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Smallholder women farmers

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

The ignored agriculture transformers that the government should target

The key to addressing the hunger crisis in Uganda is to boost smallholders farming, especially among women, says a new report by ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency. It adds: The reason is clear; most of the hungry are farmers, most of the farmers are women, and nearly all the farmers are smallholders.

Entitled Investing in Smallholders Farmers: Six areas for improvement in agricultural financing the report launched on June 11 in Kampala is based on studies of government and donor spending on agriculture. It advises that smallholder agriculture must be transformed if the objective of the Uganda National Development Plan, which aims at transforming Uganda from a peasant to middle income society in 30 years, is to be achieved.

Uganda has the biggest part of arable land in East Africa estimated at 49% but only 30% is in use and mainly for subsistence. Agricultures contribution to GDP is declining, not because more industries have been created to absorb some of those directly employed in agriculture, rather because agricultural production levels are sliding due poor methods of farming.

As a result, studies have consistently shown that Uganda is food insecure. As of 2007, government statistics showed that some 17 million Ugandans were food insecure. Yet in 2002, the number was at 12 million. The most recent survey by the UN agency World Food Programme indicates that at least 8 million Ugandans are food insecure.

The ActionAid report notes that for hunger to reduce and farm productivity to increase, government and donors need to increase spending on agriculture, spend resources more effectively (i.e. eliminate corruption), invest more in services that matter to smallholder farmers like credit, extension and access to inputs, and focus agricultural policy on women.

At the heart of the ActionAid proposal are women like Beatrice Nangobi, 60, of Nankodo Village in Buseta Subcounty, Pallisa district. The widowed mother of 12 children still has to fend for three of the youngest who have had the luck to attend school. Her extended family is so big that her homestead looks like a mini-village with its two tinny brick and iron-sheet roofed houses and seven mud and wattle papyrus grass-thatched huts.

Nangobis husband died two months ago, leaving her with the huge responsibility of looking after that large family. To feed her large family, she tills the land; either on her farm or as hired labour on neighbours farms for Shs 1,500 (US cents 50) a day. Before her husband died, they had at least an acre of farmland under food crops and cash crops like groundnuts.

When he became sickly I sold the bag of ground nuts to hospitalise him. I no longer have the seeds, she says. The groundnuts were part of the yield from the two-basins of the seeds she had borrowed from an ActionAid Uganda seed store in the village as capital seven years earlier. From the first harvest, in 2003, she harvested 21 basins of shelled nuts. She paid back four basins and used the balance as seed for herself. The ActionAid seed store is designed to help impoverished smallholder subsistence farmers become self-sufficient. Since then she has been growing groundnuts.

I bought clothes, a goat, household utensils, and paid school fees for my children because of the ActionAid seed bank, she says through a translator.

Without seed or her husband’s labour, Nangobis life is set to get worse. She does not have Shs 50,000 (US$25) to hire an ox plough to till her acre of land and has no seed. On paper, a government programme called the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) programme is designed to help farmers like Nangobi transition into commercial agriculture. In practice, it is way out their reach.

 NAADS deals with farmers that belong to groups. Some of these groups in Buseta Subcounty comprise 30 to 60 people. Every year one group member is supposed to get support from NAADS. Thus, it would take 30 years to help each member of a group with 30 members. Each group is required to register at the sub-county with Shs 30,000 and each member is asked to buy a Shs 20,000 certificate to stand a chance to benefit from NAADS resources. Ironically, even farmers who have fulfilled all terms are still waiting to benefit from NAADS.Â

Kruish Igongo, 40, a smallholder farmer in Buseta I village, is typical.

NAADS gave him a hen and a cock to start him off on chicken rearing. The chickens died. He blames the poor extension services. “They should be teaching us how to manage the farms and about weather as we approach the planting season,” said the 40-year old father of nine. Extension officers are supposed to guide farmers on better methods of farming, to increase yields.

Another famer, George William Talisuna of Katiryo I village got eight goats from NAADS in June 2009. Two have died. “I reported this to the sub-county NAADS coordinator and he said they would let me know whether I have to pay for the dead goats,” says Talisuna.

He is the only member of his group of 60 that received assistance from NAADS. Talisuna is required to pay back 70 percent of the goats he received from NAADS in three phases, and says this has been valued at Shs 1,015,000. Talisuna, 50, and his wife Florence, 40, have 16 children.

The Action Aid report notes: “NAADS is not even attempting to reach all farmers; the aim is to reach the ‘economically active poor’, defined as subsistence and semi-commercial farmers with access to productive assets, some skills and knowledge. Extension services under NAADS are only offered to farmer groups yet majority of the poor farmers are not organised.”

Women like Nangobi are left out of NAADS supplies because they have no collateral. She is not alone.

Millions of smallholder farmers, especially women, struggle without government intervention.

 The ActionAid report says that government can achieve the goal of transforming Uganda from a peasant state to middle and industrialised state if it increases spending on agriculture. It argues that it would pay off faster to direct agricultural investment in smallholder farmers who form the biggest percentage of subsistence agriculture, which is the backbone of the country.

Government only allocated Shs 344 billion in the 2009/10 financial year to the agricultural sector and has cut the figure to Shs 310 billion in the 2010/11 budget. Much of this money goes to finance the recurrent budget and agricultural research institutes in the ministry of agriculture. Another good chunk of the money goes to NAADS, which is largely financed by the donors. In the last four financial years, agriculture has been taking between 3.8% and 4.4 % of the national budget in spite of the government ratifying treaties committing its to spend at least 10 percent of its budget on agriculture.

ActionAid says more funds need to be allocated to smallholder agriculture which employs eight of every 10 Ugandans. The majority are women.

Action Aid says that in order to achieve higher incomes for rural farmers and economic transformation, the government should provide small holder farmers with agricultural inputs (oxen, milling machines, juice making machines, milking machines, hatcheries, fertilizers, etc). It should  extend low interest agro-credit to enable them invest more for instance by hiring ox ploughs to open more land and buy improved seeds and breeds and invest more in research about crop and animal diseases, weather patterns and advise farmers accordingly. The report says most the research done for agriculture is not disseminated. The report urges government to bring agricultural extension services nearer to the farmers.

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