For a greater part of March 2016, the USAID/DESIGN team was in central Uganda’s District of Mubende working on a survey among farmers. As we kicked off the exercise, I quickly came to appreciate just how pervasive cooperatives were in all parts of the area we visited.
It has been part of our strategy to hold lively discussions with the communities we visit to grasp the bigger picture of issues affecting the livelihoods of people in the district. We found that some of the issues that affected incomes and livelihoods ranged from negative events such as marriage breakups and unbalanced gender perceptions to enabling factors such as access to education, land, assets, and markets. We also discussed the nature of income generating activities in the area, including agricultural activities and their perceived challenges, opportunities, and potential solutions. As a participant, I picked two important lessons from which I asked myself, “Why aren’t cooperatives flourishing in Mubende?”
My first lesson was on resources. In all five of the communities we visited, farmer after farmer reported surprisingly high yields in the past seasons. Farmers indicated they had harvested between 10 to 50 metric ton bags of either maize or beans! This is really high volume compared to where I live in the South. We understood this to be due to the availability, accessibility, and fertility of land/soils present in the district. This was also because personal land holdings ranged from 3 acres to more than 10 acres per household! This is much higher that we have experienced in Southwestern Uganda.
My second lesson was about the market advantage among the people of Mubende. Mubende is located just under 200 kilometers from Kampala, the capital of Uganda (and a population of over 4.5 million people), which is the center for the Great Lakes region trade. While I was completing the survey, long lines of lorries from Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan could be seen loading tons of both beans and maize for export. The geographic advantage for the people of Mubende was huge!
While all of this presented a good picture of the potential for farming operations in Mubende, all is not well in the agricultural sector, according to farmers. Some of the challenges they expressed included the exploitation by middle men – these are large, capital sole proprietors who deal in buying agricultural produce from farmers in rural areas, usually at the dawn of harvesting. In reality, these ‘would be’ friends of farmers were found to be proving otherwise. They use manipulated weighing scales and they unilaterally breach contracts made with farming groups, entirely shifting the marketing costs to farmers, exaggerating post-harvest quality losses, and then use it as a basis of offering low prices for the produce.
There were a few collection centers spread over the five areas visited that served as bulking centers, not for farmers but for shrewd middle men and their agents, which, by all measures, do not represent a standard post-harvesting and handling facility. For the architects of this plan, it is a strategy to block competition from other ‘more fair’ buyers, and to suffocate the organic birth of the cooperative spirit and practices. The agents monitor farming operations from a close range and sign pre-harvesting contracts with farmers characterized by monetary advances and terms of which are determined according to the financial needs of the farmer at the time, including school fees, medical crises, and food needs at home.
In summary, one can only be optimistic that the scenarios in Mubende can motivate the growth of cooperative behavior amongst farmers and lead to debates and research into better ways of fast-tracking sustainable production – marketing linkage models that guarantee the safety of farming operations in a surrounding of opportunities and threats as observed in Mubende district.