To revitalise agriculture as an engine of Uganda’s development, the government must revive cooperatives and the cooperative bank, stakeholders said last week.
But during a public dialogue organized by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the experts in different fields voiced concerns that President Museveni’s government actually fears the cooperative movement.
“The only way to end poverty in Uganda and have inclusive development is through revitalizing cooperatives,” said Nathan Nandala-Mafabi, chairman of Bugisu Cooperative Union (BCU), arguably the biggest surviving union in the country.
The high-level dialogue at Golf Course hotel in Kampala was held under the theme: “Revitalizing Cooperatives for ‘Smart’ Agriculture and Structural Social-Economic Transformation.”
Cooperative societies and unions were born in early 1930s to counter the exploitation of African farmers by European and Asian companies that had dominated coffee and cotton markets.
By independence, cooperatives had become one of the most organized movements in the country, helping to mobilise farmers, cushion them against price fluctuations, and optimize their revenues. But they weakened during the Idi Amin regime and finally collapsed under Museveni’s watch. Some critics believe that Museveni deliberately killed the cooperatives because he saw them as a potential centre of political power.
Citing the National Development Plan (NDP II), UNDP country director Almaz Gebru said Uganda is looking at agriculture, tourism and minerals as the key drivers growth and transformation, adding: “Cooperatives have a high potential to eradicate poverty and promote inclusive growth.”
Several other speakers, including Lenard Msemakweli, the general of Uganda Cooperative Alliance (UCA), and Geoffrey Baingana, the chairman BanyankoreKweterana Cooperative Union, agreed that cooperatives were a great idea that was simply killed or deliberately allowed to die.
To illustrate how strong cooperatives were,Mafabi said the Bugisu union, which started with coffee in 1954, soon diversified into other sectors.
“In fact, Bugisu Cooperative Union owns almost half of Mbale town. It contributed the initial capital to start the Uganda Cooperative Bank” Mafabi said.
Amelia Kyambadde, the minister for Trade, Industry and Cooperatives, who presided over the opening session, said the collapse of the cooperatives hurt farmers a lot. Farmers, she said, had since lost trust in cooperatives and they needed to be rebranded to win the trust back.
Other speakers included Makerere University political economist Julius Kiiza and the Netherlands ambassador to Uganda AlphonsHennekens. Both painted a vision of a prosperous, mechanized, cooperatives-driven agricultural sector, with only a small percentage of the population, as opposed to the current mass of millions of subsistence farmers.
Hennekens, for instance, pointed out that having only four per cent of her population in farming has not prevented Netherlands from being a leading exporter of agricultural products in the world.
“Cooperatives are social enterprises. Any sensible government should support them until they become competitive. The state cannot fold hands and say let the market decide,” Dr Kiiza said.
Participants also urged the government to revive the cooperative bank as a vehicle of agricultural financing, a view that was supported by Minister Kyambadde.
“It is difficult to access credit by farmers. So, cooperative bank is where the future is. You cannot go straight to a bank, when you do not have a saving culture. SACCOs is a vehicle for the cooperative bank,” she said.
Whereas stakeholders want cooperatives revitalized, but is government willing? Victoria Ssekitoleko, a former minister of agriculture and now chairperson of Uganda Agribusiness Alliance said: “The political leadership is not interested in cooperatives because the more you get organized you become more complicated to govern.”
However, Tress Bucyanayandi, the minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, agreed that cooperatives should be organic, although, tellingly, he warned that they should not engage in politics.