In his book Acres of Diamonds author Russell Conwell tells of the man who sold his land and went out to seek his fortune. After years of work and travel he returned convinced that making a fortune was not for him, only to find that the new owners of his land were now working a diamond mine on it worth multiples of what they had bought the land at.
As analogies go, that perfectly mirrors Uganda’s experience.
Last weekend the Vision Group had its inaugural Agriculture Expo at which suppliers and practioneers (actual and wannabes) came together to share and learn from each other. It was a wildly successful event – long overdue for an “agricultural economy” and a good eye opener to what opportunities are literally lying around us.
The numbers roll of officials’ lips – at least two in three Ugandans live off the land, agriculture accounts for at least 30 percent of economic output, the country has almost half the region’s arable land, we are blessed with two rain seasons annually (which maybe something we may have to revise in future) and so on and so forth.
But in those numbers is the explanation why income and wealth inequalities are widening.
"If 70 percent of your population is sharing 30 percent of your output that means there is a 30 percent that is wolfing down 70 percent of our output. Interestingly Uganda’s urban areas account for about 30 percent of the country’s population...
It is not a stretch of logic to see that most of Uganda’s GDP is generated and consumed in the urban areas.
How can this be?
To begin with urban areas mean concentrations of people. These people are easier and cheaper to serve with social amenities – education and health services and infrastructure – roads, power and telecommunications than the more dispersed rural populations.
The net effect of this is that urban populations can do more and more with less and less, while the opposite is true for their rural cousins. So for example for a cook in the village they have to gather firewood, light the firewood – whose heat cannot be regulated accurately, start cooking with flour which has been ground manually and then …. You get my drift. The amount in time, leave alone energy needed to prepare a meal means other activities have to be put on hold. A similar housewife in an urban area can whip a meal in a fraction of a time it takes for her counterpart in the village leaving her free to help with her children’s homework or go to evening school or just hang out with girls.
Its those time saving devices that make people more productive in urban areas and by extension richer.
There is very little our rural cousins can do about population densities in the short term. But they can improve their production methods immediately by using modern farming methods. And we are not talking about mechanisation.
Simple things like using good plant spacing, inter cropping, improved seeds and reducing post- harvest losses to begin with, would be a good start.
I remember about a decade ago the quality of coffee farmers’ harvests and hence their income, in the south western Uganda improving in leaps and bounds because instead of drying their coffee on bare ground they were laying a tarpaulin on the ground before they poured their coffee on it. This was in the 21st century...
We can do all this before we even start talking about inorganic ferterlisers, irrigation systems and value addition.
We are a small holder agriculture economy because the colonialists opted for that model of agriculture production than the plantation methods used in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Which while it means our farms are less productive, also means we are more in control of our own food security.
It also means that improvements in farm productivity would directly benefit the average man than some big time farmer with hundreds of acres under ginger.
While we whine about being poor as a nation, pander after mineral wealth that is hard to exploit and wonder what curse has befallen our nation the acres of diamonds lie under our feet. And isn’t it true that we are already abandoning our lands to find our fortunes in the cities and abroad? And who will come from outside to show us what we left behind?