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Uganda decides: go big or go small

Morrison Rwakakamba is a presidential adviser. He is a farmer too. In this African country, that puts him at the heart of some of our planet’s most vital issues

African man and woman picking berries

Like any farmer anywhere, Morrison Rwakakamba feels that farming is in his DNA, yet this 35-year-old finds himself pulled in two directions — home to his farm in the southwest corner of Uganda, but also to the city and to the corridors of power in the capital Kampala where he has been appointed special adviser to the president.

But his beliefs know where they are rooted, for Rwakakamba passionately believes that if Africa is going to reach its agricultural potential, it is going to be Uganda’s small-scale farmers, not its big plantations, that help get it there.

They may be small scale rather than large, diversified rather than specialized, and low input rather than high, but these farmers can be the foundation of a healthy future, Rwakakamba says, as long as they get the government support they need for improved access to better seeds, information and markets.

It is a message that he is intent on getting through not only to President Yoweri Museveni, who appointed him special presidential adviser on research and information in 2013, but also to any international audience he can get to listen.

Farmer as activist

From Monday to Friday, Rwakakamba is based in Kampala where he’s always sharply dressed in crisp shirt, pressed slacks and glossy leather shoes.

His schedule is packed. The first time he and I tried to schedule our interview for Country Guide, Rwakakamba emailed from World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva where he had been invited to debate the question, “Agricultural trade and food security — are the benefits sufficiently inclusive?”

Later, I suggested perhaps we could find some time on Uganda’s Independence Day, but he tells me he has no time that day. It turns out he’s integral to the national celebrations.

On our third try we connect by Skype on a Friday afternoon, although his beeping cellphone is a kind of soundtrack to our conversation.

In that interview, Rwakakamba tells of his journey from growing up on a coffee farm 400 km away from the capital city to now having access to the State House and the president. After finishing university, Rwakakamba rose through the ranks of the Uganda National Farmers Federation and, at age 30, he became CEO of the Uganda National Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

After working as the country director for an East African civil society organization, he founded the Agency for Transformation, a “think and do tank,” as he calls it, which provides research and policy information on agriculture and the environment.

Rwakakamba says he was compelled to create the agency because of his deep roots in the farming community, and because he saw that agriculture policy in Uganda was like a “broken brick.” There were too many policy documents being issued and too many institutions involved in implementing programs. The result was a clash of mandates where nothing moved forward. Now, every policy paper the Agency for Transformation publishes is shared with the president.

Man from Uganda picking berries
Uganda’s population of 37 million, Rwakakamba points out, is forecast to reach 114 million by 2050. photo: Supplied

The farmer

Ironically, his work for farmers has made Rwakakamba an urban, white-collar professional, sitting behind a desk most weekdays. Yet nearly every weekend he returns to his farm, which he now manages with his parents and a brother. The farm is where he says he can relax and breathe properly. It’s also a place he wants his three children to know, so they can be in touch with their roots and the legacy of those who came before them.

The family’s 15-acre farm is located in Rukungiri District, closer to the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo than the nation’s capital. The family grows coffee and bananas and raises cattle and goats, but the emphasis has always been on coffee. “It’s how we got school fees to go to school. The economy of the household and our education really gravitated around the success of the cash crop. That is why coffee has always been part of me,” Rwakakamba says.

The coffee is harvested twice a year, in April and November. During the harvest season, eight to 10 people are employed on the farm, while half that number work year round. The beans are husked and then dried in the sun. With no electricity on the farm, “it’s very difficult for us to do value addition and have the entire coffee chain contained at the farm. We move value out of the farm and other actors along the value chain are the ones who make the money,” Rwakakamba says.

He cites the example of a cup of coffee, which sells for 10,000 Ugandan shillings in Kampala, or about $4. While the price of coffee constantly fluctuates, in some years the cost of this single cup of coffee is the equivalent of what Rwakakamba makes from selling three kilos of beans to the middleman at his farm gate. “It is absolutely obscene,” Rwakakamba says.

The government has promised that Rukungiri will be connected to the national grid by the end of 2015. And when that happens Rwakakamba has big plans. First, he intends to purchase processing machinery — a pulper, hurler and roaster — for his own beans and to offer on a custom basis to neighbours for a fee. The processed coffee should then fetch a premium price.

Secondly, Rwakakamba intends to transform his farm into an agro-tourism coffee resort. “Lovers of coffee across the world can come to my farm and be able to stay there, harvest coffee, dry it, roast it, and take it,” he says. A house already on the farm will be converted into a guest house. The family will provide local food, and community members will be employed to guide tourists through the coffee experience, from field to steaming cup.

Future is small, efficient farms

Rwakakamba recalls an incident that shaped his belief in conservation and organic farming. He purchased fertilizer from a local market that turned out to be counterfeit and ineffective. When he switched to using his cows’ manure on his coffee and banana plants, the transformation was undeniable. He says that his farm is now an ecosystem of components that support each other.

“For me, the future of agriculture is about making small farms efficient such that they can produce more, but in an environmentally sustainable way,” Rwakakamba says. “We can use our own organic fertilizers and resources to do that. Efficiency is usually confused to mean you have to bring GMO seeds, you have to bring exotic stuff, which for me is really not the case.”

The status quo in Ugandan agriculture was challenged in February 2013 when the governing party’s Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill had first reading in Parliament. If passed, the bill would legalize the use and export of genetically modified seeds, plants and livestock in Uganda. Rwakakamba opposed the bill, but it was in the midst of the debate that the pro-GMO president, Museveni, appointed anti-GMO advocate Rwakakamba his Special Presidential Adviser, catching many political observers off guard.

Two years later, the bill is still pending, deferred to allow members of parliament more time to consult their constituents. Rwakakamba remains firmly against the bill as it’s written. “To increase efficiency we don’t need a kind of seed structure that would make the farmer a slave of the market,” he says.

For Rwakakamba, it’s also a branding issue. In the past, Uganda’s farms might not have had any choice but to be low-input farms because farmers couldn’t get access to inputs. But now, they can use that history as a point of differentiation.

Only 60 per cent of the country’s arable land is being worked, so there is opportunity to expand, but “we cannot compete in economic terms and market access for GMOs with countries which have done GMOs for a long time, like Canada, the United States, and Australia. Going GMO is actually moving away from the niche, because in Uganda, in many ways our farmers remain de facto conservation and organic farmers.”

Rwakakamba points to studies that estimate the untapped organics market for agricultural products in Europe, Japan, the U.S. and Africa exceeds $100 billion.

Once farmers are introduced to genetic modification, Rwakakamba also cautions, “it becomes a different ball game that requires different kinds of skills, that requires a different kind of land space.” He worries that if Uganda opens its doors to the international seed market, the sustainability of its farmers will be compromised. He stresses that commercialization is not bad, but it needs to be done in a way that also protects food security at the household level.

Increasing efficiencies will become the primary focus of agricultural policy moving forward, whether or not the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill passes. The Ugandan population is expected to reach 114 million by 2050 (in 2013 the population was 37 million with nearly half under the age of 15).

The country will have to significantly increase its productivity in order to feed that population. Rwakakamba thinks it’s doable, with an intensification of smallholder farming where value is added on the farm and there is access to markets, better seeds, extension services and information. “Once we achieve that, then we’ll be sure that we first of all feed ourselves but also feed the continent.”

As our conversation winds down Rwakakamba tells me he’s closing up the office and heading to his farm for the weekend. For the next couple of days, he says, he’s looking forward to changing out of his city clothes, and getting his hands dirty. As he puts it, he’ll practise what he preaches.

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