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Uganda Maize Farmers Aim for a Living Income
Recognizing agriculture as a vital component to improving the quality of life in Uganda, government and private agencies have concentrated their efforts on improving the cultivation methods of Ugandan farmers, and educating them with regard to new technologies. Favorable climate and soil conditions already allow for longer growing seasons and multiple harvests annually. This fact alone gives Uganda a competitive leg up regionally. Yet bringing a crop to market and realizing a decent profit continues to be a hurdle for farmers, despite the official assistance and the geographical benefits. Perhaps no sector encounters the marketing challenge than does maize production.
Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, maize growers received assistance with and information on pest management and fertilization biotechnologies. Losing fewer crops to insects, varmints and diseases means input costs and labor create more value. Similarly, fertilizers are proven to increase yield, likewise improving the ratio of maize quantity per shilling spent or hour worked. Still, production improvements take a farmer only so far. Without a corresponding uptick in price for the cereal crop, upgrades are simply expenses. As of 2010, maize growers were facing a punishing market, as documented by The New Vision website:
In the past two years, prices have dropped to sh200 in most maize producing areas of the country. In Semuto, Kapeeka in Central Uganda, a kilo of raw maize cost sh300 in mid-April. In Kasanda, a kilo had dropped to sh260. Prices in Busembatia, Masindi, Kapchorwa were around sh200 per kilo.
Prices for flour have also dropped. For example, class one flour costs between sh1,000 to sh1,400 in most city retail outlets, down from between sh2,000 to sh2,500 last year. The main maize markets for Uganda include Sudan and the World Food Programme.
It should be noted that the World Food Program is a relief agency – purchasing foodstuffs in large bulk – and is not relied on as a consistent customer for ordinary Ugandan farmers or traders. Sudan’s political troubles also place that country’s market stability in doubt.
Reviewing Uganda’s maize supply chain yields some answers as to why higher prices are elusive. Three-quarters of the maize farmers in Uganda are small operators – typically planting less than .8 hectares annually. This sort of subsistence agriculture does not leave much revenue for marketing, thus most farmers will approach grain traders directly to sell their product. Due to a dearth of storage facilities, growers are compelled to sell the entirety of their surplus grain (after what is lost during farm operations, what is used for family consumption and what is recycled as seed) almost immediately upon harvest. When enough farmers are doing this at once, an over-supply is inevitable, as are lower prices. This phenomenon is compounded by a lack of up-to-date market information available to small farmers.
Traders in rural areas have the option of selling to millers or to larger urban-based traders. The former will produce meal to be sold to educational and health care institutions, as well as to livestock farmers. The latter will include those that sell to WFP and to adjacent countries where the maize demand exceeds supply, e.g. Rwanda and Kenya. Through the entire process, commerce is hampered by low storage capacities, poor information dissemination, long distances, unsatisfactory transportation infrastructure and lack of organization among producers. Taken together, these factors seriously stifle the farmers’ ability to be competitive.
Solutions to low maize prices, however, may be on the horizon. Regional economic integration has proven beneficial to Uganda in terms of overall trade dollars. The East Africa Community Customs Union, formally instituted in 2005, has provided preferential tariffs to member nation-states: Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. Since joining the EACCU, Uganda has enjoyed positive annual increases in trade income with its partner countries. Between 2004 and 2006 alone, cross-border trading among members in maize, soybeans and rice improved by 65 percent. This trade alliance is a necessary condition for price stabilization, although insufficient by itself.
A second variable that may lead to a more livable price structure to Ugandan farmers is assistance with the erection of more storage facilities. The United States Agency for International Development is among the agencies involved in building new grain warehouses in rural districts. With the increase in available space, farmers can store maize over time. Accruing larger amounts for sale attracts the larger traders who sell to WFP and neighboring countries. By holding grain back for a time, and then selling to meet demand, farmers assume a more powerful position in naming their price.
Finally, rural producers are receiving assistance with efforts toward collective marketing. The Kyegegwa and Kyenjojo districts are home to ToroDev, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable development. ToroDev is conducting several activities in western Uganda to improve farm profitability and stewardship. Most notably, this firm is putting together something akin to farmer cooperatives, where groups of farmers pool resources to not only sell their produce, but receive current market news, communicate with one another and negotiate with the various traders as one unit. This effort is to promote sound business and planting practices so that farms can operate more aggressively in the expanding African markets. Like Kyklou International, ToroDev is one of several NGOs in Uganda trying to raise the standard of living through the creation and renewal of microenterprises.
While the aforementioned developments are encouraging, they have – like maize – their own germination periods. The farmers of Uganda are as eager to succeed and as willing to toil as any who tend to the land. With individuals and groups willing to offer them wisdom and assistance, their diligence will lead to a flourishing agricultural sector.