Israelis cushion Uganda’s backbone

By Solomon Kalema

Added 4th July 2016 11:15 AM

According to Bulamukungi, one of the unique practices used by farmers in Israel is girdling.

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Kakumba guiding one of the workers at the coffee nurseries. Photos/ Solomon Kalema

According to Bulamukungi, one of the unique practices used by farmers in Israel is girdling.

For the last three years since 2013, Makerere University has been sending students from the School of Agricultural Sciences to Israel for internship.

This initiative, according to Prof. John Ddumba Ssentamu the University’s Vice Chancellor was started in partnership with the Israeli government, a major undertaking for the Uganda’s oldest and most prestigious University.

“Partnerships and networking are part of the core functions of the University and this particular one was meant to help us to increase the employability of graduates,” Ddumba says.

According to Prof. Ddumba, the programme was also a means of enabling the students to think of agriculture with a business mind that they could get through exposure in countries like Israel.

Agriculture in Israel

Going by UN statistics, the population of Israel stands at about eight million people, 74.8% of whom are Jewish. Food and Agriculture Organisation lists Israel as “a country with scarcity of natural resources, especially water.”

However, this scarcity is a blessing in disguise and a major motivation behind the massive irrigation schemes to which have enabled them to put 78% of the 377,300 hectares of arable land under cultivation.

amuel ulamukungi Samuel Bulamukungi

What kept this dry nation from poverty, according to the FAO is their unity in working for development through agriculture in an arrangement they call the Kibbutz.  Kibbutz, according to Kakumba Elisa, one of the pioneer interns of the programme, is a Hebrew word for “group.”

“It is a communal settlement in Israel. People form groups in which they invest jointly and share profits,” Kakumba says.

Kakumba is a 27-year-old graduate from Makerere University who hails from Namungo Sub County in Mityana District.

Together with 25-year-old Samuel Bulamukungi from Kibuku Sub County in Eastern Uganda, Kakumba was in his second year in pursuit of a Bachelors of Science in Agriculture degree at the onset of the internship programme in 2013.

The two were selected as part of the pioneer team of 31 students to go to Israel in 2013. “We went for interviews that were coordinated by a team including Dr. Dennis Mpairwe from the Department of Agricultural Production,” Bulamukungi says.

Upon selection, Bulamukungi and Kakumba turned to their parents for about $1200 for an air ticket to Israel.

Work in Israel

While in Israel, Bulamukungi and Kakumba were based in Sderot, in the Southern region but would go to different areas to work on the farms.

“We would go to the Southern District and Ashkelon in the Western region to work in a greenhouse, avocado, citrus, poultry and dairy farms,” Kakumba recalls.

Having spent most of their time on the citrus farms, the two say that they acquired multiple agricultural skills. They had exposure to holistic orchard management from planting, to growing all the way to post-harvest management including marketing.

The government of Israel offered medical insurance for all the students while they were in Israel.

akumba lisa Kakumba Elisa


Unique practices

According to Bulamukungi, one of the unique practices used by farmers in Israel is girdling.

“Girdling involves cutting part of the bark of fruit trees right before fruits start to mature. This prevents the plants’ food from moving from the leaves to the roots and allows it to remain concentrated in the leaves and flowers. It is one way to get the biggest possible size of fruits,” he explains.

Kakumba meanwhile says they were also exposed to Integrated Pest Management. “It’s a means of controlling pests which does not involve the direct use of pesticides but biological methods,” he says.

Here, the experts single out specific kinds of fruit flies that attack the fruit trees. With his newly acquired level of expertise, Kakumba says that the dangerous ones are the female flies.

“The females are the ones that lay eggs in the fruits or flowers. But since they are attracted by scent, we mix chemicals in a container which we place on the trees. These chemicals create the scent which attracts the female flies into the container,” he adds.

Kakumba says the chemicals are mixed with substances that kill the flies within the container.

The safety in this, he says, is the fact that the chemicals do not contaminate the plants since they are in a container that is firmly placed on the trees.

Fruit flies, he says cause big losses to traders exporting to places like Europe since inspectors cancel whole consignments found to have even a trace of larva.

According to Kakumba, the first group of 31 students who went to Israel set the pace for those who would later follow. “The Israeli experts discovered that we were really focused and working hard. That prompted them to request for an additional 10 students from Makerere within three weeks from our arrival there,” he recounts.

The return to Uganda

Kakumba, Bulamukungi and the other 39 returned to Uganda in October 2014. The two brainstormed with eight of their friends to put some of their savings into agriculture.

They then reached out to Rony Oved, the Business Development Director at Agromax Uganda, an agro-based organization that deals with, among other things, technologies from Israel.

 Oved encouraged them to start an investment club which they called the Agro-investment Kibbutz. The 10 enterprising students contributed sh1.5m each to set up coffee nurseries at the Agromax centre in Lutete, Gayaza and to this, Oved offered sh10m, making a total of sh25m.

“We believe in team work and since the students were in a group we had to support them,” Oved says.

With trainings in dynamics of working in groups from Oved, the young entrepreneurs opened their first nursery in June 2015 and did all the activities of production themselves.

In April this year the group managed to sell off their first batch of seedlings of 120,000 seedlings with 73,000 seedlings going to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), 30,000 to an NGO called ISP and the rest to individual buyers who would go to Agromax to buy seedlings.

 ony ved Rony Oved

With this massive sale, they achieved a net profit of about sh10m profit margin of over 65% against operational costs of about sh20m.

The group then decided to reinvest 90% of the profits and bring in more residents of Lutete to also benefit from the investment for the new season.

“We wanted to create jobs and improve other people’s livelihoods. So for the next season we decided to let in people from Lutete to do the production with our supervision and guidance,” Kakumba says.

The group has so far created 10 jobs for casual workers who earn a daily pay of sh10,000 per day with the meals inclusive, a monthly average of sh300,000.

Having seen the group grow financially, the ten also resolved to advocate for more youth investment groups based on agriculture in Uganda.

The internship programme, which started with only Makerere University, has now grown to include Kyambogo University and Busitema according to Makerere’s Prof. Ddumba, who also says that the University will continue to support the partnership with Israel.

Lessons for local farmers

According to Kakumba farmers in Uganda depend largely a on season, which deprives them of high profits. “They prefer to wait for the rains and that means that many of the farmers produce on the same schedule. Because of that, by the time the harvesting time reaches, there are many farmers harvesting and high volumes of products in the market,” he says.

When the supply is high, he says prices drops. The best thing for farmers to do, he says is to adopt irrigation. With irrigation, they can provide water for the crops during dry season and even plant, since the seasons are no longer predictable due to climate change, he reasons.

Kakumba says farmers in Uganda are also cheated by middlemen, due to lack of regulation to standardize farm gate prices. “The farmers do much of the work in the production and the middlemen pay them peanuts for products which they sell expensively in the markets,” he says.

For Bulamukungi limited extension services have forced farmers in many parts of the country to give up on agriculture. “That is because the farmers choose to use guesswork in production without attention to when and how to produce. They end up running misguided enterprises and making big losses,” he says.

He adds that the weather forecast should go beyond giving the figures for temperatures and rainfall and explain the implications of the changes in weather to the farmers.

“It should not be limited to television and radio if we are aiming at helping the farmers, many of whom have little or no access to radio and television,” he says.

Bulamukungi says while youth in Uganda are encouraged to form groups to access funds from the government for investment, many do so without a clear vision. “I believe that youth should first form groups, invest their own money or other resources that they can access and then government can come in to support them,” he says.

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