From Subsistence to Commercial Farming. Smallholder farmers at crossroads

Muniru, a rice farmer from Leresi in Butaleja district has been growing rice for over fifteen years. He however doesn’t know why he’s still a poor man. His story was no different from that of other farmers I met during a Rice Value Addition training organised by The Pearl Foundation for Children and Widows supported by the Skills Development Facility (SDF), a project under the Private Sector Foundation of Uganda (PSFU).

As urban elites, we tend to have a lot of theories on how to transform our largely peasant dominated small holder farming population into a more prosperous one. Unfortunately, until we get to understand the psychology of these farmers, we shall keep shooting off target with our noble but poorly thought out solutions.


Sorghum crop

Over the past twenty years, the ever growing urbanisation and industrialisation has led to a vast increase in the demand for all types of crops including those that were never considered cash crops three decades ago. Produce like cassava, simsim, soya beans, millet, groundnuts and rice are now leading cash crops for most farmers.

Among the over one hundred farmers I had a chance to train in this PSFU initiative, all of them confessed to selling off at least 85% of their produce. This got me to realise that these farmers are actively delving into commercial farming.


If they are earning money, why then do they still lament about poverty?

My overall conclusion was that, these small holder farmers are approaching commercial farming with a subsistence mindset.

Their subsistence mindset is betrayed by the fact that;

  • They freely grow any crop for as long as there is someone to buy it.

  • Growing crops usually takes on the traditional approach that has been tried and tested over the centuries.

  • They spend as little money as possible on growing the crop while expecting to get as much as possible from the produce sale.

  • They sell most of their produce and use the money earned to meet various needs in and outside the home. Little or nothing is put aside for the production process.

  • Little effort is made to store food since it might get spoilt or better still the possibility to earn money from a quick sale outweighs the storage option.

  • There is minimal use of technology.

  • The land farmed is little. Hardly over three acres.

  • There are a lot of post harvest losses due to poor produce handling.

  • They operate as individual farmers right from production to produce marketing.

  • They have little or no understanding of the eventual consumer of their produce.

While I do applaud their move towards commercial farming, I have a lot of discomfort about the way they have chosen to approach it. Many of the mistakes currently being made are borne out of ignorance about commercial farming as well as third party forces like manipulation by the middlemen, poor mobilisation by the local leaders among others.

Any commercial engagement is usually premised on some of the following tenets;

  • A good understanding of the consumer’s expectations

  • A quality offering (service or product)

  • Use of appropriate inputs

  • Supply guarantees

  • Market access

  • Value addition

It’s the lack of knowledge about the foundational requirements of commercial farming that seems to be one of the biggest letdown for these smallholder farmers.


Eager Learners

These farmers are not fools nor are they resistant to change, they simply do not know better. They exhibit a high affinity for acquiring new knowledge, and this should be closely followed up with implementation support.




The elderly study too

Old and young, these farmers will surprise you by their openness to new ways of doing things. I found farmers who were simply comfortable with the way they grew and sold their rice under the belief that there was no better way.

Following a well structured training that traversed the entire process from seed selection through the transplanting process, to weeding, harvesting and eventually produce sale, they were able to identify numerous ways of improving their product offering.



Packaged rice by the farmers

Farmers that had always been content with selling stone filled broken rice to traders at the mills are now empowered both skills wise and psychologically to add value to their produce upto the level of branding and packaging ready for the eventual consumer. 

Using this experience, I now realise that efforts aimed at improving farmer livelihoods especially under the various wealth creation programs that we are bombarded with need a shake up.

An approach that does not focus on merely availing free inputs to farmers but goes ahead to integrate tailored trainings and mindset change is likely to deliver much better results.

Right now, my challenge has graduated from making these farmers appreciate value addition of their rice produce to seeking out urban markets for their high quality graded rice.

Thanks to the World Bank funded PSFU project, I have had a chance to contribute to the betterment of farmer livelihoods through this Pearl Foundation for Children and Widows initiative.

James Wire is a Small Business and Technology Consultant


Twitter: @wirejames

Email: lunghabo (at) gmail (dot) com

7 responses to “From Subsistence to Commercial Farming. Smallholder farmers at crossroads

  1. Maybe subsistence and commercial farming are not the models that Uganda and Africa should be looking at – how about the middle ground between the two semi-intensive urban based agriculture


  2. I have seen the same in mid Northern Uganda where I am doing my research.
    Thanks for your articles.


  3. This is very eye opening, I had similar observations in areas of Mubende where I am growing maize. The farmers are very eager to learn new methods of improving their output however very little is put aside to invest in agriculture.
    There is a very high need for extension workers to teach better agronomic practices, farmers told me there has not been any one from the relevant ministry to provide the much needed training.
    I also noticed the land ownership challenge,with most of farmers being bibanja holders are not willing to invest in crops like coffee whose return can be realized after 3yrs (there is a coffee nursery run by UCDA where locals can get free coffee seedlings) Plus having no concrete ownership of land means there is no desire to fully invest in commercial agriculture.
    How can I have such training extended areas of kasanda,kikandwa in Mubende?


    • Bwana Perez, I think these challenges are rife countrywide. You can reach out to me on the contacts at the bottom of the article. We can take this matter further.


  4. Thanks James, now with a fair grasp of the supply side, what can you say about the demand side. Personally, I have experienced a situation where even with secure supply order, the hotel took 4 months to pay. \
    – Also organised buyers/customers are few and individualistic
    – Politicians who come from the same mindset pool i.e not seeing benefits in organised group initiatives.
    How can wanainchi in my small village in Bungokho, Mbale be allowed to sell plain grain to organised Kenyan/Tanzanian traders? The nearby Kenyan consumer prefers the unpolished maize posho, also known as ‘makanyago’ or 1.5. Beats me why the grain cannot be milled & packed to suit their taste. Elgon millers is right in Mbale town with fantastic milling capacity. I guess the devil is joining the dots


    • I agree we still have some teething challenges to deal with. Partly, our policies are to blame while on the other hand, we have to organise ourselves too.
      As we await rectification of policies, let us at least work on the aspects we can control. I for one cry each tie I see raw produce leaving our borders. It is a disgrace.
      Very big one. For now, how can I help raise awareness among your Bungokho farmers?


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