummeted to an all time low of 0.3% in real Gross Domestic Product growth from 6% ten years ago when the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) started!  Yet a lot of explaining continues to be done, justifications merchandised on why the status quo is skewed against farmers. Today, I will not indulge in this debate. I will talk about the hoe. I will talk about the hoe economics and the dilemma of farmers and diggers in Uganda.

The Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Maria Kiwauka announced removal of import duty on hand hoes from 10 percent to 0 percent. In her considered wisdom, this will reduce the burden of farmers who in this 21st century are still using hoes to plough the fields to feed 33 million Ugandans. It was a good gesture, and a symbolic one at best. Yet the questions we need to be asking ourselves are quite many:  Do we have crop failures because hoes are expensive? Has productivity dwindled because farmers cannot afford hoes? Are farmers harvesting low prices because hoes are unaffordable? No! The problem is the hoe. And again the problem is not the hoe!

Look! On 4th February 2011, a team from Uganda National Farmers Federation and myself started farmers fireplace conversations. The following morning, we visited Mrs Apuli of Bishozi, Nkoma Sub-county in Kamwenge district. She runs two acres, one for bananas and another for pineapples. We had a farm walk and later, before meeting the dairy group, sat around the mid morning fire to have a honest conversation on the challenges she faces as a farmer.

The problem is expensive labour. Period! She hires five casual labourers per day and each takes Shs3500 for six hours of work at the farm. In a day she spends 17500! Yet her far side of the banana farm, we observed that it was not well maintained. The five casual labourers are not enough. Yet if she had a hand tractor, or as a pool of Nkoma Farmers Association had a tractor, she would be spending a quarter of the Shs17500. She was frank. She said she is a digger and not a farmer. That farmers use labour saving technologies and inputs like fertiliser to maximise output and returns. That diggers use hoes and other Stone Age tools and are subsistence! Yet her resilience and hope that one day, she will overcome was evident. She was radiant and smiling to the future.

Looking at Kiwanuka’s budget, my thoughts went to Mrs Apuli in Kamwenge. She sees no difference; she sees the budget as a ritual that won’t transform her enterprise. Yet if she had more information, and specific guidelines on how to access part of the Shs60 billion loan facility, perhaps she can buy a hand tractor, or reach out to her farmer friends, pull resources together and buy a tractor. Indeed her operational constraints zoom the story of most Ugandan farmers and diggers.

In due honesty, the hoe will and can never transform agriculture in Uganda. Long gone are the days of gifted by nature and fertile soils! Our water resources are dwindling and our soils are hungry for nourishment. We lose Shs225 billion due to soil degradation every year, only 8% of our farmers use any form of fertiliser and only 6% see an extension worker in a given year. As a country, are we ready to transform agriculture? Opportunities are massive; we can harness the ingenuity of our farmers, leverage our water resources for irrigation, tap into mobile technology to pursue digital extension services to more farmers, create a value addition fund to deepen agro-processing, value retention and create jobs in the agriculture sector. We can mobilise farmers into cooperatives to pull resources, skills and marshal market penetration capabilities. There are myriad solutions. We need to sit around a fireplace and have a honest and realistic conversation, for our niche’ as a country remains interwoven in the fortunes of the agriculture sector.

Morrison Rwakakamba is a coffee farmer in Nyeibingo, Kebisoni, Rukungiri

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