Growing up as a child in a farming household in the late 60s through the 70s, it was rare to hear dad or mum decrying lack or scarcity of money as it is nowadays for many families. For some reason for sure, many farm families derived their income from a certain cash crop, but I also recall that most of the social services were provided freely or subsidized by the government as a public good.
As a young boy, I witnessed how farming was a profitable venture. Without due regard to the current gender jargon, allow me to mention that my late Father was a chairman of a primary Coffee Cooperative Society. Yes. He, and his many other farmers in the area earned their livelihoods mostly from the production and sell of clean Arabic coffee (aka, Kibooko), a cash crop which they collectively sold through the then vibrant Kagazi Tusigike Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Society Limited to which my father was a chairperson. This was found in Kiceece Sub County, currently Kitagwenda District.
It is no surprise that more than 90% of my contemporaries’ and my own school fees and clothing among other needs throughout the primary schooling came from coffee money. In addition to the coffee crop however, I knew many other well-to-do families which reared cattle, but mainly as a source of prestige. Predominantly, these two key pre-occupations (coffee and cattle) in my early days, were the mainstay of the many people, from peasant farmers, local government chiefs, professionals among other sub-occupations. From that early age, I was convinced that if you wanted money and prestige, you would have to venture into coffee and cattle farming and one did both, the better. Of course, one was required to possess enough land where to do farming and land was very much available in most cases by then. Thus, one’s wealth was measured by how much coffee or how many heads of cattle or a mixture of both.
During my school days in the early 70’s however, I also came to learn and understand that much as our local cash crop in Kitagwenda was mainly coffee, I learned that there were other cash crops grown elsewhere in accordance with the then nationwide agricultural zoning according to the different climatic conditions and soil characteristics.
I also recall that the government gave incredible support to the agriculture sector mainly through government extension services. Again, due to the Agricultural Cooperatives arrangement, farmers were able to access free or subsidized in-puts and were assured of a stable price for their produce, thus a stable market. Unlike today, this was a great factor and motivation for successful farming. Notably, owing to the prevalence of the deliberately designated cash crops, the country was able to undertake organized export trade backed by the cash crops mainly namely; Coffee, Cotton, Tobacco and Tea among others which supported nascent of agro-based industrialization.
Thus, in addition to agriculture which was a leading employer, the industries like the once vibrant Jinja Textiles among other agricultural value chains were able to provide another source of descent employment to the population. Because of this, there was negligible difference in incomes (less income disparities) among the population.
Meanwhile, it is worth noting that during that time, the land tenure and land use systems made the production of the cash crop enterprises possible both on a small and large scale. Remarkably, the main cash crops export economy enabled the country to raise the revenues that supported the effective provision of the social services and development of infrastructure. It is no wonder that there were well equipped and staffed schools and hospitals. I am a real beneficiary of the free or subsidized school uniforms and scholastic materials and free health services during the time of my primary schooling. Until today, I look into the better past with nostalgia.
Alas, Agriculture and the benefits associated with the sector seems to be taking a different trend. Since the liberalization of the economy (add private divestiture and restructuring of the public enterprises) at the advice of the World Bank and other external forces in the 80’s, farmers to a great extent seem to have lost direction and control over their major source of livelihood. Only until recently, Agriculture and Marketing Cooperatives have been neglected and almost condemned entities. Worst of all, the historical economic importance of the traditional cash crops was thrown into oblivion and the forces of demand and supply left to determine prices for the newly evolving cash crops like Maize, beans, bananas and fish among others. Remember, this is happening at a time when pressure on land has increased largely due to the rapidly increasing population.
The population of Uganda which had been projected to reach 45.7 million by the year 2020 by the United Nations is now approaching over 49.6 million in 2023.
This population explosion is against the static land and aquatic mass and reducing arable land. Unlike in the past where Agriculture was a genuinely biggest employer of the population, according to the National labor force survey (2016/17), the informal economy alone now employs 84.9% of the population, 90% of whom are youth (10-30 years). Analytically and by implication therefore, 90% of the 84% are not engaged in Agriculture since it is common knowledge that youth are rarely into agriculture.
Currently though, the Cooperative Movement is being revived. The biggest question however still remains on whether good will from government and whether the current mechanisms in place will be able to make the farmer a happy person again as the case for the 60’s and early 70’s. Secondly, there is need to contemplate upon whether the current strategies can be able to ensure that the sector will be able to put enough and quality food on the table for millions of the population. Otherwise, the fate of the farmers’ dismay may be at hand sooner than later.