the saudis are very clever people – growing hay in the united states to feed their cows. what are YOU doing, though?


OVER the years you get used to hearing incredible stories about Saudi Arabia and the pursuits undertaken by that country and its neighbours in the Emirates.

At some point if you’re fortunate you might even see for yourself the wonders they have achieved in the deserts of the Middle East and understandably declare them to be very clever people.

Some of the stories we hear are downright incredible but turn out to be true.

One of my favourite is around Prince Mohammed al-Faisal, who was Saudi Deputy Minister of Water and Agriculture – a sensible combination of departments in that part of the world.

In 1977 he proposed a US$100million plan to tug a 100 million-tonne iceberg for eight months from the Antarctica to the Arabian peninsula for desalination into drinking water for his people.

Can you imagine that?

The plan was seriously considered and got to the point where calculations showed the iceberg would get to Cape Town but not much further, so they did more scientific calculations to fix that. It hasn’t happened yet but was certainly very clever.

A short while ago, seated in a whole different desert, I heard about the Saudis again but this time pursuing something different from icebergs and water.

Discussing fields of corn we had driven past in the desert, my friend – Jether Lubandi – mentioned that agriculture was so heavy in Arizona that there were even foreign countries involved.

“Man!” he declared in his Texan drawl, “We even have a controversy brewing here because of the Saudis taking hay from Arizona!”

What?! Hay?! Dried grass?!

I initially thought we had a communication problem because of the blistering heat and our attention to thirst-quenching activities which could have reasonably meant he wasn’t talking clearly and I wasn’t hearing properly.

Later on, I checked up on the story and shook my head.

The clever Saudis were at it again, and their level of strategic thinking had me applauding.

Some large Saudi-owned food companies have been quietly but steadily buying up farmland in both Arizona and California, and planting alfalfa hay there which they export to their countries to feed their cows.

Huh? Yes.

Pause for a minute and think about that in some detail.

While doing so, please remember that Arizona and California are not only dry – they have in recent years been struck by severe drought.

One story in 2016 told how a Saudi-based company, Fondomonte Farms, had bought up 1,790 acres of farmland in California for US$32million – that’s (today) US$17,900 per acre or Ushs68million an acre. Try and compare that with prices of land from Arua to Zirobwe, then return to the main point here.

Their strategy, the Americans complained after working it out, was to use American water sources to grow hay which they export to feed Saudi cows in their own desert. That way, they are preserving their own water for use on other things while using American water to grow the hay to feed their cows.

Clever. VERY clever.

The Saudis had clearly worked it out. Go out there and buy land but ensure it is good for agriculture, and then use up the water growing stuff that you need. Then transport it back to your home using fuel whose most likely origin means YOU are earning from the transportation – while preserving your own water for other things you will need into the long term.

The internet says the company leading the onslaught is Almarai (the Arabic word for ‘green pastures’) which is the mother company of Fondomonte.

As far back as 2012 Almarai bought 30,000 acres of land in Argentina for the same purpose and this year is said to own more than 15,000 acres in California and Arizona – all under alfalfa.

Almarai, says the reports, has 93,000 cows that eat all this alfalfa to produce milk that goes into products sold in the Middle East, Africa (check your local supermarket and duuka) and…in the United States of America!

Yo! These guys understand business!

Now, where could we come in here and why should we care?

It takes Fondomonte about a month to move containers of alfalfa from the United States to the Gulf of Arabia. So, let’s ask ourselves – how long would it take that alfalfa to go from Uganda to the feeding troughs in the Arabian desert, if the alfalfa were grown here instead?

If all that hay can grow in the deserts of California and Arizona, how much would grow in lush, tropical Uganda kweli? Don’t we have land that’s cheaper than Ushs68million per acre that we can avail to our Saudi friends, and access to more water than the people in American deserts?

If lush, tropical Uganda is being used to grow even more high value things then perhaps we should irrigate the dry parts of the country and immediately bring the value of that land up to Ushs68million per acre (four years ago) or grow alfalfa there.

Should we be averse to exporting grass for foreign cows then lazima we should study their model and make it work here.

93,000 cows? I know of WhatsApp groups where ten percent of the members claim to have more than that combined.

Why are they not becoming Africa’s largest dairy and food processing company to match Almarai in the Middle East so we keep the alfalfa for ourselves?

The Saudis are very clever. That’s not to highlight other people who, clearly, ARE NOT!

choose wisely – ugali or posho?


Ugali
A plate of Ugali (Photo from http://jikonimagic.com)

LAST year, in two different WhatsApp groups I belong to that have nothing in common save for myself, two very disparate people sent two messages a couple of weeks apart saying exactly the same thing.

The first is an old-time friend who runs a family-owned Ugandan road construction firm that has grown consistently in leaps and bounds over the last twenty years. During the course of his work he has traversed Uganda while building roads, prospecting for more business, and playing golf.

The second is my cousin and friend, who turned his childhood passion into a line of employment and has spent his life listening to, playing and producing music for the rest of us. Again, in the process he has visited many parts of Uganda and made a wide variety of contacts who relish his company – especially on Friday nights in Guvnor nee Ange Noir.

Both these gentlemen surprised me when they expressed their angst because I could never have linked them to the issue they raised.

“Why,” they both asked, “are there so many trucks here (naming two different, distant districts they happened to be in at the time) taking out raw, unprocessed maize in bulk? Honestly speaking, can’t the government or someone else introduce a law or a rule that stops this happening? We need to make it illegal for raw maize to be exported like this!”

This discussion could even end here because the logic should speak for itself, shouldn’t it?

In ensuing rants the numerous suggestions around solving the problem were amusing, spot-on and irritating in different measure – the latter being those comments from the type of ignoramus who confidently weighs in on the politics of Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin over a glass of whisky from Scotland imported through Dubai and making money mostly for people who buy shares on the London Stock Exchange.

“Are you growing any maize there? Don’t disturb us!” said one in another forum where the topic grew as quickly as Ugandan maize tends to.

The sensible ones suggested measures like investing in maize processing plants in those districts where the vast quantities of maize have attracted Kenyan-managed trucks and their wealthy buyers.

That would certainly make a lot of sense, said economic-savvy types, because it would employ more Ugandans, earn the farmers more money upfront due to the ready market, and earn the government even more because those plants would make use of all this electricity we are generating now.

Another contributor took the next leg and pointed out that the logistics end would benefit as well because instead of Uganda playing host to so many old, crumbling lorries carrying sacks of raw maize thrown “anyhowly” onto their beds, our processed product would attract much better logistical handling and management.

See, the thing about processing is that you get to a different level of client who asks for things that make high-level education all the more important – warehouse management including the use of forklifts and pallets, automation of systems and processes, presentation of certificates and other documentation that forces one to adhere to international standardisation…the list is long.

Not only that, came another suggestion: If there are so many Kenyans working so hard to take Ugandan maize out to Kenya, that means we have a brand attribute that can be developed into something much, much bigger! Indeed, whereas we all know that Uganda’s maize and other crop production is mostly due to our soils being so amazingly fertile, perhaps there is a magic in our crops that would increase their value on supermarket shelves if we branded the finished product right and added the words, “Grown In Uganda”.

We smiled. It was all WhatsApp kaboozi and the intellectual daydreaming eventually evaporated like the substances that normally inspire it. But I kept my eye on the maize story in the Kenyan press, and have accumulated piles of newspaper clippings updating Kenyans on a daily basis about the price of maize – raw and processed – and the availability of the stuff.

The Kenyans eat just about as much ugali as we do posho, but they are more in number and tend to have more money overall relative to the rest of us due to their economy having grown the way it has since the 1960s, among other reasons.

Their planning methods appear to be ahead of us as well, if those stories I have read for so many months are anything to go by. The Tanzanians know this and recently banned the exportation of maize from their country because they have worked out that they might not have enough to go around for themselves if the rains don’t work out as planned.

Kenya went as far as to import some maize from Latin America last year (some of those stories are more scandalous than economically educative) but as of a few days ago they announced that the government would fund a deal to shore up their maize reserves.

It is no secret – the deal was brokered by their Ministry of Industrialization and will have the government there financing Kenyan farmers so they can buy 6.6million sacks of maize “cheaply”. The deal was signed with the Grain Council of Uganda – whose identity and purpose I will google in my spare time so we can one day have a discussion over a plate of posho…or Ugali.

Why the deal was brokered by THEIR Ministry of Industrialization should be obvious, but I am looking forward to the discussions in our WhatsApp groups when all the wise Ugandans with access to the internet and drinks start getting angry and spend that money on anything but maize processing.

Perhaps, as one person in the earlier WhatsApp discussion said, the talking and monied classes would pay more attention to all this if they ate more posho ourselves. By the time that happens, we might have Ugali on offer instead.

hon. kasamba, meet safina namaganda and let’s make piles of sweet money out of jackfruit (fenne)


IMG-5652
One of numerous fenne trees at Rwenzori Bottling Company offices (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

IN November last year I shared a story here about a young lady called Safina Namaganda that got picked up in various places high and low. Thereafter I was summoned and asked for her contact details, which I shared variously.

Sadly, I can’t confirm that anything came of it.

I remembered her again this week during a lengthy, animated chat with newly-sworn East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) Representative, Mathias Kasamba, of Kakuuto in Kyotera.

The EALA plenary had just officially opened session and we were taking a break nearby and talking through the opportunities we have in Uganda that his presence in Arusha and beyond would make a reality for his constituents – not just in Kakuuto, Kyotera, but across the entire country.

Kasamba is a straight-talking man; if you have never met him before and experienced his style of message delivery you could easily take offence at his sharp arrows but that won’t save you his marksmanship.

He is rightfully disdainful of very many people who are not doing what we should be doing – including political leaders who have no evidence of leadership beyond their titles; the so-called elite whose priorities make them little better than the ordinary peasants they look down upon; and the energetic youth whose energy does not show itself in anything that doesn’t involve betting shops, football on television, and social media activities.

Throughout the discussion, he kept going back to his pet topic, which I happen to have a keen interest in myself that has ensured it stays on my annual plan every year.

For as long as I can remember, Hon. Kasamba has been talking about planting trees. During the most heated parts of the 2015/16 political campaign period he found it quite normal to interrupt a hard discussion on political strategy with photographs and updates about how his tree seedlings were doing.

He is still the same, and within ten minutes of conversation he had whipped out two gadgets and was showing me photograph after photograph of trees, tree seedlings, and other agricultural projects he has pulled right out of the ground in his home in Kakuuto.

His consistency of messaging is admirable, and I was pleased to be the target that afternoon, as he pointed out the simple mathematics of agriculture that most of us who went to school and own second-hand motor vehicles in Kampala would be shamed to acknowledge.

The speed and confidence with which he reeled off the financials around the investments that go into various sizes of agricultural projects could bamboozle you if you are not prepared. And he went from coffee to mangoes, oranges and passion fruits with the smoothness of my favourite juice – the reason we were having the discussion in the first place.

When he segued into jackfruit (fenne) I offered him a mental standing ovation – and that is when Safina Namaganda returned to the story of life.

“People don’t know,” Hon. Kasamba said, “that if you have jackfruit you don’t need anything else!”

He had no idea he was onto one of my favourite fruits of all time, and I unleashed enthusiasm with my descriptions of its taste and recipe ideas, but he sensed – correctly – that I was underestimating the part of “you don’t need anything else!”

Hon. Kasamba detailed how every part of the fenne fruit is edible – which I agreed with and shared my own anecdotes of eating roasted seeds as a child and feeding the rind to visibly pleased farm animals. But he went further; for him the fenne tree can easily provide an income that stretches into the millions of shillings every year because the trees fruit so well regardless of when and where you plant them.

And, he explained, they don’t get cut down for decades and decades but still keep fruiting. And, most of all, provided he has them dotted all over his farm the farm workers don’t ever go hungry and stall – they gorge themselves on it and maintain high energy levels all through!

Every seed they drop, meanwhile, will give you a seedling if you plant it just days after eating the fruit. I do this often myself, and was about to boast to him that I have developed almost a hundred seedlings this way when he told him his number.

He has 10,000 (ten thousand) jackfruit/fenne seedlings ready to plant. And he is not joking about this. Even as we chatted, he texted me YouTube video links and articles about the benefits of the jackfruit/fenne.

He was amazing!

I took a very low mental bow out of that aspect of the conversation, and put myself in line for a few free seedlings from him as a point of honourable concession.

But not before offering to introduce him to Safina Namaganda; if you recall her story, that was the young lady who did a study into the nutritional values of fenne seeds and created a mixture of fenne seeds and soy that was quite popular but did not get sufficient support to sustain the project – including a consistent supply of seeds.

My fingers are crossed that one day she will have a factory established in Kakuuto, running in partnership with Hon. Kasamba’s farm and producing various branded products made out of fenne – juices, purees, canned fruit, roasted seeds, powdered forms, animal feeds…the works!

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.

pearls from pigs; the pork fest in June should be more than just a BBQ


Like most Ugandans, my affinity for the cooked flesh of a pig can take on legendary proportions if dieticians and medical professionals look the other way.

Whether it is roasted, fried, stewed or even stood in the sun for just long enough to kill off all possibility of disease, pork is a welcome item on any menu I come into contact with.

In December last year the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) announced that Uganda is the biggest consumer of pork on the continent. Most weekends in most of our towns will appear to confirm this – both in domestic and commercial settings.

The news stories covering this most important issue quoted ILRI Country Representative Dr. Ben Lukuyu saying that Uganda came second to China in global pork consumption numbers at 3.5kilogrammes per capita.

But sites like www.pork.org list the top ten pork producing countries as China, the European Union (which is clearly a cheat entry), the United States, Brazil, Russia, Vietnam, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico and Japan. China leads with 53,500 metric tonnes and Japan trails with 1,280 metric tonnes last year.

The same site lists 42 of the world’s top pork consuming countries, starting with China, and does not mention Uganda at all, which made Dr. Lukuyu’s quote appear questionable.

Eventually, I found on the internet an article from 2014 that read, “Correction 21 July 2014: This story originally incorrectly said that Uganda is Africa’s number one pork-consuming nation. It has now been corrected to clarify that Uganda is East Africa’s top pork-consuming nation.”

Either all the journalists left out the “East” or the good doctor himself made that error – TWO YEARS LATER.

In 2014 various reports said Uganda slaughters about 3.5million pigs every year from about 1.3million households.

The stupid thing, though, is that there are reports that Uganda actually imports pork from other countries as well. Of course, we all know that there is a brand of sausages that is made in another country that is found to be popular here, so those reports are certainly true. Plus, we have cans of processed pork on supermarket shelves.

Even more incredible was the statistic that in 2012 alone Africa imported US$295million worth of pork and pork products from other continents!

I am not writing this just to work up an appetite.

See, last week I learnt that China has introduced its first ‘Pork Price Index’. This is a tool of economic analysis that they say will help farmers understand the market better and therefore serve it to their benefit and those of the world’s majority of pork eaters.

They are worried about both the availability of pork and the price at which it sells, those Chinese.

They are so serious about their pork that they have the government managing the sector, established a ‘strategic pork reserve’, and have the equivalent of the Uganda Securities Exchange (NOT in dollar or Yuan terms, of course) monitoring its trade as part of a government ministry.

So what are we doing importing pork, if we are the biggest consumers of the stuff on the continent? This is one of our niches in East Africa, so where is the Uganda Pork Authority? The business of pork isn’t just about the delicious plated end of the sector, there are many ebigenderako as well – in the real sense as presented on the lusaniya, as well as the feeds pigs consume, the by-products, and a MASSIVE market on the continent.

So, again, what are we doing importing pork? Why are there so few Ugandan-made pork sausages of a quality that we can export rather than laud imports?

I’ll be asking more of these questions in about two month’s time at the Mandela National Stadium in Namboole, during the Uganda Pork Expo (June 24-25th).

Pork Festival

And in between sampling various types of pork products, I will be looking out for people mobilising Ugandans to produce more pigs in larger numbers. One day we will stop finding embarrassing statistics on the internet that say the biggest pig farm in Uganda holds 60 pigs; but only if people spend more on rearing the livestock than they do in second hand Japanese cars.

I also hope to meet economists and business development planners who will do the maths around getting at least one million Ugandans to rear one pig each so that we instantly double our national pig production.

And finally some logical people who will work out that sausages, because of their constitution and cost of production, should not be such ridiculously expensive food items. Or perhaps an academic to explain to me why in most organised countries these are the cheapest meats in the supermarket yet in Uganda they are considered prestigious.

If all these elements come together and logic reigns supreme then we will be gathering pearls from pigs.