Together, we ought to join hands with the trade ministry and rejuvenate co-operative societies back to vibrancy.
By Richard Mujuni
Recently, Cabinet, permanent secretaries and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) Central Executive Committee attended a retreat at the National Leadership Institute (NALI), in Kyankwanzi.
During the retreat, President Yoweri Museveni presented his third paper titled “Fast-tracking the industrialisation and socioeconomic transformation of Uganda; Kisanja Hakuna Mchezo. Kisanja hakuna mchezo carries a mix of a Swahili phrase literary meaning ‘a term for no jokes or laxity’.
The President was making a promise on what should be expected in public services delivery during this term, as Uganda seeks to undertake a development process. I have for long thought that may be, the reason we are not where we should be as a country is because of the lack of the hakuna mchezo approach to the governance and implementation of the various poverty alleviation programmes the country has undertaken.
For the greater part of March 2016, the USAID/Developing Economic Strengthening Initiatives for Group (DESIGN) team and I were in Mubende district conducting a survey. I quickly came to realise just how pervasive co-operatives were in all parts of the areas we visited.
It had been part of our routine to hold engaging discussions with the communities we visited to get the bigger picture of issues affecting the livelihoods of people in the district.
Some of the issues that affected income ranged from negative impacts such as marriage break ups, unbalanced gender perceptions and disabling factors such as access to education, land, assets and markets. We also discussed the nature of income-generating activities in the area that ranged from agricultural activities and their perceived challenges, opportunities and potential solutions.
As a participant, I picked two important lessons from why co-operatives are not flourishing in Mubende and broadly in Uganda?
My first lesson was on resources. In all the five communities we visited, farmers reported surprisingly high yields in the past seasons. They said they had harvested between 10 and 50 metric tonnes of either maize or beans. This is really high, compared to Mbarara where I live.
This was due to the availability, accessibility and fertility of soil in the district. This was also because personal land holdings ranged from three to more than 10 acres per person. This is much higher than we have experienced in southwestern Uganda. My second lesson was about the market advantage that the people of Mubende have.
Just 200km from Kampala, a population of over 4.5 million people, it is a centre for great lakes region trade. While I was completing the survey, long lines of lorries from Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan could be seen loading tonnes of both beans and maize for export. The geographic advantage for the people of Mubende was huge.
While all this presented a good picture of the potential for farming in Mubende, all is not well in the agricultural/ co-operative sector, according to farmers. Some of the challenges they expressed included the exploitation by middle men — these are large capital sole proprietors who deal in buying agricultural produce from farmers in rural areas, usually at the dawn of harvesting. These would-be friends of farmers were found to be proving otherwise. They use manipulated weighing scales, unilaterally breach contracts made with farming groups, entirely shift the marketing costs to farmers, exaggerate post-harvesting quality losses and then use it as a basis of offering low prices for the produce.
There were a few collection centres spread over the five areas we visited that served as bulking centres not for farmers, but for shrewd middlemen and their agents. They do not represent a standard postharvesting and handling facility. It is a strategy to block competition from other fairer buyers and suffocate the organic birth of co-operative spirit and practices.
The agents monitor farming operations from a close range, sign preharvesting contracts with farmers characterised with monetary advances and terms of which are determined according to financial needs of the farmer at a time. These needs could be school fees, medical crises and food needs at home.
After undertaking similar studies in areas such as Mbale, one can only say that the scenarios in Mubende are played out elsewhere in Uganda. If addressed and co-operatives behaviour is rejuvenated among farmers, it would offer a strong foundation for fast-tracking sustainable production and marketing linkages that guarantee safety of farming operations.
Perhaps only a hakuna mchezo approach will turn this suppressed opportunity into reality.
Together, without entertaining laxity, we ought to join hands with the Ministry of Trade and Co-operatives and rejuvenate co-operative societies back to vibrancy. For instance, those involved in farming need to be supported into: formation and self-governance of those groups (co-operatives), embracing modern agronomic practices, modern harvest and post-harvest handling systems, bulking, value-addition and collective marketing.
This will enable them enjoy large economies of scale realised from higher premiums attracted by marketing large quantities, and therefore, kick poverty out of Uganda.
The writer is member of the National Cooperatives Stakeholders’ Steering Committee