For work, I often travel to the rural parts of Uganda. One common spectacle, especially for typically rural areas, is women tilling the land in the morning with children sound asleep on their backs and their very young children clinging to their skirts as if they are seeking refuge from their predicament.
This is a true depiction of Uganda’s demographic reality – women constitute 51% and children below 15 years constitute 48% of Uganda’s total population (with a 3.26% population growth rate). Women are also predominantly employed by agriculture at 76% compared to men at 62%.
Another common sight are the sparsely erected semi-permanent buildings acting as retail shops, a grinding mill or occasionally a clinic with several men, mostly young lounging around a board game or merely having a conversation. Vast lands of picturesque beauty lie untouched for miles until you come to the next town bustling with economic activity.
It is said that agriculture is the backbone of the country and the government has embarked on a rigorous drive to mechanize as one of the pillars of transformation and modernization of the economy. This is in a bid to increase agricultural exports and potentially increase the GDP of the country to which the sector contributes 21%. To promote the policy, the government provides financing to farmers who employ mechanization and produce on a large scale. Often castigating smallholder farmers for not being farsighted.
Mechanization in a lay man’s language is the broad term for the use of machinery in agriculture to increase farm work productivity. However, mechanization is and will continue to be a myth if alternative economic activities (non-agricultural) are not in place to absorb the redundant labor. Let’s revert to the women inferred to in the opening paragraph – it is common that livelihoods have been lost to machines and agriculture will not be an exception to the rule, so what becomes of these women? In an ideal situation, we could rejoice that women could be freed from the hazard of hard labor, now have more time for other economic activities as opposed to their nonpaid agricultural labor or spare time to go to school. The question remains, does this infrastructure exist in these rural areas to enable them to effectively participate?
Another consideration is the issue of land, which is economically, socially and politically volatile that it poses a difficult scenario for areas where mechanization would be possible. Therein lie issues of land tenure systems, land use and land ownership in Uganda. The complexity of land tenure systems poses a challenge relating to land rights and the government’s ability to secure them. The skepticism surrounding the idea of amalgamation of fragmented, yet individually (private) owned lands (to allow mechanization) is very much alive. And until the government guarantees transparency in land transactions, mechanization, at least in rural areas will remain a farfetched. The geographical terrain (rugged and hilly) of some lands that are fertile and with favorable weather but will continue to dent the government’s plan to effectively mechanize.
The nobility of governments intention to increase productivity through mechanization is an oxymoron considering the systemic exclusion of farmers. Access to credit – is limited to a few large scale commercial farmers the Agricultural credit facility for instance) and the non-affordability of mechanized equipment act as some of the biggest deterrents.
In addition, broken down infrastructure including roads to transport produce, often perishable is a common sight these days. The alternative of cash crops like coffee (Uganda’s leading agricultural export) doesn’t seem feasible for small holder farmers who’s daily livelihoods depend on the sale of surpluses. The market for produce is often not available and many farmers are left with the option of exploitative middlemen. The proliferation of improved species engineered to withstand various conditions and increase production is rife, yet little or no information is given to farmers, for them to make informed choices.
The imposition of non-indigenous crops in different geographical areas of the country as government policy through NAADS and Operation Wealth Creation has further exacerbated the problem. So, what incentivizes a farmer to produce on large scale let alone mechanize under such conditions?
It is without a doubt that mechanization is the future of agriculture as it increases production, efficiency and per man productivity among many other advantages. However, we should not kid ourselves by believing this is a suitable solution for Uganda, whose participants are largely impoverished small holder farmers.
Unless the government addresses critical binding constraints like the absence of alternative economic activities, complex land tenure systems and the systemic exclusion of farmers, mechanization will be a reserve for the elite.