Uganda’s agriculture, which accounts for 46% of total exports from the country and employs 70% of the total workforce, is dominated by small-scale farmers. In light of this, it is only natural for the government to be supportive of this sector, more so, the small-scale farmers. However, as  JANE NALUNGA expounds, this is far from the truth. 

It is an undisputed fact that in Uganda, as in many countries in Africa, the agriculture sector has been and still remains the mainstay of the economy with over 70 per cent of the working population engaged in agricultural activity.  The sector contributes about 22.5 per cent of total GDP; although this figure has been fluctuating depending on the fortunes and misfortunes of the sector.  Uganda’s major exports are primary agricultural products which have been accounting for about 46 per cent of total exports.  The sector   also provides raw materials for most of the agro industries. Needless to say, it also provides the food that is eaten not only by Ugandans but in neighbouring countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and South Sudan. In fact Uganda is regarded as a food basket in the Eastern African region, given the potential of the small-scale farmers to produce a variety of nutritious food and in large quantities throughout the year.

Uganda’s agriculture is subsistence in nature, rain-fed and dominated by small-scale farmers who mainly use rudimentary implements like hoes. The women provide almost 80% of the labour as they are the ones who till the land, plant, weed and harvest; with the men taking over when it comes to marketing. Therefore, if agriculture is the backbone of Uganda’s economy, and the main source of livelihood especially for the rural areas, then the women small-scale farmers are carrying this country on their back.

One would expect a lot of government support to this sector given its immense contribution to Uganda’s economy and development. On the contrary many government policies and practices have not been very supportive.  The policy framework has been very hostile to the agriculture sector in general and to the small-scale farmers (SSFs) in particular, thus making their very existence untenable. (In fact the policies and practices are out to uproot the SSFs as indicated in the drawing).

The sector has, over time, experienced limited budgetary allocations i.e. less than 4% of the total budget. In the financial year 2013/2014 it was a mere 3.13% despite the Maputo Declaration where African leaders committed to allocate at least 10% of the national budget to the agriculture sector.  In the 1980s, the government introduced and started implementing a number of agriculture related policy reforms within the framework of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). These have included liberalisation of agricultural input trade, liquidation of cooperatives, domestic and export produce marketing and processing, and drastic reduction of extension services. Government also liberalised internal and external trade intended to allow the market, rather than the government, to direct resource allocation and determine prices of inputs and outputs. For example, the issue of minimum prices was abolished and left to the vagaries of the market.

The most recent and pernicious policy and policy proposals have been those related to seed. In agriculture, seed is an indispensable asset and for generations, farmers have depended on the different kinds of seed which they save and share to successfully produce food and feed the world.  Seed goes beyond just food to culture and to the very foundation of agriculture. He who controls seed controls the people.

In spite of the recognition of the centrality of seed to the agricultural sector and the importance of ensuring the control of seeds by the small-scale farmers, a policy disconnect continues to manifest with the growing forces which seek to obtain monopoly rights and control over seed among other valuable community biological resources, knowledge and markets. These forces, which are fronted mainly by multinational seed companies like Monsanto, have moved to influence different policy frameworks at national, regional and global levels.

The various seed and agriculture related legislations, some of which have either already been adopted into law or are being debated; disregard the inalienable rights of small-holder farmers. Such policy frameworks include, among others, the Plant Variety Protection Act 2014 which fully grants exclusive rights to private breeders over their seed varieties and ignores farmers’ and communities’ rights to seed; and the Uganda National Bio-safety and Biotechnology Bill 2012 which seeks to, among other things, promote the development and usage of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Beyond Uganda, other policies include the recently adopted African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) Arusha Protocol for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. This Protocol also ignores the role of small-scale farmers’ varieties in plant breeding. Furthermore, at the sub-regional level, and more specifically, within the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to which Uganda is a member, a draft harmonised seed trade law that aims at harmonising seed trade systems in the region is underway. The proposed law intends to criminalise the trade in indigenous and conventionally improved varieties that are commonly used by the small-scale farmers.

The Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Uganda and beyond have rallied with the small-scale farmers to fight this onslaught on farmers’ rights to seed. In Uganda CSOs under the Food Rights Alliance (FRA) continue to mobilise farmers and other stakeholders, build platforms for stakeholders’ and policy makers’ dialogue, capacity building on critical issues and advocacy against the oppressive seed and agriculture related policies. CSOs are using various advocacy tools including Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials (petitions, position papers, litigation and statements) and the mass media to influence policy makers and to bring as many people on board as possible.  These efforts have borne many successes including the increased awareness about the importance of farmers’ rights to seed to Uganda’s agricultural sector. The controversial Uganda National Bio-safety and Biotechnology Bill 2012 has not been passed though it has been in Parliament since 2009.  The struggle for farmers’ rights to seed is a struggle for our very existence as Ugandans, as Africans; and this struggle should continue.

Our seed, our food, our future.

Aluta Continua!

Jane Nalunga – Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI- Uganda)