On Heroes day of 2014, President Museveni jolted the Agricultural sector when he announced the entry of the Army into supporting Uganda’s farming communities. By dislodging some duties from the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) and reassigning them to the army under the Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) initiative, he got many of us off guard.
NAADS in reality had a lot of shortcomings that needed addressing and in his usual style, the army was viewed as an ideal vehicle to help address them.
As an observer and participant in the same industry, I have seen how OWC has operated over the last few years of its existence and would like to make known my fears on the approach being taken.
Any nation prides in the wealth that its citizens bask in. Uganda being a largely agrarian country, any effort in wealth creation should have a strong focus on the Agriculture sector which employs over 60% of our workforce. One of the primary activities of the OWC is supplying inputs to farmers nationwide. While its mandate is broader and includes supporting value addition as well as market access, the information available indicates that focus is largely on inputs provision currently.
How do they do it? By supplying farmers in different regions of the country with inputs like heifers, seedlings, seeds, fingerlings e.t.c, it is hoped that there will be a stimulation of the agriculture industry through increased production thereby guaranteeing food security and improved incomes for the farmers.
The report of the Sectoral Committee on Agriculture in the Parliament of Uganda on the Operation Wealth Creation released in May 2017 made some stunning revelations that justify my pessimistic attitude towards this initiative.
Some of the damning findings by the MPs on this programme after a nationwide tour were;
Untimely distribution of inputs. This is prevalent in the seeds and seedling provision. There are delays which lead to the inputs being delivered at a time when the planting season is nearly over. This eventually affects the ability of the crops grown to survive after being planted late.
The distribution of primary inputs like seedlings, heifers or even seeds is never followed up with provision of secondary inputs like pesticides. The farmers do expect all this to be availed and as a result, the crops fail due to infestation.
There is a significant inconsistency in the quality and quantity of inputs supplied. Where 1000 seedlings are required, only 200 may be availed. This not only distorts the planning of the farmer but also prevents them from achieving their set goals. Matters are made worse by the quality variation of inputs even within a single consignment.
Poor quality inputs. Farmers complain alot about the quality of inputs being provided as poor. Unfortunately, for the crops, one only determines this after planting and seeing the harvest. For seedlings, there are numerous cases of rootless seedlings being delivered to farmers (I once witnessed a similar delivery in Iganga district that was promptly rejected by the District Agricultural Officer).
Most input suppliers are mere middlemen. While they are supposed to be actively engaged in the preparation of these inputs e.g have certified nursery beds, the setup has been hijacked by people who get contracts from OWC/NAADS to supply X amount of seedlings, they then reach out to smallholder nursery bed owners and book their seedlings. Their role is to merely place a markup and supply to OWC.
OWC has failed to integrate Agricultural Extension services in its execution. Supplying inputs to farmers is one thing, knowing how to utilise them effectively is another. This is what tends to lead to massive failure of these seemingly well intentioned projects.
Poor planning that leads to dumping inputs in the wrong places. In Nakaseke district, farmers were complaining of being given mangoes and oranges as opposed to Maize and bean seeds that they prefer. Similar case with Moroto where they were being availed citrus seedlings which cannot thrive there. This is indicative of a lack of guidance from technocrats.
There is no proper monitoring of performance of the distributed inputs. Apart from keeping records of what has been supplied and in what quantities, one can hardly get information of the economic transformation these free goodies have caused in the target areas.
This free inputs bonanza has been criticised by the civil society which observed that it isn’t sustainable since it encourages a dependency syndrome. I would like to agree with this assertion.
Progress in the Agricultural sector will never be achieved through handing out free goodies to the farmers. What is needed is an effort that places catalysts at all levels of the entire value chain to stimulate growth.
Free inputs distort the market led approach of service and product provision. Where farmers used to buy inputs initially, now they are reduced to sitting and waiting for free stuff. Since it is free stuff, paid for by government that tends not to scrutinise the various players providing the inputs, the fake material gets a chance to creep in. However, if this was market led, a supplier who gives a farmer fake seeds this season would hardly survive in business as it would mean a mass migration to another supplier who has seeds that work.
The same argument can be extended to other shortcomings indicated in the OWC report. Late supply of inputs would mean no business for a private sector input supplier hence losing out. As private suppliers, it is in their interest to ensure that the right extension services reach out to the farmer. I have seen the aggressive effort by the suppliers of Supergrow an agricultural input who are always ready to help out and attend to farmer inquiries on their product.
What should be done differently by the OWC?
Phase out of the supply of free agricultural inputs. Value is usually attached to something when it is got in a manner that requires some expenditure. Free things are never valued that much. The OWC needs to exit this space and let private sector players provide these inputs commercially. Due to the competition in place, prices can very easily be checked.
There is a need to carry out a study on the effectiveness of current interventions. This will help the OWC establish what is working and what isn’t. One of the key matrix should be its influence on food security and household incomes. This will then allow for redesigning the interventions in a manner that makes them not only more lean but eventually results laden.
Focus needs to be pushed more to facilitating the upgrading of technologies to enable farmers undertake some primary processing as a way of value addition. When farmers achieve this, they will realise greater returns from their produce and hence put more effort into their work. In Butaleja, the rice farmers earn decently from their rice which is sold after milling and this has made them self reliant in the entire production process without necessitating OWC support. In Western Uganda, the distribution of Milk cooling facilities at the sub-county level has helped increase milk collection from the farmers thereby increasing their incomes too.
Extension Services. OWC should come up with an inter-agency solution to this extension challenge. Any effort put into the Agriculture industry especially at the production level is not likely to yield much unless the gospel messengers (extension agents) are readily available to the farmers. The parliamentary committee recommended the recruitment of at least three extension workers per sub-county. This can make a good start.
Inputs Monitoring. The army has been found effective when it comes to pursuing crooks in Uganda. After an outcry about the depletion of fish resources in Lake Victoria, the army was deployed to address the problem and the results achieved thus far are commendable. The same could be done with the OWC whereby monitoring of inputs on the market can be an added activity. This should reduce the prevalence of fake inputs from the current over 50% estimate.
If all remains business as usual, the OWC shall be regarded a big disappointment one of these days. This is why some assessment and redirection of activities is needed.
James Wire is a Small Business and Technology consultant based in Kampala, Uganda.
Follow @wirejames on Twitter
Email lunghabo [at] gmail.com