After the Lord's Resistance Army insurgency ended two years ago, local authorities advised Hellen Apaku to plant maize on her one-acre land, saying she would get rich.
"I have planted maize for the third time since the end of the war," she says, holding a dry maize cob from the previous harvest. After selling part of the December 2009 to February 2010 harvest, at around sh150 per kilo, Apaku bought a new dress and took her children to a school. She also stored some maize, but the price bothers her. In Apac, a maize cob goes for less than sh30.
Like Apaku, hundreds of farmers who have invested heavily in maize production for the last two
years have been disappointed with the price. Uganda has an advantage over other countries in terms of maize production. As we join other countries to implement the East Africa Common market, a change in the price of maize would make a difference in farmers lives.
While maize is a staple food in Kenya and Malawi, it is not the leading food in Uganda. According to recent statistics, the leading foods in Uganda are bananas that constitute 18%, cassava constitutes 13% and maize constitutes 11%. Others are sweet potatoes at 9% and beans at 6%. Comparatively, 54% of the population of Malawians eats maize as their staple food.
Compared to other East Africa countries, Uganda produces more maize than its people can consume. Uganda is gifted with good climate, therefore, it needs no irrigation to grow maize all year round.
While Malawi had to adopt very drastic measures to produce maize for the last three years, there was no drastic intervention by our Government that compelled Ugandans to produce the 2.5 million tonnes in the last season.
Many farmers operate on a small-scale. Comparatively, Kenya produced 2.2 million tonnes against a consumption need of at least 3.9 million tonnes which means they had a deficit of over 1.7 million tonnes. Apaku, like many small-scale maize growers acquired a loan from her village bank.
"I borrowed sh70,000 and spent it on fairly high yielding Longe 5 maize variety," she says. She did not apply fertilizers, but managed to produce 1.2 tonnes of produce. Nonetheless, if Apaku had used fertilizers, she would have harvested at least 2.5 tonnes of maize.
Eriya Kategaya, the minister in charge of East African Affairs, says: "We can produce crops on 48% of our land without irrigation and fertilizers." He says no other East African country has this advantage.
Apaku's main challenge is marketing her produce. And now that the common market is operational, Apaku should be able to earn more from selling maize to the regional countries, but like many of her colleagues, she has never heard about the East African Community Common Markets Deal. All she knows is that Paul Odongo, a trader, will buy her maize when it is ready. Most likely, he earns more from the sales.
In the past two years, prices have dropped to sh200 in most maize producing areas of the country. In Semuto, Kapeeka in Central Uganda, a kilo of raw maize cost sh300 in mid-April. In Kasanda, a kilo had dropped to sh260. Prices in Busembatia, Masindi, Kapchorwa were around sh200 per kilo.
Prices for flour have also dropped. For example, class one flour costs between sh1,000 to sh1,400 in most city retail outlets, down from between sh2,000 to sh2,500 last year. The main maize markets for Uganda include Sudan and the World Food Programme.
Some farmers sell to boarding schools and institutions of higher learning. However, ordinary farmers do not export or sell to the World Food Programme.
"Let the Government buy maize from us and sell to other countries," says Amos Magombe a resident of Budongo in Masindi. The Government may not buy directly from farmers, but it can empower them to utilise the advantage. Instead of selling unprocessed maize to other countries, the Government should help them add value to their produce. "When you sell raw maize, you have not only sold the flour, but also the husks, maize bran and all by-products.
This has to stop," says Agha Ssekalala, the director of Ugachick Poultry Breeders Ltd. The Government has been talking about setting up food storage silos in all regions to cater for seasons like this.
President Yoweri Museveni says the Government plans to buy excess maize and store it in the various silos. But according to sources in the agriculture ministry, it is unlikely that the maize will be bought from farmers during this harvest season.
The Government set aside sh30b to help farmers buy machinery to add value to the crop, but small-scale farmers might not benefit. Middlemen earn most. Farmers can turn maize into flour and store it, or sell at a higher price.
Every season, Kizito Luwulira, a farmer in Kayunga, grows at least 40 acres of maize and makes flour. Kizito could buy Apaku's maize and add value to it before exporting. Under a well structured arrangement, Apaku could sell her maize to a store at a good price and the store would also sell to a middleman, who exports.