Cooperatives are sighted as one of the solutions to unemployment countrywide but the debate on how effectively they can be run is one which got academics, technocrats, politicians and farmers talking at a High Level Policy Dialogue on Agricultural Transformation in Uganda.
This was held under theme, “Revitalising Cooperatives for ‘Smart’ Agriculture and Structural Socio-economic Transformation’.
Prof Julius Kiiza, a lecturer at Makerere University and consultant with UN Development Programme (UNDP), in his presentation, said that cooperatives still have a place in Uganda if they can be rebranded, re-imaged and re-oriented.
He argued thus: “The discourse of socio-economic transformation in Uganda is narrow and misleading. The focus is on getting peasants to produce for the market, and lifting people out of poverty and important deliverables have been realised.
Important as it is, the current discourse leaves a lot be desired for example we are talking structural transformation with no radical change in agricultural technology. Our farmers still use the primitive hand hoe that they were using in the pre-colonial era.”
Prof Kiiza described cooperatives as social enterprises, not private sector actors, and therefore driven by inclusive development and progress of participatory involvement through member-owned institutions.
His remarks were in his presentation titled, Re-engineering cooperatives into enablers of agricultural transformation in Uganda.
In her opening remarks UNDP’s country director, Almaz Gebru, said the dialogue is the start in a series of interactive discussions that UNDP will be hosting in collaboration with government and other partners.
The aim is to raise awareness, share and disseminate knowledge, as well as best practice on a multiplicity of policy issues.
“We are convinced this will strengthen government’s development efforts across sectors,” she said emphasising that the agricultural sector is one of three key priority development areas in the second National Development Plan.
However, Gebru observed that over the past two decades, the performance of the sector has declined, with growth rates of less than three percent, compared to over five percent in the mid-1990s.
This implies that more than half of the population is not only progressing slowly, but is also contributing less to economic growth. “This raises the important question of how we can harness the efforts of our predominantly rural population to do agriculture more smartly, and harvest more economic and social benefits,” she argued.
Gebru said United Nations values cooperatives as a key people-centred approach to development. Globally, UN agencies have provided technical support to governments in developing and institutionalising cooperatives.
In Uganda, UNDP’s support to the Development of Inclusive Markets in Agriculture and Trade has enabled vulnerable segments of the population to actively participate in agricultural value-chains, mainly targeting cassava, rice and bean commodities.
In his account of leading Bugisu Cooperative Union, legislator Nandala Magabi recommended that political interference in the running of the cooperative led to its indebtedness, which was not the case when he led it.
“We need to have transparency, good governance and that is how Bugisu Cooperative Union has survived through the times,” he added.
Lauben Baingana, of Banyankore Kweterana Cooperative Union, could not agree more. He told of the losses the cooperative suffered when the National Resistance Army (NRA) forces destroyed assets of the cooperative during the war. These included buildings and vehicles.
Minister for Trade and Industry, Amelia Kyambadde, who was chief guest, pointed out that there was need for value addition in the agriculture sector. “Cooperatives play a major role in promoting a savings culture and financial inclusion, delivering quality and timely inputs to farmers and enhancing the bargaining power of small scale producers to access lucrative markets,” she said.
In addition, she observed that farmers and communities had lost trust and confidence in cooperatives. The onus was therefore upon major cooperative players to re-instil this confidence.
On his part, Tress Buchanayandi, minister of Agriculture, said government had the objective of seeing that a farmer earns Shs20m per year. He cited examples of the palm oil project in Kalangala and farmers in the Kigezi region.