Uganda at 57! How to transform the economy

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Ugandans are known to generate very pleasant ideas or draft papers at workshops and conferences. Regrettably, these are never put into practice. Ask any government official, they will tell you how they have a grand plan to transform agriculture and the economy as well. You will see the same thing in the papers, concept notes and other Ministry publications of the “artistic impression of xx or yy.” The concept comes out grand and superb. The execution fails miserably. Why?

With more than 75 percent of the country’s population depending and earning living on agriculture, it’s self-explanatory that the key to Uganda’s potential lies in the agriculture sector.

The government has always pointed out that it will transform agriculture with a grand plan of lifting Ugandans out of poverty. But statistics on the ground are worrying. There is a section of Ugandans who are asking themselves transforming from what to what?

The majority of the 75 percent of farmers in Uganda are said to be still stuck in the biblical Garden of Eden, using the primitive hand hoe that was used in the pre-colonial era. Despite massive changes and development, no university or research institution has come up to make improvements to any farm tool. The hand hoe has remained so, just as the pang. Unfortunately for Uganda, Americans and the Europeans who have always invented and thought for us bypassed these stages so fast that either we cough a lot of money and buy very modern tools or we make innovations that improve productivity for our peoples at a low or affordable cost.

Ugandan farmers still wait for almighty God to send water to irrigate their crops. They still ‘pray’ to the underground gods to send fertilizers to enrich their crops. The forgotten farmers still fight pests and diseases using prayer not using science and technology. They still believe that there is no chicken disease, but there is witchcraft, that someone has cursed the farm to have all the chicks die! And they will not bother to explore strategies to address the challenge. Can this type of agriculture bring about radical transformation and help the country achieve vision 2040? These issues, according to analyst plus the current landholder policies cannot help Uganda live to aspirations of Vision 2040. And for that reason, a careful analysis of the government’s actions in 2015, was in stark contrast with those stated in the vision 2040! Why have a document which is not applied?

Analysts believe Uganda’s agriculture requires urgent re-engineering. To put it better, the country needs to embrace smart agriculture if the economy is to realize Vision 2040.

Smart agriculture calls for structural transformation, from primitive to transformative agriculture.

According to experts, transformative agriculture navigates past the art of stupidity.  Albert Einstein defines stupidity as the practice of doing the same things over and over again while each time you get the same outcome.

A Makerere University professor contends that smart agriculture moves past the government that is missing in action, to state-guided reforms and processes of wealth creation. Smart agriculture also seeks to remove all key obstacles, create links between value-added agriculture and manufacturing.

Smart agriculture seeks to move away from world Bank/IMF discourse of willing seller, willing buyer to strategic state-guided reforms. We need a valuable industry sector and manufacturing sector that is linked to farming and this can only be done if we adopt aggressive land reforms.

Analysts say, if Uganda wants transformed agriculture, the government must get her people out of farming — we need to have fewer people in agriculture. The current state where more than 75 percent of the population is in agriculture (subsistence) will never see a radical change in Agriculture.

When the majority grow their food, where are you going to get the market? The discourse for 21 century is that let those with (much) time to waste do value addition to farming or engage in vocational training so that they do small manufacturing. And if there are such citizens, the government must be willing to support them. Imagine if each home could produce soap or paper bags for sale on a village by village basis – that a specific village in Uganda focuses on making say paper bags, while another soap, etc. Such would create centers of excellence. And all governments would need to do is offer support, infrastructure – roads and power and alas, family incomes would increase. Effectively, such an approach would remove many people from subsistence farming.

With fewer people left in the sector, then the country would be able to mechanize and practice agriculture while redirecting labor to work in other productive sectors. The current challenge of smallholder farms and land ownership mechanisms is not good for large scale commercial farming. These are things that must be fixed quickly.

Uganda sitting on ‘Gold’

Smart agriculture encompasses mindset change. Uganda has a precious product called cotton from which we can get a host of products including textiles, fertilizers, soap, iron, and other chemical products.

We have sugar mainly grown to sweeten our tongue; little do we know that it is an important input in the biofuel industry. What Kakira sugar is producing today is just drop in the ocean. We can do better.

In northern Uganda, we have prized but an underutilized product called Shear butter, the product is very good for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industry. Unfortunately, we have ignored this product and instead spend billions, importing products that are even inferior to what we are capable of producing locally. Oh, Uganda!

Sim and groundnuts are other good products. These are precious products for the pharmaceutical and chemical industry and biofuel industry. Unfortunately, their ‘value addition’ is no better than mortar and pestle. We need to change this discourse. We better think differently. From these products, this country would be earning a fortune.

Strategic government intervention needed

When Namulonge land had been reportedly given away to a businessman, few Ugandans cared. Reason? They have never benefited from it. National Research Institutions are carrying out research but their research is market-oriented. In other words, for Ugandan farmers to access this knowledge and technology they must pay. But where is the market for these products?  We have got to find where the market is and government strategic role cannot be ignored

The government needs to drop the old discourse that supporting farmers is not necessary. Farmers are not educated. They need help in terms of extension services, guidance and training about productivity.

Economists and researchers urge there is an urgent need to restore the government’s magic hand and provide agricultural services to farmers.  Our farmers are not earning as much as they would because they sell predominately raw materials.

Prof Kizza concluded that the more farmers sell their products in raw form, the closer they are to poverty. Agriculture has got to be more rewarding and this can only be achieved with government strategic hand — like providing cheap financial support and advocating for value addition.

The government must play a critical part in value addition. Remember Tri-Star? The ‘investors’ are said to have imported readymade textiles from China, Malaysia in rolls, then cut to size, tailored and labeled “made in Uganda.” But how much Ugandan cotton was used in manufacturing these products.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Five years later, have we forgotten and not learned anything? As a country, we may need to adopt the best theory of change: small steps improvements — one baby step at a time.

What’s Uganda’s biggest problem?

Prof. Kizza sturdily believes Uganda’s biggest challenge to development and transformation is leadership otherwise we have what it takes to be among the best countries in the world given resources and knowledge we have.

‘‘We recruit failures; people with no degrees or pass degrees are given positions of responsibility. These will never take this country anywhere.’’

Fast transforming countries and how they have tapped into the best brains. For example, the current prime minister of Singapore has a first-class degree in Mathematics and so is his cabinet ministers. It is no little wonder, the country is developing fast. You cannot plant beans and expect to harvest groundnuts. You reap what you sow. And we say Agriculture needs better strategies and interventions asap.

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