Uganda’s 2021 Ministry of Agriculture Policy Statement from a small-scale farmers’ perspective

The annual national budget speech outlines government’s revenue and expenditure plans for the coming year and generates much public interest and debate each time. Much attention is paid, especially, to the revenue or tax side of the budget for its immediate impact on commodity prices and business transactions. However, Ministry Policy Statements, which feed the expenditure side of the budget are, perhaps, a more critical aspect of the budget but, unfortunately, receive negligible public attention. With over 75% of Ugandans hooked to the agricultural sector in some form and given that the sector is by far one of the largest sources of GDP, it certainly behooves us to scrutinize the Agriculture Policy Statement with some level of detail.

But it is also important to scrutinize the budget from the perspective of the small-scale farmer. Afterall small-scale farmers, working by and large on two acres or less, constitute the largest part of our farming system, and produce most of what we consume and export, as they maintain ecological balance in our environment. What would a small-scale farmer in Busia, for instance, say about the Ministry of Agriculture Policy Statement for Financial Year 2021?

It is useful, from the outset, that we summarize the key Ministry of Agriculture Policy Statement (hence forth just Policy) goals and priorities. Commercialization of farming is a key and central Policy goal. Increasing production and productivity is then the means by which farmers will travel on the path of commercialization, inevitably bringing their surpluses from their farms to the market. Thus, a major assumption of the policy is that these farmers are subsistence in orientation or simply farming to feed themselves. This is the sense in which market access also becomes a central aspect of the Policy. The problem of low production and low productivity is then understood in purely technical terms. Farmers lack proper inputs; they need irrigation projects; they need to be taught better farming methods in order to improve their input out-put ratio; they need to reduce post-harvest losses, etc.

Let’s then take a step from all this and try and read these policy proposals, and the assumptions that give them rise, from the perspective of the Busia small-scale farmer. First, the notion that farmers are non-commercial, that they produce largely for subsistence, is largely outdated. The truth is that most, if not all, Busia’s small-scale farmers are already highly integrated in commodity markets of various kinds to support their farming operations (tools, pesticides, labour, etc.), to pay for livelihood expenses (health, schooling, housing construction) and they sell their farm produce in the market as a way to earn cash with which to pay for all these things.

It is therefore generally inaccurate and misleading to assume that production in rural Busia is constrained by subsistence attitudes and by the absence of a market. It is also the case that most Busia’s small-scale farmers desire to produce for the market or to put it differently, do in fact strive to produce a surplus. In fact, as opposed to the idea that Busia farmers lack markets, markets have, in reality, been quite ubiquitous in the lives of these rural farmers prior to the onset of colonialism to this day. The reality is that the present market is substantially different from the previous market and is highly debilitating.
Thus, the premise that Busia’s farmers lack access to markets leads the Policy down a blind alley and, because it assumes the non-existence of a market, fails to address the important dynamics operating in the present market, which undermine farmers’ aspirations to produce a surplus.

Take the market for maize grain for example. Maize grain prices are highly volatile, and the maize market enables exploitation of farmers by unscrupulous middlemen. Every year, farmers start the farming season not knowing with any level of accuracy what prices they will receive for their grain at the end of the season and beyond. Prices fluctuate highly, including during the course of a single day, from about 200 shillings per kilogram in August to about 1,200 shillings per kilogram in May.

Storage costs and other risks, such as pests, render superfluous the likelihood that farmers will hold their maize for better prices. Moreover, many farmers will tell you that given the cost of farming, they will only breakeven should they sell their maize at 800 shillings per kilogram, at the very least. In addition, middlemen engage in other dubious practices such as short weighing maize grain, which further causes farmers avoidable losses. What enterprise anywhere, in Uganda and beyond, stands a chance of success in an environment so unpredictable and hostile? This unpredictable and hostile environment has certainly driven some farmers, especially youth, to abandon farming all together!

And yet unstable maize grain prices, plus these dubious practices by middlemen, are perhaps only a fraction of the issues that these farmers encounter. The so-called improved seeds that farmers purchase often fail to germinate, after farmers have already incurred huge costs preparing the land. These seeds may be adulterated, expired or fake. The losses that some farmers incur are simply unimaginable, and these farmers are often left with debt that sends them right to their grave. Farming tools that they find on the market nowadays (hoes, slashers, etc.) are of poor quality, and pesticides (which so called “improved seeds” require) are largely ineffective. Seeds distributed by extension workers often come too late, further rendering these efforts futile.

True, farmers are striving to overcome these barriers but, unfortunately, they often have to do this one their own, without the support of an appropriate policy framework. Close proximity to Kenya helps, as Busia’s farmers can resort to the Kenyan market, which often provides better quality farming supplies. But they must overcome tariff and non-tariff barriers of various kinds, often having to bribe their way through the border. Others have community level seed sharing schemes of proven quality, but this can only go so far without an enabling policy framework. Some have endeavored to form groups or cooperatives, but local level politics often thwart these efforts.
It is inspiring, despite these problems, to note that the work of the Ministry of Agriculture is manifested in the diversity of various legumes, cereals, vegetables, in our several markets across this country. Indeed, often Ugandan’s pride lies in the richness of our food basket and for this, farmers and all other stakeholders, food distributors, researchers, extension workers, must be accorded credit.

Their work, largely out of sight for those that relish our deliciously rich food, is starkly visible in our various food markets. Perhaps it is these characteristics of our farming system, and to addressing the barriers I have outlined above, to which future Ministry of Agriculture Policy Statement should direct as much attention.
Daniel Lumonya, PhD