As per routine, the first light of day finds my mother, an ordinary farmer, in her garden swinging a hoe down into the earth, digging narrow furrows and shallow trenches before burying the seeds. She will do this for many farming seasons, and more often than not, her yields will be relatively low. This relatively low yield can be attributed to labour constraints and reliance on manual labour, limited or no access to manure, use of rudimentary farming tools and low crop diversification. However, my mother is not alone, in a sector that is regarded as the backbone of Uganda’s economy and employs an estimated 70% of the population, agriculture is a long way from where it ought to be.
With an estimated 80% of the farming community smallholder farmers and just 20% large scale farmers, it is clear why the country’s agricultural production is not meeting the potential output. Majority of Ugandans are no different from my mother, they have yet to make the decision to leap into modernised-commercialized agriculture, increasing their adoption to technology and market participation. Many of them are ignorant about modernised agriculture, others are simply too skeptical to jump into it. Capital limitations is also a major challenge.
In a statement at the Conference on Modernisation of Agriculture in 2011, President Museveni said, “I have called this conference to once again, harmonize with you, this time on the issue of agriculture for modernization. I say, “once again,” because we have repeatedly talked about these issues ever since 1995 when we started talking about Plan for Modernization of Agriculture (PMA). “
This shows that for many years, the current regime has had its eyes in the right direction with regards to attempts to draw more feasible policies and implement projects that will transform agriculture and increase productivity to coveted levels. The government under the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry, and Fisheries has invested immensely in initiatives to advance agriculture, particularly for smallholder farmers. Programs such as the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) and other numerous projects have been implemented not only to grow the sector but also to enrich the livelihood of farmers.
Yet, critics have claimed that this is not only insufficient to induce the desired structural transformation but it is also economically distortive and fiscally expensive. The World Bank Report on Agriculture for Inclusive Growth in Uganda notes that support measures may not necessarily target the very poor and sometimes exclude the majority of smallholders who are well positioned to commercialize.
In my pursuit to understand the more viable route that Uganda should prioritise to attain economic growth and development, I had a conversation with two colleagues. One bought into my opinion that as a country, we need to first, immensely invest in the modernisation of agriculture which contributes about one-quarter of gross domestic product (GDP). My other colleague was however opposed to this, he was of the view that industrialisation and manufacturing should be prioritised if the country is going to attain economic growth and development.
I personally believe that rural productivity (mainly agricultural) and urban productivity (mainly industrial and manufacturing), are to a higher extent imperative in stimulating growth. But for a country like Uganda that boasts of an agricultural economy, it’s important to make it a paramount sector in terms of investment. The Structural Transformation as a Pathway out of Poverty, a publication by Timmer and Akkus notes that no country has sustained a rapid transition out of poverty without raising productivity in its agricultural sector.
The government thus has to drive structural transformation to accommodate smallholder farmers into commercialised agriculture. Strategy interventions that mostly focus on the rural farmers such as better rural roads, realising women’s land rights, increased access to finance the provision of quality agricultural services, and training will go a long way in improving the sector. Developing high-yield crops, boosting irrigation, increasing the use of fertilizers, improving market access, regulations, and better use of information technology need to be adopted.
It’s no doubt that Uganda is the food basket of the region and that the government has created a favourable environment for agricultural growth – but there is still a lot that needs to be done. Many of the smallholder farmers like my mother put a mark on the economy however small it might be and the aggregated impact of these farmers is what our country is mainly relying upon. This can be made better; it should, because the country’s potential to be an agricultural powerhouse is so big it can make us not just the food basket of the continent but also graduate our growth to desired levels.