Two weeks ago Uganda’s best farmers, as judged by a New Vision poll, congregated on the lawns of the Serena Hotel to decide who was the fairest of them all.
The choice of the five star hotel as the venue to celebrate farmers seemed counter-intuitive at first, but why not?
"Farmers, account for about 30 percent of our economic output, more than half our export earnings and provide a livelihood for seven in every ten Ugandans. What better way to begin to start acknowledging their importance than to wine and dine them at our top hotel?...
At the end of the night Tonny Kidega from northern Uganda put another exclamation mark to the event. A dairy farmer from northern Uganda, he upset the stereotypes that dairy farmers come from western Uganda, and with his victory made the emphatic statement that northern Uganda is ready to take its place in the development of this country.
There were several things to note on the night and which provide useful pointers in our effort to use agriculture as the springboard to industrialisation and beyond.
First of all, the winners relied more on individual initiative, not seating around waiting for hand outs from government or elsewhere. Secondly, they employed vastly improved agricultural methods, which while they are not perfect ensure that the outputs from their farms is way above their contemporaries who farm for subsistence or own farms as a status symbol.
However it is in these related issues that government needs to intervene in the sector to level the playing field, so to speak.
Kidega is himself a veterinary doctor so in effect he provides his own extension services. The other winners were united in their use of expert help, either public or private, in extracting the maximum from their farms.
"The singular failure of the government towards the sector in recent years is the collapse of the provision of extension services especially for those, who unlike Kidega and his fellow winners cannot afford to pay for pricier services. Extension workers would help improve farming methods, keep farmers up to date with the use and adoption of inputs, organise them to improve their bargaining power and to take advantage of economies of scale...
During a recent tour of the Madhvani’s Kakira sugar plantations it was reported that the 9000 –odd out growers are serviced by about 100 extension works – called outgrower superintendents, who looked into everything from scheduling planting to credit provision to welfare services.
Using Kakira as model would mean that Uganda’s four million agricultural household would need at least 40,000 extension works roaming around the country side assisting them improve the productivity of their farms.
The reality of course is much different. According to an agriculture ministry survey in 2011 barely 700,000 families or least than one in five farmers had come in contact with an extension worker.
It’s no wonder that agriculture is growing at less than five percent a year, probably buoyed more by the Kidega’s than the majority small holder farmers who populate the country side and, God bless them, feed the rest of us.
Not to belabour the point but this is key.
All the competing farmers were ordinary men and women who decided to jump in feet first in an enterprise that, while it is central to this country is treated with disdain, and find a way to not only make it work but make serious incomes from it. And all of them have, by no means reached their full potential.
Unfortunately and unnecessarily they have gone through a process not unlike reinventing the wheel to iron out the kinks that come with farming in this country. The learning curve could have been much improved with the help of better advice about the peculiar circumstances each found themselves in.
"If we are looking for a game changer in agriculture, to raise output from our farmers, which can form the base for a robust agroprocessing industry, we can do little better than investing more determinedly in agricultural extension services...
And we will not be reinventing the wheel. Older generations talk of young eager – mostly, male , extension workers scouring the countryside on foot and bicycle, servicing farmers.
People think that the difference between the great agricultural concerns of this country the sugar plantations of eastern and western Uganda, the oil palm plantations of the islands or the coffee farmers of the Mubende-Mityana area is there size, but on closer analysis it is the access to quality advice that makes the difference.