MBALE – If you asked me, I will tell you that Uganda has one of the largest numbers of sugar factories in the whole world. The question is, must we compromise other agricultural activities in favour of sugar cane growing.
Why is the Ministry of Agriculture discouraging our people from rethinking the time and energy wasted as out-growers, what is the price of sugarcane per ton and how long do the sugar canes take to mature, why do countries like China with a population of over 1.4 billion human consume less sugar than Ugandans, what is it that our government and medics are not telling us about sugar?
I was looking through a list of sugar factories and wondered why we have a huge number of factories concentrated in one place.
The likes of G.M Sugar, Kakira Sugar Works, Kinyara Sugar works, Sango Bay Estates, Sugar Corporation of Uganda, Amuru Sugar Works, Atiak Sugar Factory, Bugiri Sugar Factory, Buikwe Sugar Works, Busia Sugar, Hoima Sugar, Kamuli Sugar, Kenlon Industries Uganda, Kyankwanzi Sugar Works, Mayuge Industries, Mukwano Sugar Factory in Masindi are producing sugar and depend on out-growers for raw materials.
Out of these factories, more than half are in the near east and particularly in Busoga. Colonial errors had already taken half of their land for sugar cane growing leaving just small portions that were used for cotton growing.
As years went by, cotton ceased being a major cash crop and was replaced with potatoes, jackfruit, mangoes and small scale animal farming. That was then, today, the majority of our people in Busoga are engaged as out-growers to provide extra cane for the ever emerging sugar factories. No wonder poverty levels in Busoga have reached alarming levels with the government looking on like a cowardly dog that spares the thief to back at the master.
Busoga owing to its location within the Lake Victoria basin was once the food basket of Uganda but that is now in the past. The majority of their farm land and gardens have been turned into extensions of the 20 plus sugar factories that flourish in the region. Driving through Busoga today, one can confirm with certainty becoming out growers was the worst economic plunders of our time yet our government is not doing much to change the mindset of their people.
Just the other day, I was driving from Fort portal through Hoima, Masindi, Nakasongola eroute Gulu and noticed the same bug is now extending to these areas. Unlike their counterparts in Busoga, it is excusable for Bunyoro to waste part of their idle land on sugar cane growing mixed with the rearing of animals. This luxury does not exist in any other part of Uganda, not even in Acholi sub region with about two sugar factories. The growing of maize, sun flower, beans, potatoes, Irish, matooke have been left to a few isolated places.
The sugar cane factory owners have come up with attractive incentives such as loaning tractors to out-growers, fertilizers, cane seeds, providing sugar cane stems, irrigation machines, tracks to carry mature sugar canes exetra. Sadly, none of these out-growers is bothered about the long period commercial sugar cane take to mature? Researchers have proved that although the sugar can plant quickly grows, its growth cycle takes four stages and months to mature for harvesting. The entire sugar cane growing season takes from 9-16 months in warm climates and 18-24 months in cooler climates.
Understanding the impact of turning our people into out-growers in the face of increasing human population and climate change in a rural landscape is critical areas that the government must address with immediate effect. With the exception of the Uganda prisons services, our government has not been involved in agriculture in the recent years. Infact all the government facilities that provided extra food for local consumption and export are no more, many have been sold while others have been shared among our leaders.
As we edge out of our past habits of relying on nature for agricultural sustenance, we cannot afford to neglect food production to individuals and private entities to decide. We have had reports on how the war in Russia alone affected grain exports worldwide and wondered why developing countries like Uganda cannot take advantage of the gap created. Surely how can African rely on grain produced by Russian farms and yet we have vast redundant land all over. For how long shall we leave our biggest economic activity to the so called investors who have enticed our people into sugar cane growing for a decimal pay.
We can no longer talk about agriculture only in terms of its contribution to our GDP but its ability to provide employment for our people and to enable food availability throughout the year without having to import relief through the world food programme. Surely how can Uganda import maize or beans from other countries when we have the capacity to farm on large scale. With all the available technology, we would be stupid to find ourselves in a situation where some people starve due to lack of food. Sugar as an economic activity has been over rated and I believe now is the time for our leaders to open their eyes.
It was wrong for our Government to encourage farmers to invest in growing sugar canes as out-growers. Sugarcanes take so long to mature, drain the soil of its nutrients and above all, the prices are not determined by the forces of supply and demand but the factory owners. As such, the farmers are in some form of disguised unemployment. The business cannot be used as a mechanism for poverty alleviation and wealth creation. The out-growers are exploited to the borne but are happy because of the small incentives given to entice them.
Because sugarcanes are planted in a congested manner and occupy the land throughout the year, crop rotation is not possible and so is mixed farming. This in effect has reduced land for food crops and should be treated as a major concern due to the growing population in the coming decades. Many of these farmers are not aware that Ugandans are increasingly learning the dangers of taking sugar and will soon reduce consumption which by necessary implication will affect sugar production. A reduction in production means sugarcanes from out-growers will no longer be needed and then boom, start all over again with another economic activity.
It is important to note that food production is dependent among other factors on environmental including large-scale changes in land use, biogeochemical cycles, climate and biodiversity and economic conditions. This might also have crucial consequences for food security and nutrition for rural populations, where high human population growth and poverty reduction are of great concern. In Uganda, like in many African countries, food insecurity amongst poor households remains a serious problem, contributing to poor health, problems with learning in school, and lack of socio-economic development
Indeed, regional and seasonal food insecurity and varying degrees of malnutrition within the general population are among the development challenges faced by Uganda. Sugar which is a product of sugar cane growing is not food and creates an imbalance when it comes to food security, a situation when all people always have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious. It also includes obtaining foods without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing, or similar coping strategies.
The government has constantly argued that commercial agriculture, especially coffee, oil palm and sugarcane growing, increases household income and in one way or another addresses food security but I don’t agree. Commercial agriculture in none food crops undermines food and livelihood security particularly for small scale farmers. The increased commercial sugarcane cultivation in Busoga and Bunyoro have only resulted into improved household incomes but turned the people into slaves as they spend whatever they earn on buying food. The shortage of food or lack of it is as a result of many concentrating on sugar canes which earn them a mere 40,000/= to 80,000/= per ton of sugarcane supplied minus transport costs and a reduction of incurred in provision of inputs supplied in advance by the factory.
As Bunyoro and Acholi follow the band wagon of sugarcane growing, they should take note that Busoga poverty levels are partly to blame on their new found love for sugar cane growing. They have also lost a lot of their wetlands to sugarcane growing making them more vulnerable to the future impacts of climate change.
If sugarcane cultivation for economic benefits is going to stand in the way of food security, water resources, environmental conservation, and provisioning of ecosystems goods and services, we are doomed.
Nobody is saying sugarcane growing is bad but we should not give it too much attention. Many experts in the business of agriculture have constantly advised government to put in place strategies that allow ecologically and socially sustainable sugarcane cultivation to maximize its development benefits, while minimizing the negative social and environmental impacts.
It may be necessary to enact and enforce regulations for agro-ecological zoning and land use plans to ensure a balance between the competing commercial sugarcane and food crop cultivation.
Wadada Rogers is a commentator on political, legal and social issues.