one of Uganda’s biggest indigenous seed companies operates in a difficult environment
The ongoing rains in most parts of the country will likely go without being optimally used because farmers are unable to access sufficient quantities of quality seeds for the important staple foods like maize, beans, bananas, cassava and sweet potatoes.
The latest blow comes from the government’s failure to achieve far less than the anticipated seed volumes that were expected to be distributed to farmers by Operation Wealth Creation, a outfit of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) that is overseeing the distribution of agricultural inputs procured by the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS).
About a month ago, the Minister of Agriculture Vincent Bamulangaki Ssempijja announced that the government had set aside some Ushs54billion for purchase of seed that would be given to farmers this season as a way of boosting food production following last year’s prolonged drought that left most farmers without seed as many had lost the seed in unsuccessful planting exercises while others turned to saved seed to escape hunger. The government promised to distribute seed for maize, beans and cassava.
Now however, The Sunrise has reliably learnt that NAADS has failed to realise the quantities of seed it set out to purchase from the local suppliers.
Reliable information shows that NAADS has only been able to obtain 500 tones of bean seed, just a third of the targeted 1,500 tones they had anticipated.
The Spokesperson of OWC Spokesperson Maj. James Nkojo denies the reports of insufficient seed when contacted by The Sunrise, and insisted that supplies have started.
But when The Sunrise contacted the President of the Uganda Seed Traders Association (USTA), Sylvia Kyeyune, she hinted they’ve faced challenges meeting the government’s requests for seed this season largely because of crop failure suffered by both farmers and seed companies last year.
“The biggest challenge we have is that the orders come late. They fail to understand that we are not factories that can quickly churn out seeds,” Kyeyune added: “In fact we had meeting recently and we told them that they need to give us sufficient time to be able to plant and multiply the seed if we are to be able to supply it in adequate quantities.”
“When they tell us to mobilize seeds, some people are tempted to go to Owino (market) to make up for shortfall (by buying grain to convert it into seed) and when you the media detect it, you accuse us of supplying fake seeds,” Kyeyune added: “But the problem is always poor planning.”
She points out that although Uganda’s seed companies have the potential to supply up to 25,000 tones of bean seeds and up to 10,000 tones of maize, last year’s drought caused crop failure and rendered the companies unable to meet their seed requirements.
“The whole of last year was a disaster for seed companies. Some of them registered losses of up to 70%,” Kyeyune revealed.
The decision to support farmers with planting materials for food crops came as a surprise intervention after President Museveni had directed the agriculture ministry to change focus from food crops to cash crops. President Museveni has recently advocated for the adoption of coffee, tea and citrus.
Although many Ugandans have largely traditionally depended on saved seed for legumes and cereals, as well as using suckers and cuttings for vegetatively propagated foods like Matooke and Cassava, last year’s prolonged drought dealt a severe blow to many households who turned to the seed reserves to escape hunger.
The recurrent droughts, which experts attribute to climate change, are the latest brutal reminders of how many small holder farmers are finding themselves unable to produce food using traditional means of saving seed.
This is more so for communities that heavily rely on fresh foods such as plantains (Matooke), sweet potatoes, Potatoes, and vegetables. As last year’s prolonged dry spell clearly demonstrated, many plantations for bananas, sweet potatoes and cassava were severely affected and now require fresh replanting.
Beyond the regularly traded seeds for legumes and cereals, farmers are finding challenges accessing planting materials for bananas, sweet potatoes and cassava, the three biggest staple foods after Maize.
A mini survey by this reporter into the few existing producers of tissue culture plantlets located in Wakiso, revealed that nearly all of them were experiencing stock-outs of planting materials for bananas.
Some analysts blame the weaknesses in the seed industry on the part of the government to be able to effectively plan, support and supervise the country’s seed system as the first step of ensuring the country’s food security.
Peter Wamboga Mugirya, the Communications Director at Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development (Scifode) argues that the Ministry of Agriculture’s weaknesses in planning and policing the seed industry, has left space for individuals and companies to distribute counterfeit seed.
“We need the function of seed quality and administration to be taken out of the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries, (MAAIF). As we speak now, inadequate quantities of seed and substandard seed quality are giving way for quark suppliers of seed. And as always, the farmer is the loser,” adds Wamboga.
A 2014 World Bank report titled The Political Economy of Seed Reform in Uganda, also paints a gloomy picture about limited access to quality seeds by an overwhelming majority of Ugandans, something authors cite as a major gap in the government’s ambition of lifting majority of small holder farmers out of poverty.
“Quality seed is the foundation stone of agricultural growth and, therefore, in Uganda, of broader economic growth. However, despite the apparent awareness of this and despite substantial donor assistance over many years, only 10-15 percent of farmers use improved seed and many of the seed
companies find it difficult to turn a profit,” the report’s authors say.
The overwhelming majority of farmers depending on the increasingly unreliable informal seed system suggests that the government is leaving the sector to chance. The old saying that you cannot manage what you cannot measure, means therefore that the government will find it harder to achieve its promises under the National Development Plan II of a lower middle income status by 2020, let alone the vision 2040.
The importance of improving access to affordable, high-yielding, reliable seed is made the more urgent by Uganda’s rapidly increasing demand for food due to fast population growth. Latest Census results show that population growth has been increasing twice as fast as the increase in food production, raising fears of increased incidences of hunger and higher food prices.
Wamboga argues that Uganda needs to borrow a leaf from Kenya where the government closely monitors the seed industry.
The current seed shortage as well as disease outbreaks, according to Wamboga, requires an emergency response, similar to how the government has been responding to outbreaks of animal diseases like Foot and Mouth Disease in cattle.
At a regional level, organisations like the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is trying to solve challenges faced by private seed companies to produce foundation seed as a way to boost access to quality seed across the continent.
Difficulties in producing foundation seed is considered one of the biggest challenges hampering access to quality seed.
Still, Qualibasic, the company that has been created to produce the foundation seed will leave many farmers for crops such as bananas, cassava and potatoes, unattended to and therefore still vulnerable to diseased seeds.