THE LAST WORD: By Andrew M. Mwenda
Why efforts to make peasant farmers go commercial are unlikely to yield success
President Yoweri Museveni spent a week in Luwero District on Operation Wealth Creation. The president was teaching farmers to adopt modern farming techniques in order to increase their output and become commercial farmers. The actions of the president may have excited the affection of local people there but it was heavily derided on social media, today the most powerful medium of communication that has overtaken traditional media such as newspapers, radio and television. It seems everything Museveni does these days only attracts criticism from our elite.
I have always been intrigued at Museveni’s seeming disinterest in his own brand, which he has left almost entirely to his critics to shape. Just imagine if Hillary Clinton left the narrative around her candidature to Donald Trump and his supporters. Yet all most of the criticism of the president’s pictures pushing a bicycle with water did not address the policy implications of his actions, leave alone the politics, which I think was the driving motive.
I suspect Museveni’s aim was primarily political, seeking to identify himself with ordinary people by projecting himself as the champion of their interests by appearing and acting to be like them. This may be politically functional but I hope he does not see it as a strategy for rural transformation. Yet having watched him in many districts, I suspect Museveni believes that he can transform rural livelihoods by teaching farmers modern farming techniques.
It is true that the president’s efforts can increase the incomes of a few peasants who are exceptional. Indeed many peasants have become prosperous as anyone who has travelled through rural Western Uganda and seen their homes and cars can attest. But these efforts, even if they were to be institutionalised, cannot transform the lives of the majority or the structures of Uganda’s economy.
The problem with contemporary efforts at fighting poverty has been doing things directly for poor people – paying their children’s fees, picking their medical bills, giving them farm implements, fertilisers and improved seeds for free. The most effective tools are those that are indirect and tend to instigate, stimulate, activate, or precipitate change. For instance, by supporting the growth of downstream industries like fruit or food processing, one can precipitate the growth of a robust commercial agricultural sector where extension services are done by the private sector.
In northern Uganda Mukwano Industries helps farmers produce sun seed used to make vegetable oil; in Kalangala BIDCO helps farmers make money from oil palm; BAT previously played a key role among tobacco farmers. In all these cases, these private companies negotiate contracts to purchase farmers produce and then give them loans to buy farm implements, fertiliser and improved seed. In 2005, Mukwano was paying only about Shs 5 billion to farmers for their sun seeds. By 2010, it had grown to Shs 36 billion.