Uganda’s agriculture movement just like in many other parts of Africa has a history of difficult times of serious impetus towards land-extensive rather than labour-intensive sector which was occasioned by the colossal export of labour in 16th to 19th centuries through the then booming slave trade. The political turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s further led to the collapse of Uganda’s economy and the agriculture sector was not spared.
Uganda has since never fully recovered to produce enough food to feed her young growing population despite abundance of favourable resources.
Dr. Raj Shah, the USAID Administrator recently tweeted while quoting the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to have said, “If we want to make big gains in the fight against poverty, agriculture is the best way to do that” and “The modern face of hunger is often a woman’s face. Women eat last and least.”
President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi in his acceptance speech as chairman of the Assembly of the African Union in 2010 noted,
“One challenge we all face is poverty, hunger and malnutrition of large populations….. I would therefore request the AU Assembly to share the dream that 5 years from now (by 2015) no child in Africa should die of hunger and malnutrition. No child should go to bed hungry…”
The question now is just how much have we done thus far?
The World Bank reports that 96% of the agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa is rain fed which leaves it very highly susceptible to the shocks of weather in this era of climate change. It is hence not surprising that only 3.8% of Africa’s surface and groundwater is ever harnessed.
Mechanization of agriculture is equally very poor as detailed in Harvard Kennedy School Professor Calestous Juma’s “The New Harvest”. Compared to the global average of 200 tractors per 100 square kilometers, it is reported that the region uses an average of only 13 tractors per 100 square kilometers.
On 18th June 2013, findings of a wider study titled “The Cost of Hunger in Africa”, conducted by the Uganda government with the support of the WFP, African Union Commission, and other partners revealed very disturbing indicators that all is not well as far as food security and a healthy population is concerned. People are grappling with severe hunger which has caused deaths and many are suffering from acute malnutrition.
According to the report, an estimate of US$899 million annually which represents over 5% of the national GDP is what Malnutrition costs Uganda.
One out of every three children in Uganda is stunted and 82% of the cases of child under-nutrition are never addressed. This translates into an adult population of at least 54% which has suffered from stunting as children with signs of cognitive delays while growing-up. The ramification of this is obvious.
With over 80% of it’s population currently being employed in the agricultural sector, the Ugandan government recognizes it as a national priority deserving utmost emphasis if the country is to reduce poverty and stimulate economic growth.
To this end, the government has undertaken several ventures in efforts to encourage food security and fight malnutrition. Unfortunately, most of them never leave to be comprehensively implemented for various reasons most notably corruption which has left agriculture in a crossroad of sorts.
Recently, USAID launched the feed the future commodity production and marketing activity in Uganda. Organizations like Oxfam, Action Aid Uganda also continue to work with farmers across the country. However, a lot more still remains to be done.
President Yoweri Museveni while in a meeting with youth from Acholi sub-region held at his Country home in Rwakitura is reported to have noted, “Modern agriculture is the key to everything else. That is what I want to see. The more sustainable way to solve some of the youth demands is to teach them modern agriculture so that they can earn incomes and solve some of the problems themselves.”
In spite of this and the magnificent discoveries in agricultural research and development coupled with availability of human and natural resources; food shortages, famine, and malnutrition are on the rise as reliable food security is quickly becoming a preserve of the affluent.
Obviously, something needs to be done fast if we are going to feed the ever growing population using shrinking resources.
For Uganda and the rest of Africa, there are vital lessons to learn from China’s agricultural revolution despite the major differences both in historical and geographical context.
We may have had scattered agricultural successes but a broad agricultural revolution is far from being achieved. Food production is still largely a backward sector where skills, research, and technology are glaringly lacking. The need to look at agriculture as a knowledge-based enterprise that demands smart investments to trigger a multiplier effect in other sectors is more urgent today.
China’s example proves that indeed, smallholder agriculture is capable of driving an agricultural revolution.
Since 1978 when reforms started in China, three critical forces notably the state, markets, and smallholder farmers have spurred the agricultural revolution to it’s success. China’s experience proves that right policy reforms and incentives specifically targeting smallholder agriculture while impacting local level land and labour productivity can provide a strong foundation in an agricultural revolution.
In China, the rural policy statement was regarded as the “Number One” policy document. The agricultural policy reforms enjoyed the utmost political priority and benefited from competent public leadership through the structures from central to local units. It simply had to work.
Cluster development can produce amazing results. In China, one of the poorest areas of Shandong Province was turned into a “Vegetable City” with over 53,000 hectare vegetation plantations boosting of over 700 vegetable varieties and producing approximately four million tons annually. Agro-industrial cluster later developed and the city also became home to China’s largest vegetable seed facility which works to develop new vegetable seed varieties.
Other lessons include; Putting in place a vibrant public investment policy for small-farmer leaning agricultural research and education to act as incentive, ensuring soil fertility is in check to guarantee per capita food production, public policies designed to increase incentives for smallholder farming, encouraging creation of off-farm jobs and rural industries through unique rural enterprise schemes, encouraging decision making to be strictly evidence-based, progressively broaden markets to encourage specialization and investment into agriculture.
The fruits of this revolution have been staggering. The agricultural GDP grew by approximately 4.6% per annum and the farmers’ incomes grew by 7% per annum. This development has enabled a population of about 200 million smallholder farmers with each utilizing an average of 0.65 hectares to feed a population of 1.3 billion people. You can now estimate how many such smallholder farmers Uganda needs to feed a simple population of 37 million.
Today, food production in China by far outstrips population growth.
From 31% in 1978, the incidence of poverty dropped to 2.5% in 2008. In fact, the contribution of agriculture to poverty reduction is reported to have been three times higher than that of other sectors of the economy.
From an African perspective, there is no doubt that the development of agriculture on the continent is intricately linked to general economic prosperity. In other words, it is futile to attempt to achieve overall economic development without first solving the food security question.
What more statistics can be more compelling?
In addition to such lessons, the government should then deliberately improve governance issues, stamp out corruption, substantially rise budgetary allocations to the agricultural sector and concentrate on doing better the following initiatives that it has partly already started;
Increase agro-processing and enterprise efficiency, avail viable credit facilities to small-farmers, make real the services of extension workers at sub county or parish levels, avail irrigation technology at subsidized costs, immediately construct warehouses and silos at district and regional levels to guarantee food storage and protect small farmers from exploitation while checking market food price volatility, establish soil and other agriculture laboratories in rural areas to make such technologies available to local communities, urgently carry out a national soil status analysis to competently advice farmers from different districts on fertilizers to apply to increase productivity, and solve the problem of poor seeds on the markets by availing subsidized improved seeds and other planting materials, improve sectoral linkages by integrating agriculture with other sectors, leverage international partnerships, become partners of larger regional markets, cluster development, revitalize school gardens and encourage early agricultural education at all levels of society.
The other elephant in the room comes from the biotechnology revolution (GM crops question). It is a topic we must honestly discuss. Several countries have adopted a crop or two. For example, Kenya and Tanzania are targeting to benefit from second-generation GM cotton. In the United States, over 88% of the 37.4 million hectares of maize harvested in 2011 were genetically modified. In that same year, Egypt planted approximately 2,800 hectares of Bt Maize and this is likely set to increase. There are reservations on GM crops but merging indigenous knowledge and emerging science & technology is a reality we must prepare to ably engage in.
Although any form of support is commendable, we need to get past the common pattern of sporadic interventions in the shape of supplementary budgets, random handouts, food rations etc to ensure sustainable food security and a healthy productive population.
It’s time to engage in purposed activities aimed at executing a real agricultural revolution with full support of top political leadership.