Friday, October 19, 2012


This week the World Food Program (WFP) announced it will start buying food grown by small farmers of the Acholi region.

This was a momentous event because barely two years ago the region was dependent on food assistance from the UN agency.

For almost 20 years between 1986 and 2004 northern Uganda ravaged by the LRA insurgency, as a result more than two million people were displaced from their homes and housed in the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camps.

For the duration of the war the fields have remained fallow, reducing the once productive region to a food aid recipient.

But with rebel leader Joseph Kony far from home in the Central African Republic, people have been moving back home and have set about returning their lands to productivity.

Even twenty years of the decimation of their cultures and traditions have not taken away a work ethic that existed before and an initial 154 tonnes delivered to the WFP is proof of that.

The Acholi farmers has a few things working not least of all is that the land left fallow for all these years has  been regenerated with most of its fertility restored, so we can expect that farm productivity will be higher than two decades ago.

WFP are obviously see this coming, they have set up a 6000 ton produce warehouse just outside Gulu town.

When the war ended a suggestion was floated that the people should not return to their villages but instead the camps be developed --  with better housing, proper infrastructure and services into urban areas.

The major benefits were that it would be easier to provide services to those large concentrations of people. Pabbo camp’s 140,000 inhabitants would be the fourth largest city in Uganda.

But also the large tracts of uninhabited land could launch a commercial agriculture revolution. 

The idea never caught any traction, probably because of the magnitude of the endevour, coming out of a war, emotions still raw the project would understandably be a hard sell.
But if the truth be told northern Uganda with a lot of its land communally held,  will face a huge challenge raising farm productivity beyond the fertile soils and reenergised labour force can manage.

Communal land ownership means there is collective ownership of land by a group of people – tribe, clan or family with all decisions about land use done by consensus. The disadvantage of this is that land is often underutilized, hard to trade and therefore difficult to unlock its full value.

An opportunity has presented itself. The larger part of the population in the Acholi region is starting life anew. The time to make transformative changes is fast slipping away.

This is not a northern Uganda problem, but the area’s leadership have the keys to make a significant change.

Land reform is always a politically expensive process and understandably leaders with a five year horizon will be reluctant to tackle the issue. The inertia of doing things the way we have always known them to be done is an immovable object. The question is can the local leadership create the irresitble force to dislodge it?

Northern Uganda will have no problem feeding itself, but the land tenure system will put a ceiling on production and the surpluses which can lead to the transformative change the region so urgently needs.

In the meantime we can still improve productivity further in the area through  the use of fertilizer, improved crop husbandry, efficient post-harvest handling and by reviving and exploiting the economies of scale that come with cooperative societies.

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