When Populism antagonises Agricultural Modernisation

Over the past few weeks, I have been hard pressed to keep silent over the issue of the presidential pledge to supply hoes to farmers. By hoes, I do not mean tractor hoes but hand hoes.

The Ugandan farmer has always tilled the land for decades and bought hoes when they needed them. The beauty about these hoes is that they are very long lasting. As a child, I recall the hoes we had in the village that only occasionally required us to replace their wooden handles (omuŋini).

I agree that for our largely subsistence agriculture, the hand hoe is still very vital to the smallholder farmers. However, if one has to modernise Agriculture there is a need to look elsewhere.

The Nile Post reports the  President as having stated that, “Museveni while campaigning for his fifth term in office in 2015 directed the Prime Minister to procure 18 million hoes in the 2016/17 budget, arguing that the hoes would boost food security and incomes for small landowners which would spur Uganda to an industrial economy in 2040.

Realistically speaking, was that a well thought out assertion by the President? Did he appreciate the level of productivity through the reliance on hand hoes Vs other mechanised options? Every time you read news about agriculture, the very government talks of turning from subsistence to commercial farming. Why then this contradiction?

A look at the mechanisation of Agriculture programme reveals some flaws. The insistence by the government to distribute large tractors nationwide when the majority of our farmers operate on less than 5 acres of land requires reflection. Even when the tractor services are shared, the unit cost of tilling 2 acres here, 4 acres there and 5 acres elsewhere is much higher than when you till 50 acres all in one place. There is a need to integrate this approach with the provision of simple hand held technology like the Walking tractors.

Walking tractors are small enough to be manned by a single individual while walking or even seated (depending on the design) and can comfortably till an acre without too much hustle. They are modular in nature and can be used to slash, irrigate and other activities depending on the accessories one has. With cheap and readily available spare parts, costs of maintenance are low. By availing such tractors to village communities, the smallholder farmers are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries. This would be one of the first steps in modernising farming. The UGX 80 Billion available to purchase hoes could even be diverted to constructing an assembly plant for these Walking tractors hence guaranteeing their availability locally and at a much cheaper price.

Similar concerns have also arisen with the Wealth Creation initiative. Again, for ages farmers have been purchasing their own seed or even utilising that left over from the previous season (I do that a lot). This was never an issue until someone thought it wise to start offering them free seeds and seedlings thinking that only then can they transition to commercial farming. Apart from making farmers lazier and setting up opportunities to supply fake seedlings like the rootless orange seedlings I once came across being delivered in Iganga District, not much is expected to come out of these superfluous moves.

The fact that farmers tell you at a rally that they need hoes to dig doesn’t mean that supplying them will actually solve the problems they are facing. This is the reason the experts exist to study the underlying causes of the symptoms and recommend accordingly. If they aren’t given a chance to do their job, then the president shall be looked at as the all knowing super hero whose word is law.

James Wire

Technology and Business Consultant

@wirejames on Twitter

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