A few weeks ago President Yoweri Museveni set off the chattering masses with his announcement that he was going to see that government distributes 18 million hoes to villages across the country.
The response from the urban elite was unbridled derision, we the chattering masses were rolling in the aisles our sides threatening to crack with the absurdity of the campaign pledge.
Aren’t we supposed to be modernising agriculture? Shouldn’t we be distributing tractors? Credit to the chattering masses they dusted up their primary arithmetic skills and did a quick calculation.
That if a hoe is sh25,000 (that should have warned us to how out of touch the calculator was, a hoe goes for sh7,000 in Arua. But never mind him) government would spend sh450b. The calculator then divided this by sh120m – his proposed cost of a tractor, and came up with 3750 tractors he then divided this by 110 districts (actually there are 112) and came up with about 34 tractors per district.
Even I was amazed at the possibility.
But then when one thought of it, one wondered whether a lack of tractors more than hoes was the key issue in the agricultural sector?
For the chattering masses modernisation of agriculture is synonymous with mechanisation, which is not entirely wrong.
"A cursory look around Uganda’s agricultural sector shows that yes hoes are still very much in use, but also that they are in short supply...
Ever since the Chillington tool company based in JInja folded up its plant and left the country in the early part of the last decade we have not been making hoes locally. They folded because they couldn’t compete with the cheaper imports.
In 2011 then finance minister Maria Kiwanuka scrapped the 10 percent import duty on hoes as a way to lower their costs and eventually raise productivity. That intervention was missed by the chattering masses but signals a recognition that there are issues with our farmers getting this much needed implement.
The majority of farmers – 96 percent of the 3.95 million farming households, in Uganda are small holders with farms of less than three acres according to official statistics. A tractor is not their immediate need.
Interestingly of all the farming households 3.4 million of them have hoes according to a 2011 statistical abstract from the agriculture ministry. So one wonders about the half a million households without a hoe, what do they use to cultivate their crops? And is one hoe per household enough?
The numbers also show that only about 30,000 households employ tractors.
But to see mechanisation as the only evidence of modernised agriculture is to keep a narrow view of the issue. Essentially mechanisation suggests increased productivity, defined as out per unit input be it land, labour or capital, but increased productivity can be managed in our context without mechanisation as we the chattering masses think.
In the areas around Mubende the Neumann foundation is working with coffee farmers to improve the productivity of their holdings. According to the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) the average yield of a coffee farm in Uganda is half a ton a hectare, but the farmers in the project double even triple, this out put on their own, with not a tractor in sight.
The key to their improved yields is the extension services made available to them by the Neumann Group, which means they benefit from information about better coffee farming and handling practices, setting up and running farm organisations, improved bargaining power and access to inputs on credit.
To make the argument that giving farmers hoes is backward thinking is fallacious.
"As the numbers show hoes are urgently needed. However beyond hoes it is clear that our farmers are getting little to no guidance, and therefore unable to improve productivity and therefore remaining in poverty...
The same Agriculture ministry figures showed that of the nearly four million farming households 0.68 million or about a sixth of all farmers benefit from extension services.
In an ideal world we should be clamouring for tractors instead of hoes, but in the current circumstances that will be like me pining for a private jet to go to work when I need a car or better public transport.
In my mind the joke is really on us the chattering masses.