uganda: let’s delete the word ‘potential’ from our national dictionary


ON Wednesday morning I jumped out of bed as a rainstorm raged on outside trying to make it difficult for the lazy-minded to leave their beds.
I could have done with a few extra minutes of sleep that morning but the night before I had said something on a radio talk show about how unjustified it was for most of us to sleep at all, given the amount of work we needed to do to develop Uganda.
The thought that someone could call me out for spending longer in bed than I had publicly said was necessary drove me to my desk, so I was watching the storm through the window over the top of my computer as I made my day’s plan, thinking how happy the farming community must be about this weather change.
Only three people these past two weeks have spoken to me about the rains having started: My primary farming advisor (who is also my loving mother) , reminding me to make the necessary adjustments; my regular supplier of tree seedlings (@GreeningUganda), making a pitch for increased sales as per our standing arrangements; and the third, a friend’s highly energetic domestic employee, in a conversation.
This robust domestic employee, at a lunch party over the weekend, had me helping him move garden furniture because it was threatening to rain. “But are you sure it’s going to rain?” I asked him, to which he responded with a vigorously confident, “The rainy season has started. It will rain.”
The confidence with which he spoke stayed on my mind all through the sumptuous luncheon, and I thought to myself that this domestic worker must have had an agricultural background – like many of us do.
The neat, sprawling gardens in which we lunched were beautiful and vivid in colour and variety, and seeing this domestic employee flit about to and fro in the foreground of the floral compound made me wonder whether, with his knowledge of agriculture and vast amounts of energy, he would be using the rainy season to grow any crops, herbs, or spices for future luncheons to be had.
The potential of it all, I thought to myself, was massive!
Potential.jpg
Immediately, I mentally slapped myself round the back of my head. ‘Potential’. I am a little fed up of that word, in our context.
It means, my dictionary says, “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future; and latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.
 
An hour or so later, I read an article that underscored why I dislike that word so much these days.
 
Uganda has potential to feed 200 million people – US envoy’, read the headline, followed by: “Uganda’s fertile agricultural land produces a wide range of food products and has the potential to feed 200 million people in the region and beyond,” said (Deborah) Malac.
This figure of 200 million was published by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations in August this year, and we have had tens of thousands other declarations of ‘Potential’ around Uganda.
We need to delete the word Potential from our national dictionary as soon as possible. If we don’t then we’re going to stay stuck at this Potentiality forever and ever.
Why does it irritate me?
Because we never seem to leave the Potential box and keep making headlines out of it instead of, ‘Uganda land deal boost for Centum’, as reported this week about Kenyan investors Centum buying up 14,000 acres of land in Uganda to grow maize and soya beans.
Those Kenyans are not dealing with just ‘Potential’ any more. Back in February 2011, a Centum official talked to a Ugandan newspaper about the Potential in Uganda, and today they are putting money onto the ground.
On the same day the newspapers were talking about that ‘Potential’ to feed 200 million people, I saw a news snippet about food relief being taken to the Kigezi region (for people affected by floods, not hunger) and sighed.
At that point, certain we won’t delete the word ‘Potential’ from our vocabularies soon, I stopped fretting over its existence.
Instead, I picked up my phone and contacted the friend who had hosted me to lunch over the weekend, to advise him to get his energetic domestic fellow to take advantage of the rainy season and plant some food-related things somewhere in the massive space surrounding his beautiful house now that the rains have started.

we shall be known by our fruits, grown from the seeds we normally throw away


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Photo by Simon Kaheru

Having finished a particularly juicy mango some time in December I dilly dallied with the seed even after using my teeth to scrape off all the flesh.

This wasn’t the usual type of string-filled mangoes that agitate me into bursting through my toothpick and dental floss budget.

The mango I had gormandised was the old-school type we used to find everywhere from Kampala through Kyaggwe to Hoima when I was a child. That big variety that didn’t become soft to tell you it was ripe, but when you bit through the tough skin your teeth found the flesh to be hard yet very pleasantly sweet.

The nostalgic feeling it brought me made me hang on to the seed for a few hours, on a saucer at my window sill as I worked the computer (hands all washed). I kept glancing at it thinking about how much I would happily eat one every hour were it not for the sweetness overkill.

This particular mango had come, with a few others, from a visit to a loved one in Ntinda right here in Kampala. During our afternoon chat we noticed that the tree, which had stood there many years, had finally offered up a respectable number of fruits with almost no effort besides patience.

My replenishment plan would involve a few more visits, but that wouldn’t keep me in the endless supply of said mangoes that I craved at that point. Mulling over the problem a little longer, I realised that the drying seed on the saucer next to me was the solution right there.

I have planted many mango trees over the last couple of years, planning to establish a constant supply for my domestic consumption as well as some light commerce in years to come.

Our family consumes so many mangoes, in our small set of homes, that if one of us became a supplier then we would have a cheaper source and also run a mini operation wealth creation.

All those trees came from seedlings purchased at a fair sum but topped off with transportation costs then made bigger by the bulk I have to purchase each time.

The internet, always useful for such purposes, told me quite clearly how to convert my drying seed into a seedling – which my seedling suppliers will not be excited to learn. The internet, being mostly written in climates that are not as friendly and blessed as tropical Uganda, included bits in their processes that made me realise how many more trees I would have grown by now if I had started thinking properly much earlier.

I immediately made a resolution to convert as many fruit seeds as I encounter this year into seedlings with as little fuss as possible. At some point last year I discovered the Butternut Squash, a relative of the ordinary pumpkin, and contrived some recipes so bewitching that I started thinking about the Squash in my spare time.

The problem was that each one cost about Ushs5,000 in regular supermarkets. One day I put the seeds aside, after cutting a Squash open, and planted them one by one in small cups of soil. A couple of weeks later they had germinated and I am now trying to grow my own butternut squash in various places instead of spending Ushs5,000 each in a supermarket.

With the fruit project, it has been three months of regularly consuming avocadoes, mangoes and fenne (jackfruit), allowing the seeds to dry out, then planting them in small cans and bottles. I have been largely successful – more with the fenne and avocado than the mangoes, but successful all the same, to a notable extent. Even the chillis, onions and tomatoes have sprouted something.

While I wait for the experts to tell me how fruitful the seedlings will be when they grow, I recall that six years ago I devised a scheme that should have led me to this point much earlier were it not for an insufficient infusion of lugezi gezi amongst my domestic staff.

At that time, I established a garbage separation system so we could collect our organic waste and use it to create compost, while disposing of the plastic, paper and other waste through the garbage collection companies. It worked for only a short while, after which the people tasked with implementation couldn’t be bothered and the Manager (myself) lost focus on the trees because of the forest.

I am returning my focus to the trees henceforth, and resuming garbage separation as part of my mini operation wealth creation project.

My success shall be shown by my fruits, as the Good Book says in Matthew.

we all need to take these avian bird flu warnings seriously


poultry-on-nyala-poultry-firm-from-aboutuganda-com

I SPEND most of my mornings seated at a window where a vast number of birds of various species and sizes flitter past or stop and tap against the glass. We have a running joke that some of those birds are carrying messages from our dearly departed living in another world .

Because I have so many birds within close proximity, I took the Avian Bird Flu warnings this week pretty seriously. A friend of mine confessed that the day before the first warning she had picked up a dead bird herself, as she lives in an even busier bird corridor.

Uganda has about 1,078 species of birds (34 of which are threatened) making us a premium destination for birding, as these are more than half the number of species recorded globally. Some statistics also have it that the record for the number of species recorded in one week in a three week period is 665 – seen in Uganda.

Our poultry industry is thriving (not just because of the Rolex) though the best statistics I could find were from the UBOS (Uganda Bureau of Statistics) 2010 Report that estimated our national chicken population at 34.7million birds. A cursory check of the 2014 National Population and Housing Census finds no mention of the words ‘poultry’, ‘chicken’ or ‘bird(s)’. The word ‘Livestock’ appears only four (4) times.

The National Livestock Census Report of 2009, though, says 4.5million households rear at least one kind of livestock or poultry. By 2008 we had a national chicken flock of 32.8million birds.

And an IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) report of 2013 estimated that the value of poultry production in Uganda in 2009 was Ushs89billion. (This report also complains about lack of statistics).

So considering that Avian Bird Flu affects chicken as well as wild birds, we should not take this disease outbreak lightly. But we must not panic in our approach.

When it first appeared back in 2005 the Avian Bird Flu was devastating in Asia, and it showed up again in 2014 in the United States with alarming effects. I read somewhere once that across Asia fewer than 500 people died from having the disease, so that’s not the biggest problem – it is the economic death that is more worrying.

In the US by July 2015 (six months) about 26 million chickens and turkeys had died or been killed to keep the disease from spreading. But the US produces 9 billion chickens for meat, 360 million for eggs, and 240 million turkeys.

We cannot afford to lose such numbers.

In May 2015 the United States released US$330million in emergency funds to tackle the disease, on top of US$99million already spent on the disease when it broke out in 2014. They even deployed the National Guard to help with the efforts.

Asia’s 2005 crisis was feared to cost the affected economies between US$99billion and US$283billion off their GDP.

We certainly cannot command such amounts today.

Those economies are much more organised and focused most times, so we need to really pay attention and think like them now in some respects, while doing what we do best.

That doesn’t mean we are doing nothing – and I was happy to hear from the Director General of Health Services, Prof. Anthony Mbonye, that the government had put together an inter-ministerial task force under the Prime Minister’s office (though the Ministry Website had not been updated by January 18, 2017 with this issue). They are working with the same tenacity that has made Uganda globally famous for handling Ebola and other serious pandemics here and as far out as West Africa.

But obviously we need to do more – you and I, as well as the government.

Again, do not panic. In one of my WhatsApp groups some people swore off chicken entirely. Unless you eat unhygienic chicken, please remain calm but be cautious and health-conscious.

Then, let’s think and plan every step of this carefully – including our communication. Our first communication targets should be the people on the frontline of poultry production – farmers (including domestic, subsistence ones) and processors alike. To reach them, we must know who they are – hence the need for serious statistics and information.

Every district should pull out the stops at collecting data on where all our domestic birds are and who is raising them. When we get to the point where poultry have to be killed to stop the disease spreading, there will be a need for compensation – we all know why records are important there.

Now is the time to take all statistics seriously and keep them up to date henceforth. I’ve seen a US Department of Agriculture file on the internet that details every case of the disease along with the individual bird that died – we should have the same from two weeks ago when this crisis began.

And thereafter, let’s put our information up onto the internet so that we give the world even more confidence in our capabilities at handling these disasters; we will have a good story to tell so let’s tell it louder than the disaster announcement.

This Avian Bird Flu is not as bad as Ebola, so we will get past it for sure – but this time let’s do so in a manner that INCREASES our profile so we get more opportunities come our way while not putting our existing ones at risk.

blessed soils in the Holy Lands of Uganda and Israels


MY story of the week to do with Israel and Uganda last week was the one The New Vision ran quoting Bishop Dr. Edward Muhima and citing his realisation that Israelis had carried soil from Uganda back to the Palestine region (I had to get that in there) to improve their own soils and make their agricultural production successful.
I still can’t believe that the headline wasn’t a play on ‘Blessed Soils in the Holy Land’.
I first visited the nation of Israel as an impressionable youth collecting many life-changing memories, one of which stands out often in my mind and has recurred again in the dust raised by the visit of Bibi Netanyahu.
It started with the excitability of the guide chaperoning our group of Africans, and the driver of the bus we were travelling in to go and visit a kibbutz.
As we drove past a mountainside, rain began to fall in amounts that did not impress most of us visitors to the Holy Land from sub-Saharan Africa.
The Israelis in the bus, however, were beside themselves at the occurrence, and launched into chatter in their native language, and then even song! They calmed down after a while to explain that they had not seen rain in about three years, hence the excitement.
In passing, our guide, an elderly fellow at the diplomatic rank of Ambassador and whose army rank I cannot recall right now, mentioned that we had to speed past the mountain in order to escape a possible avalanche because these rare rains were known to cause rivulets that brought down large chunks of mountain.
By the time we arrived at the kibbutz I was still musing over how the Israelis initially focused more on the excitement over the sudden rains than the risk of painful death from the run-off.
Those musings were swept away when we saw the size of the fruits and vegetables at the kibbutz and heard the amounts of money that Israel as a nation fetched from agricultural exports. The figures, in tens of millions of United States dollars, did not make sense to me.
My deep confusion could be well understood when considered against the fresh revelation that the country (or, at the very least, that region we were in) had not had rain for years, and the one I had come from had had an abundance of the stuff for ages without ever announcing such figures (in excess of US$20billion that year alone).
It was even more confusing that in that year we, in Uganda, reportedly had more than five million hectares of arable land available compared to Israel’s 300,000.
With no rain, the Israelis were exporting billions of dollars worth of fruits and vegetables (and animal husbandry products). How? By using Irrigation, fertilisers, mechanisation of agriculture and other things that I had heard about in school about ten years before I had made that trip.
Now, more than fifteen years since I made that trip and one week after Netanyahu and his people visited, we have headlines such as, ‘Dry spell irks Masaka farmers’ and other cries of woe regarding rain and dry spells.

Still holding memories of the massive sizes of fruits and vegetables being produced in the small gardens in the kibbutz we visited back then, I read this week about how farmers are cursing the ‘dry spell’ that we have had for a couple of months and how “hundreds of thousands of residents may face hunger if nothing is done”.
We are neither stupid nor ignorant, but it is hard to do the mathematics and arrive at a logical conclusion – harder still if you throw in stories such as the 2014 one in which the government of Israel announced that it had tripled its intake of students going to Israel to study agriculture on scholarship. That year, the students were tripled from 41 to 120 – never mind that back in 1962 Israel granted 150 scholarships to Ugandan students in medicine and agriculture, and we have been sending them in such good numbers every year since.
In fact, on my trip back then I quite randomly bumped into three Ugandans – two visiting from the Ministry of Agriculture, and a third from a hospital here (she is now a doctor practicing in the United States.)
Where are these students and why aren’t they in places like Masaka and northern Uganda warding off the threat of “hundreds of thousands facing hunger” or getting our agriculture exports from US$240million up into the billions, considering that we have thousands more tonnes of the very soil that Israel uses?
I will be asking him, shortly, to publish the full list of the students and their whereabouts so that we can consult them on our own private agricultural projects, or for the government to assign them to district programmes such as NAADS and whatnot.
There is no shortage of them, even from the last two years alone since 198 went in 2014 and 226 were going in 2015 (presumably including the 120 paid for by the Israeli government). Plus, according to Mugabo’s speech at the flag-off ceremony last year, the Ugandans always excel during the courses, meaning that we should have the best performing agricultural experts in Africa, learning from the Israel experience.

ntangawuuzi, anyone? i mean ginger – put some in that tea, lazima!


ginger web britannica.com
Ginger (Zingiber Officinale) – Photo: web.britannica.com
PLEASE join me in expressing sympathy for one Edward Kisubika, coordinator of a group of over 100 farmers who on Sunday, September 27 last year formed the Mukono Ginger Farmers Association.
Kisubika and his friends had high hopes, and he told The New Vision at the event that he could invest about Ushs5million and make over Ushs20million out of an acre. At that time, a kilogramme of ginger was going for between Ushs8,000 and Ushs10,000 each.
I sympathise quite deeply for Kisubika because, according to the story, he started out as a fisherman at Katosi landing site and got problems, then quit. He rested to vanilla “but when prices fell, I lost all my money I had invested. I kept growing vanilla and food crops but with little commercial benefit.”
Then he moved to ginger (NOT ‘ji-nga’).
And this week The New Vision reported that prices of ginger had dropped from Ushs8,000 to Ushs1,000.
With that price drop, very simplistic mathematics will tell you that Kisubika’s expectation of Ushs20million will now actually give him Ushs2,500,000 only. That is HALF of what he invested at the start of the season – hoping he didn’t spend much more supervising the crop and buying a copy of the newspaper that announced the price drop.
Let us hold a moment of silence there.
Ginger is one of the world’s most on-demand spices. It is used in EVERY Chinese meal, meaning that billions of people around the world eat it. It is also used in very many of the world’s drinks, herbal teas and medicines. In Europe, demand is rising day by day because of the growing drive for healthy eating and living.
The drop in prices is not in Uganda alone, and this being news today, at the end of June, is a sign of slow thinking and slow reactions. In May, China announced a drop in prices from 8 Yuan (and as high as 20 in early 2015) per kilo to 0.80 Yuan – and China is the world’s second biggest producer of the spice, after India.
The reason for the price drop there was the poor economic climate there, which affected the catering industry and killed commercial demand.
China’s ginger production numbers are followed by Nepal and then Nigeria.
Nigeria, meanwhile, was the world’s biggest exporter of ginger exports in 2014, followed by Ethiopia. In fact, on one list, seven of the world’s top ginger exporting countries are African.
I called up the Uganda Export Promotion Board (UEPB) about the price collapse to ask what they were doing about it, since the crop the farmers have in their fields hasn’t been harvested yet and hope shouldn’t be lost.
“Ginger prices have dropped due to increased production which has now spread outside the original producing areas of Butambala and Busoga. This increased production has also been propelled by improvement in farming techniques that are making less costly to manage,” I was told.
The good people there said we have mostly been exporting it  informally while formal statistics show that last year we only exported to Rwanda (130 tonnes), the United Kingdom (1 tonne) and Burundi (6 tonnes).
“Traders in Butambala have also indicated that many buyers (thought to be of Kenyan origin) bring in trucks and load ginger from different towns within the area,” they said.
I was heartened to hear that Uganda is also trying out dried ginger, which should help the Kisubika’s keep their crop in a form that doesn’t let it go to waste should the market stay bad.
And, “Ginger powder and ginger flavoured beverages, for example, are now a common sight in super market in key urban centres.”
The UEPB is now looking for alternative reliable market outlets that suit Uganda’s production patterns and has “initiated market research to identify these alternative markets, their requirements and how Ugandan exporters can benefit.”
All that is good, as is the internet research I quoted above, but it should all have been made use of back in September when the Kisubika’s were excitedly forming their association and increasing production outside of Butambala and Busoga.
Plus, there should have been discussions involving the processing, manufacturing and finance sectors to meet the Kisubika’s goal of setting up a processing factory in Mukono. And it is late but not too late for these discussions to begin – we have government ministries and departments in charge of finance, agriculture, trade, industry, labour and more that should have a meeting over this.
And if they are asleep then the entrepreneurs should be moving faster. This Wednesday I had a chat with Gerald Owachi, of Pamrone, who told me he and his partners are trying to put together Ushs105million to order for a dryer/drier to be fabricated and stationed on their farm.
Theirs will not be just a grain dryer/drier as normally happens, but will be principally used to dry cassava, so it will certainly be capable of drying other tubers and ginger as well.
Ushs105million is half the price of a second hand Range Rover or Land Cruiser – and there are many of those on the streets of Kampala. At the very worst, though, that amount of money is also equivalent to five second hand sedans on the streets of Kampala – again, meaning that it is an easy investment for a group of entrepreneurs to make if they got together to do the maths and talk to the likes of Gerald Owachi and Kisubika.
If the supply of ginger is so good that it is outstripping local and regional demand to bring prices down, then surely it should be enough to support manufacturing so that the fresh ginger can have value added to it and fetch more than peanuts?