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Uganda Policy and Smallholder Farmers

The Uganda Food and Nutrition Policy (UFNP): The UFNP (Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheriers and Ministry of Health 2003) carries a similar attitude as that of Uganda National Budgets. It also seemingly promotes ‘grow to sell then buy to eat’.  The overall objective of the policy is:

“To promote the nutritional status of all the people of Uganda through multi-sectoral and co-coordinated interventions that focus on food security, improved nutrition and increased incomes.” 

While the UFNP acknowledges that Uganda as a whole is generally self-sufficient in food supplies, it also notes that food shortages still occur in parts of Uganda; as they indeed do. The reasons for occurance of food shortages which the UFNP advances are: limited use of appropriate agricultural technology, over-dependence on rain-fed agriculture, lack of markets and market information, inadequate rural financial sercices, poor feeder roads, poor and indaequate storage and processing facilities, stress food sales and inadquate buffer stocks.

There seems to be consistent contradictions in GoU policy in relation to agriculture. Take for instance the UFNP, at the same time as it acknowledges Uganda’s self-sufficiency in food supplies and that ‘subsistence famers’ produce most of Uganda’s food; it also denegrates the food production methods of the majority of Uganda’s farmers that it miscategorises as ‘subsistence farmers’ and it advocates for wider use of ‘modern’ technology to boost production. The UFNP thus seems located within the ‘modernisation school of thought’ which holds disdain for the farming practices of the first nations, such as those of the Iteso as discussed in Part II; moreover farming practices that thus far are feeding Ugandans and beyond.

It is valid to surmise that food insecurity in Uganda is not so much insufficient  agricultural food production but it is rather food distribution. However, whereas the UFNP notes causes of food insecurity as including those that are infrastructure related, it seems the UFNP locates infrastructure related causes more within the discourse of infrastructure that facilities exporting of food out of the rural areas for sale. This is as opposed to locating it within the discourse which appreciates that food insecurity in parts of Uganda results from issues related to difficulties of moving food from areas that had a bumper harvest to areas which had insufficient production.  

In which case, the focus should not necessarily be on only the construction of major highways and feeder roads, but should also be on improving rural road networks with the intention to enhance access to food and access to other determinants of health for the benefit of poor active rural farming homesteads. 

In essence, feeder roads take food away from the rural areas to the major highways which take the food to the urban centres in and out of Uganda. The essence of rural road networks is to connect villages for the purpose of local trade that ensures that food does not leave the rural in overly large quanties – sometimes the entire production - to the urban for sale.

Evidence is emerging that the dorminant paradigm in Uganda of ‘grow to sell then buy to eat’- such as the promotion of growing of Epuripur sorghum for sale to Nile Breweries – may be contributing to food insecurity at the homestead level. The case of the change in composition of atap, is one such example of the emerging evidence. 

The UFNP, in fact, acknowledges that Uganda still faces problems of malnutrition as evidenced by the the fact that micro-nutrient deficiences are common among Ugandans, especially Vitamin A deficiences and iron deficiency anaemia. Clearly the change of diet from millet to sorghum to cassava and possible to rice, as seemingly promoted by GoU agricultural interventions, makes the situation worse. 

Uganda National Land Policy (UNLP) 2013: The UNLP (Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development 2013) is in sync with the UFNP and Uganda’s National Budgets in terms of its disdain for agricultural practices of the first nations, such as of the Iteso, and in its belief that it is better for Ugandan farmers to ‘grow to sell then buy to eat.’ The premise of the UNLP as it is articulated in its vision is: 

“Transformed Ugandan society through optimal use and management of land resources for a prosperous and industrialised economy with a developed service sector”

One can deduce from the vision of the UNLP the perception that the first nations are necessarily backward and need transforming. What does the UNLP mean by optimal use of land? Does it mean that the first nations are not using their land to optimum? Optimum for what purpose – is it for food or for generating resources for the Government of Uganda’s (GoU’s) Gross Deomestic Product (GDP)? The goal of the UNLP further elucidates as follows: 

“To ensure efficient, equitable and optimal utilisation and management of Uganda’s land resources for poverty reduction, wealth creation and overall socio-economic development.”

In order to achieve its goal, according to the UNLP, the GoU plans to: 

“Shift an estimated 65 percent of ‘peasants’ who currently contribute 22 percent of the GDP from subsistence to commercial agriculture to move out of poverty and attain food security using land as the major resource.”

The GoU is surely Machiavellian in the manner in which it is promoting a single story that there is a need to modernise Uganda's agriculture from subsistence farming to commercial farming. That single story suggests that commercialisation of agriculture will usher in better utilisation of Uganda’s land that is claimed currently underutilised by the majority, the first nations, who are falsely categorised as ‘subsistence farmers.’ Moreover, it is clear that in some cases the manner in which the first nations – such as the Iteso – utilised the land had logic and was perhaps much more inclusive in ensuring prosperity for all as opposed to prosperity for a few.

One of the modernisation views that is promoted by the GoU, for example, is that ‘subsistence farmers’ if allowed to continue producing should be grouped in zones (zoned/zoning) so that farmers within a particular zone should mono-crop and all produce a single crop in order to produce significant bulked quantities of produce from that single crop in order to supply it to industrialists for value addition.  Zoning and mono-cropping such as was the case for Teso and Epuripur (sorghum for beer), for example; and as is the case for my home district, Pallisa, with rice. It is those mono crops that are chosen that are seemingly provided for in the national budgetary allocations for agriculture.

Another modernisation view that is promoted by the GoU is that ‘subsistence farmers’ should be replaced on the land by large scale farmers.  Large scale farmers in this context are often viewed as those who have the capacity to produce large quantities, usually through mono-cropping and through the use of high technology – including machinery - tractors, artificial fertilisers and pesticides and perhaps even genetically modified crops. Analysts have demonstrated the negative effects of such interventions and I am inclined to believe that the negatives of driving Ugandans off the land and into urban centres far outweigh the positives.  

The premise of the GoU’s single story – modernising Uganda’s agriculture – seemingly is the idea that it is better for Uganda’s farmers to grow to sell and then buy to eat. Furthermore, the rationale for the GoU’s single story seems to hinge on the reasoning that if Uganda’s farmers move away from ‘subsistence farming’ into commercial farming then Uganda will become primarily an exporter of value added products as opposed to being mainly an exporter of primary products; thus earning more through international trade. 

So, in effect, the GoU is behaving no different from the English colonialists – taking over authority of how Ugandan’s use their land by cleverly enslaving them to mono crop for the purpose of selling to middle men to add value and then to export. And like it was with cotton those that benefit the most or those that make a profit are not the farmers.

Inbuilt within the GoU’s ‘modernise agriculture paradigm’, most importantly, and as is demonstrated within the UNLP is the acceptance, consciously or sub-consciously, of covert agrarian reform – changes in the way Uganda’s agricultural land is used and by whom. Changes in the way that agricultural land is used normally have a knock on effect of changing the status of ‘subsistence farmers’ to something else.  

Conclusion: Changes in agricultural land use and their knock on effect - the change of status from being a ‘subsistence farmer’ to something else, for example, to being an urban-dweller-service-provider, a net buyer of food, a food trader, a roadside meat roaster, an eyebrow cutter, a roving pedicurist, among others, provides a good basis and a good beginning for drawing conclusions to the discussions in this paper. 

The change in status of ‘subsistence farmers’ to ‘modernised’ something else is the Achilles hill of the thinking that drives GoU’s agriculture related policy. It is so because the long term impact of the change in status for ‘subsistence farmers’ is rarely and is scantily accommodated within the dominant discourse of the GoU’s single story. 

It is the covert changes that are happening in rural areas – such as changes in utilisation of land from producing food for home consumption to mono cropping for sale – that give indication that national budget allocations are not necessarily in the interest of smallholder farmers; and consequently those allocations facilitate urbanisation. 

Urbanisation in Uganda is two pronged. First is when people move out of the rural areas into urban centres - of which in many cases they end up living in appalling conditions in slums in an urban setting. Second is when people do not move out of the rural areas but copy the life styles of those in the urban centres, more likely the lifestyles of those living in urban slums, thus creating slum-like centres in the rural, hence slumitisation of the rural. 

It is important to note that unlike other places, such as in China for example, many Ugandans hold dual residence. As in many Ugandans who live in the urban also claim residence in the rural as their ancestral homes. National budget allocations to agriculture – those which promote the ‘modernisation of agriculture school of thought’, which in turn promotes ‘grow to sell then buy to eat’ – are actually promoting processes that are covertly dispossessing many poor Ugandans of their land or of access to land. The rich who live in the urban centres are also likely to be the rich in rural areas – owning large chunks of agriculture land. 

It is the rich who under the guise of ‘modernisation’ whose actions are transforming the rural landscape – fencing off land for large scale farming, for example, which is decimating the commons – communal lands for grazing, for example, are likely extinct in many rural areas. It is the rich who are more likely colluding with ‘investors’ to change the status of rural dwellers from being land owners – in the essence of ownership within Iteso land tenure, for example – to being landless labourers on large scale farms of absentee landlords who spend more time in the urban as civil servants, public servants and or workers in CSOs. 

Those rendered landless who do not stay back in the rural often end up living in urban slums from whence they become a part of Uganda’s most exploited workers and labourers. However, it is also quite likely that many who moved out of the rural to the urban are those who were conned into selling their land to others, so-called ‘investors’ – more likely at ridiculously low value – and were encouraged to move to the urban for greener pastures. Many such persons have ended up investing in ‘dangerous assets’ such as a boda boda (motorcycle), for example, so that they can earn a living – they join the falsely glorified service sector. 

The move from rural resident to urbanite or from ‘peasant farmer’ to service provider is often a very risky choice. The opportunity cost such transition comes with is that one looses a life time asset, land, that has the potential to provide livelihoods in perpetuity.  Many who have thus transitioned, for example become boda boda service providers, ended up worse off. Many, for example, have been unfortunate and have been in accidents which have damaged their boda boda beyond repair and which have caused death or long-term incapacitation due to damage of their body parts – broken limbs and more; sometimes resulting in further loss of more real assets in order to cover treatment and funeral costs.

The discourse which promotes that view that there is a need to support smallholder farmers to improve agriculture production seems significantly deceptive. Smallholder farmers have demonstrated for centuries that they have the capacity to produce sufficient food and cash crops for Uganda and they continue to do so. What is overshadowed by the deception of there is a need to support smallholder farmers to improve agriculture is the sustaining colonial strategy of enslaving and exploiting Ugandan farmers. 

What needs to improve is the attitude of the GoU, of CSOs and of the private business sector. We all need to better appreciate the significant role that Ugandan farmers play and to pay the farmers farm gate prices that are commensurate to the genuine costs of production. 

Background to this analysis: On Thursday, 25th June 2015, at Hotel Kigo in Lweza in Uganda, Kigo Thinkers (KT) held a policy dialogue that discussed the question: “Can the 2015/16 Uganda national budget support ‘smallholder’ farmers to improve agricultural production and to stem the rate of rural-urban migration?” A KT synthesis paper: “Uganda’s National Budgetary Allocations to Agriculture in Support of Smallholder Farmers and Rural-Urban Migration” resulted from that policy dialogue. This analysis is part of Part III of that synthesis paper. Part I, a description of agriculture in the context of Uganda and titled: “Agriculture in Uganda” is published online. Read it here. Part II, a description of what is considered the rural and the urban in relations to agriculture is also published on line. Read it here

The synthesis paper to which this analysis is a part of, in essence, captures the thought processes that emerged during the KT policy dialogue; a dialogue session that is among such events that KT has organised under the traditions of the Chatham House Rules, which protect the identity of the opinion holder while encouraging the sharing of opinions. It is important, however, to know that the dialogue was attended by active citizens of Uganda and other persons who live and work in Uganda. They included persons in academia; persons working in Government of Uganda (GoU) ministries and departments; persons working with civil society organisations (CSOs); persons that are active in governance politics of Uganda and moreover of varied political persuasions; and persons active in Uganda’s private business sector. 

The KT policy dialogue of 25th June 2015 was sponsored with grant funding from the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA) and from the Bank of Uganda (BoU). Whereas, Owaraga has authored this analysis on behalf of KT the views herein contained are not necessarily those of KT or of OSIEA or of BoU or of CPAR Uganda Ltd.

About the Author: Norah Owaraga, a cultural anthropologist, authored this analysis on behalf of the KT. She is one of the four founding members of KT and Since April 2012 she is the Managing Director of CPAR Uganda Ltd a not-for-profit development organisation. Read her detailed bio here.

Works Cited

Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheriers and Ministry of Health. The Uganda Food and Nutrition Policy. Kampala: Republic of Uganda, 2003.

Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development. The Uganda National Land Policy. Kampala: The Republic of Uganda, 2013.