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Subsistence Farmers Shrug Off Uganda's New Budget

  • Linda Blake

In a national budget proposal released earlier this month, the Ugandan government pledged to assist the country's poor subsistence farmers. The budget promises farmers greater access to low-interest loans, equipment and disease-resistant seeds. But farmers say they are skeptical that their lives will improve.

Two days a week, Ssenkiko Twaha squeezes into a shared taxi and travels two hours from his 80-acre corn plantation in the Masaka district to Kampala.

He does not make the trip to sell crops. Instead, the subsistence farmer hawks shoes from a rusty stand in the bustling New Taxi Park Marketplace. Twaha says he has no choice but to take on a second job since he cannot sustain nine family members on the $300 he earns in corn profits each season.

"In Uganda, we are poor. We do not get tools. You may find somebody who has energy to work, but has no tool, has no money to buy hoe, has no seeds. So, that's the problem," he said.

Twaha says a couple of years ago, the government delivered corn seeds to his district. But the seeds were expired and did not germinate. Similar setbacks have occurred in other parts of the country.

Uganda's agricultural sector last year managed to grow two-and-a-half percent, but not always to the benefit of farmers. They cite coffee as an example. Coffee exports increased this past year, but they were paid less for their crop because of reduced global demand.

Uganda aims to ride out the global recession by increasing agricultural exports to foreign markets to reduce the budget deficit. Earlier this month, the Ugandan government showed a willingness to follow that agenda, introducing measures to strengthen the country's agricultural sector.

Uganda's new national budget dedicates five percent of the total budget to agriculture, a huge jump from the one percent allocation five years ago. The budget promises subsistence farmers greater access to competitive loans, capped at 10 percent interest, disease-resistant seeds, and modern farm equipment.

But Uganda's subsistence farmers and others are expressing skepticism about the measures. Many say they fear that this effort, like many before it, will never go beyond the planning stage.

Shoeless children, as young as five years-old, pace through the fields in Central Uganda's Mukono District. Most are using their bare hands to uproot crops. They are the faces of the 10 million Ugandans who live in poverty, the poorest of which are rural subsistence farmers.

Nevertheless, it is estimated that subsistence farmers contribute as much as 15 percent to the country's gross national product.

Topha Kiwala grows corn, coffee, and bananas in the Mukono District. He says low-interest loan packages would greatly help poor farmers in his district increase their yields. But he says he doubts any funds will ever reach his village.

Kiwala says the government has lied several times and has never acted on anything it has promised. The subsistence farmer adds his community has not received any assistance, but funds have been widely distributed to districts like Mbarara, where families of politicians reside.

This criticism is echoed by several other farmers in the same district. It comes against the backdrop of government pledges to squash corruption and keep closer tabs on budget allocations.

Kiwala says that if the government was serious about improving the plight of farmers, it would help develop a more effective local lending system. He suggests the government work with existing farmers' cooperatives to distribute group loans.

Kiwala says it is important to unite and be a cooperative because one individual may not feel inspired to return a loan. The subsistence farmer says the group would hold each other accountable to re-pay the bank money.

The national budget also details plans for 30,000 model farmers to be instructed in modern farming techniques through the country's National Advisory Agriculture Services Program.

Matovu Michael Joseph, who serves as a middleman between farmers and crop wholesalers in the Mukono district, says teaching farmers new techniques will prove futile unless subsistence farmers are given funds to implement the prescribed practices. He notes that most farmers profits go towards paying off high-interest rates from previous loans.

"You know the problem of farmers, the farmers they are not educated, somehow, eh?" he said.

Joseph goes on to say most farmers take out loans without fully understanding the terms of those loans. He says lenders often deceive the farmers and take all of their profits.

Back in Kampala's New Taxi market, Twaha makes a sale, selling a pair of flip-flops to a gum-chewing teenager.

He says he has never taken out a loan, but remains hopeful that the government's new budget measures will make that possible someday. Only then, he says, can he commit full-time to what he was born to be - a farmer.