It’s not too late designer peasants can still make Uganda very rich

Uganda is in campaign mode, clearly, with party congresses and elections, and President Yoweri Museveni appearing on talk shows and canvassing around the country.
In the past, candidates have not flogged the issues, choosing to play up emotions and attack and burn opponents. But in case any of them is interested, one source to look for insights that can really make a difference is in the reports of the Africa Progress Panel.
A colleague, Twitter:@chris_mungai, likes to delve into these reports, and pull out the gems hidden in the dense text. A recent one that looked at African agriculture is particularly relevant to Uganda.
Once she was done, she researched more into some of the matters flagged by the report, and her story is one for the ages. It would be remiss of me not to share it.
The point the Africa Progress Panel report makes is that while African cities are growing (more than 50 per cent of Africans will live in cities by 2030), and they are getting richer, our farmers will not benefit by selling food to these future big cities. One reason is that in most places in Africa, productivity on the farms remains low, and is even declining.
African cities (and nations for that matter) spend vast amounts on food imports – in 2011, they spent $35 billion on food imports. The amount of that that was imported from other African countries was only a miserable 5 per cent.
Just 14 years ago, Africa exported more food than it imported. Today, the picture is different it imports far more than it produces. Thus West Africa accounts for 20 per cent of global rice imports, with Nigeria’s rice importation bill alone standing at more than $2 billion per year. Rice production levels in Nigeria have remained the same since 1990, so rice imports have been growing at a rate of 11 per cent a year to fill the gap.
My colleague, however, found that you can’t blame Africa for all the problems. History must also be ostracised. One reason is that because we are the cradle of mankind, there is a penalty we are paying – Africa’s soils are among the oldest in the world, because the continent has been stable geologically for much longer than the rest of the world – with a few exceptions in the east and central African Rift Valley system.
As a result, African soils have been subjected to weathering and erosion for longer.
All is not lost, Mother Africa still gains something from soil erosion because it benefits Egypt. This because equally important for Egypt’s survival has been the rich soil that the river’s flow would deposit on the banks of the Nile, stripped from the Ethiopian highlands by torrential rainfall and carried by the Blue Nile. You could argue that Egypt needs soil erosion to happen upstream of the Nile!
Egypt’s boon aside, some accounts suggest that as much as 65 per cent of arable land in Africa has been damaged. Scary stuff.
The numbers are staggering. In sub-Saharan Africa, the economic loss of land degradation is estimated at $68 billion per year.
In Ethiopia, the annual losses from land degradation reach an estimated 4 per cent of GDP, and in Malawi the costs could be as high as 11 per cent of GDP.
And, says the Africa Progress Panel, as if that is not bad enough, it is difficult to get the little produced to market because of bad roads and Stone Age distribution networks (that is me, not Africa Progress Panel, using the word Stone Age).
The trucking mafia and middle men have captured distribution, to drive up profit margins that the Panel says are “exceptionally high”, particularly in Central and West Africa where these cartels help maintain profits at 60 per cent–160 per cent.
One result is that imported food is often cheaper. One of the most heartening things the Panel says is that if governments are bold enough to take on the cartels, the benefits to the people and economies are massive.
Thus when Rwanda reformed its trucking rules in the mid-1990s, prices fell by 75 per cent in real terms!
Things like ensuring that corrupt traffic cops don’t steal from truckers shaking up rules about the tonnage of lorries and taxes on them insisting that farm produce shall be sold by auction at markets and banning the middlemen who hover around places like Nakasero Market could cause a near-economic revolution in Uganda.
Prices of food would drop, inflation would come down further, demand for food would increase and farmers would move incredible volumes, and Museveni will find out that if he had done these kinds of things, and not set up a patronage-laden Naads, he would have won all his past elections without having to fiddle the vote or getting Kalangala Action Plan to cane the electorate.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail and Guardian AFRICA ( Twitter:@cobbo3

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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