Wednesday, September 6, 2017

TO IGNORE AGRICULTURE IS CRIMINAL

Last week the Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC) issued a report on the state of agriculture, which made for painful reading.

It said a lot of things we already knew – growth in the sector has been anaemic for the last two decades, poor extension services means we are still using Stone Age technologies in the sector and that most of research in donor funded and not necessarily tailored to our needs.

It also pointed out that our middle income nation status and goals to transform the economy away from a peasant based one to a modern one will remain a pipe dream if we don’t go beyond paying lip service to agriculture as the back bone of the economy.

"EPRC reports a disjoint between the fact that while seven in every ten Ugandans derives a livelihood from Agriculture the sector has grown by only about two percent a year for the last 20 years. This despite the obvious potential of the sector which while neglected provides 40 percent of all our exports...

They put the low growth in the sector down to poor methods up and down the value chain but especially at the production stage.

Using Irish potato productivity the report showed yields on our farms could more than triple to 16.5 metric tons a hectare from the current 4.8 metric tons with the use of the quality seeds and fertiliser.

The issue of farm output and therefore production levels is an important one because to have a sustainable agroindustry we need to push up the volumes of everything we are producing multiple fold.

At current levels of production we can only manage cottage industries that have no real chance of breaking into export markets, regionally or internationally.

It is doubly important when one understands that our best chance of becoming an industrial nation in the shortest possible time is through agriculture not through dabbling in toilet paper making or steel production or even car assembly.

It really is a no brainer.

How far we have to go to really significantly improve farm productivity is shown up by the fact that only about seven in a 100 farmers use a combination of quality seeds and fertiliser on their crops and only one in a hundred employ irrigation systems. Imagine the gains in the sector if we just brought this figure to one in four farmers? It would be revolutionary.

And what is causing this abysmal state of affairs?

While Uganda has one of the highest outputs in agricultural research there is little transmission of these new findings to the farmer and secondly that because a significant part of the research is donor funded it may not be tailored to local needs.

The flip flopping around extension services has really hurt the sector. In recent times extension services was taken away from the ministry vested in the National Agriculture Advisory Services (NAADS) and then taken back to the parent ministry.

Partly as a result of this the gap between the required extension workers and the ones actually employed has been as high as 89 percent in the last three years. This has meant that the share of farmers who have come in contact with extension services have fallen from an already woeful 14 percent three years ago to an even more disastrous eight percent.

"It is no wonder that our farmers are being caught unawares by impending pest break outs or weather pattern changes or still using primordial farming methods...

To state the obvious agriculture is important to this national and its development ambitions because we have a competitive advantage in it – we have about half the arable land in the region, amiable climate and 20 percent of our land mass is under water.

But secondly and even more important is that an improvement in agriculture output is the single biggest intervention needed to narrow national income inequalities.

A recent Uganda Bureau of Statistics report showed that while inequalities were reducing in central and western Uganda the opposite was the case in northern and eastern Uganda. The correlation between the increasingly urbanised regions – and probably improved farming methods due to exposure to information and finance, and reduction in inequality cannot be by mistake.

And EPRC suggests things may get worse before they get better, if ever.

Increasing land degradation and conflict suggests that the window for us to exploit our land optimally may be quickly closing.

In story “Acres of diamonds” the story is told of a man who sold his farmer and went out into the world to seek his fortune. After years of wandering and trying this or that venture he eventually returns home a broken man with nothing to show for his travails only to find that his farm is now thriving diamond mine.


A better analogy for Uganda could not be found.

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