Do not misread public opinion on land giveaways

One Sunday early this year, I picked up a passenger to introduce him to a young active agriculture professional in Namulonge.

My passenger is my mentor and life coach and we had a lot to talk about as we navigated the roads from his residence in Muyenga to Namulonge. A lawyer by day, he sought to venture into growing coffee in Mityana District.

The little car soon pulled up outside Namulonge. We started driving up the hill. My friend, whose daytime job requires him to be poised and reserved, was taken aback by Namulonge taking in all things I take for granted (I am a regular visitor on this hill).

We drove past the fruit trees to the centre of the agricultural research station. We drove past the residences I showed him the one where the late Dr Israel Kibirige Ssebunnya used to live.

It was in his compound that I received banana suckers from a friend I had met at university, his son Philip nearly 20 years ago.

We walked past a Korean modified indoor farming experiment. The Koreans, who alongside the Japanese, farm the most unforgiving land, have devised an experiment where the soil is covered with a carpet to conserve moisture. The neat plots are separated by various fencing options. We turned into a 50-year-old coffee plantation.

One appreciates the evolution of the coffee tree from this point. The trees we have today look very different from the coffee planted at the onset of the coffee boom in the 1960s.

Uganda has not yet attained the peak production of the 1960s.

As we turned to load our car with more coffee seedlings and fruit trees, I mentioned an innocuous comment to my friend: Namulonge had already lost a lot of land to encroachers but the vast core would soon come under threat from the managers of public land.

It is a known fact that agriculture – big and small – is mildly profitable at best. Subsistence and cash crop agriculture only turns cash-flow positive for different reasons.

It is a major source of food and at the household level, relies on free labour. This labour is exempt from most forms of taxes and obviously does not have any payroll taxes.

Medium to big agriculture survives at the mercy of free or subsidised inputs and protected markets. Cash-rich agricultural markets like the EU and North America ferociously protect their farmers whose activities conserve the land in return for heavy regulation of what they do.

All major policies in the agricultural sector, from the most recent Naads and their predecessors, fail because they can’t touch cost.

For exporters of the Sudhir Ruparelia category, the story is the same. Mr Ruparelia entered the cut-flower business exploiting a capitalist opportunity that major flower farmers could not cope or their loans simply went under.

There are many rich and probably wiser ex-flower farmers who were lucky to liquidate before they went completely under. Major loans like Dr Samson Kisekka’s Shs1.6 billion loan to grow cut-flowers in the 1990s and others went down the same path.

To survive, smart businessmen like Mr Ruparelia realise its much better applying for free land and other goodies than investing their own money.

At the current aviation costs driven in part by lack of an airline and high cost of aviation fuel, most exporters make pennies on the dollar when they airlift agricultural produce.
So both popular agriculture and big agriculture are simply different sides of the same story.

But giveaways of any sort are popular. Just like you see peasants in the villages dancing when free seedlings are being distributed at the “grassroots” it is the same glee that the rich people have when they wrestle free goodies from the State. It is always nice to have roast beef from the neighbour’s kraal.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law