A CHANCE meeting at the start of this week has re-focussed my attention onto agriculture as an economic activity and one day, a few years from now, I will share stories of my successes perhaps even in in one of those newspaper pullouts that inspire us weekly to till the earth.
My chance encounter was with an old friend, Gerald Owachi, whose story shocked me on so many levels there is no way a newspaper article can do it justice.
He will write a book about it all one day, since he is a journalist by training and a well studied one at that, having attended classes at Harvard and Tufts in the United States.
After those classes, he joined various high end organisations doing public policy, conflict resolution and what not, earning money in foreign currencies, but one day dropped everything to do agriculture. Teaming up with two other friends – Harry Hakiza and J.J. Onen – they went into northern Uganda.
The story is rather long and I have since moved on from the incredulity I felt when they shared their plans many years ago, so by Monday morning I was asking for a simple update only for Gerry to tell me they had 240 acres of cassava full grown!
Cassava is one of my favourite foods right now, because my domestic arrangements have involved training people up to fry cassava sticks to a point that we are soon entering the dish into cooking competitions for local foods – another story coming soon somewhere near you.
Every time I find there is a shortage of cassava in the markets near my home I marvel at how silly our agricultural marketing is – but that is nothing compared to Gerry’s experiences in the fields of cassava.
With 240 acres, for instance, their cassava project is probably the biggest single one of that crop in Uganda but, for some reason, they are not one of the major suppliers of the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS). They are one of the suppliers, but only got listed after a hilarious story that must go into Gerry’s book.
It involved having their ‘project’ inspected by a superior, imperious NAADS fellow who had the bearing of a small god simply because he has the power to determine whether or not the results of the sweat and investment of people like Gerry, Harry, J.J. and their thousand-odd workers, should be placed onto a list of suppliers.
See, there are these well-intentioned projects that governments around the world implement but in doing so they employ small-minded chaps who take their representation of the government to such heights that if they don’t like your attitude they can reject (or frustrate) your project into oblivion.
So this big cassava project was off the supply list but they insisted their way onto it and eventually got allocated some bags – meaning they were assigned the privilege of supplying bags of cassava cuttings to the NAADS project.
Off their 240 acres they were assigned 663 bags. Or, let’s say they were assigned 6,000 bags. Cuttings are just that – you get a cassava stem then cut it into segments of about 30 centimetres.
I interrupted the conversation to call up my pal, the Executive Director of NAADS, and left him with that information to deal with – which he undoubtedly will.
Anyway, what madness had possessed these three young men to plant so much cassava?
Cassava has hundreds of uses besides being fried, salted and put on a side plate next to my cup of tea. Uganda Breweries uses cassava as a local raw material in brewing beer; CIPLA, the multinational pharmaceutical firm, is buying up 51% of Quality Chemicals and one of the major ingredients in pharmaceuticals is…cassava; it is used in making glues and one hundred other things industries rely on.
“You know Uganda is the Centre of Excellence for Cassava growing…?” Gerry began, making me choke on my coffee as I spluttered a ‘What The…?’
It is true.
The internet even says stuff like, “The Cassava Regional Centre of Excellence is based in Uganda, taking advantage of Uganda’s proven track record of success in providing leadership in cassava research, training and dissemination of technologies and information…”
Go and ask the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations for more.
Another website declares that six years ago Uganda was the sixth largest producer of cassava in Africa, and the crop is our second most important after bananas.
It would be – it basically grows anywhere under even arid conditions. Which is why the three chaps’ project was so important – because on their 240 acres they focussed on one, consistent breed or strain of cassava, rather than the very many funny ones in existence elsewhere.
As they were starting up, they tried to get the right cuttings and couldn’t find any that were consistent for a while. They went to the National Crops Resources Research Institute at Namulonge and eventually set up a partnership that ensured they had a sensible strain of cassava.
That’s another reason NAADS should be interested in them, and them in NAADS, because if one of the odd strains gets into their 240 acres they could lose their entire crop. You see, a short while ago someone said they had found Cassava Brown Streak disease in Western Uganda…
No – crisis meetings have not been called, even if Ugandan Brown Streak disease is ranked among the top seven biological threats to global food security.
All in all, their book will be an interesting read – wait for the section on ACF – the Agricultural Credit Facility under Bank of Uganda, an abbreviation few of us can recognise as quickly as TDA today, yet it’s been there since 2009. Under the ACF you and I can get up to Ushs2.1billion (or even Ushs5billion if the project is good enough), at 10% per annum.
They got one of far less than that, and because of bureaucracy found themselves paying a commercial bank loan at a much higher interest rate a couple of months into planting and…they are now in court minus the tractor they purchased with the loan, and the 80% they had paid for it in cash.
But they have their 240 acres of cassava sitting intact, for now, and they’re aiming at 3,500 planted by 2017.
As a resident of the Cassava Centre of Excellence, how many patches of your own cassava will you have by then?