Tradition, Biofuel and Famine in Uganda

  • Published on July 23rd, 2009

coffee bean sorting

Traditional farming is about to make a come-back across Uganda, according the country’s Agriculture Minister, Hope Mwesigye. Traditionally, Ugandan’s rich soil and fairly abundant rainfall allowed farmers to grow a range of staple foods, from plantains, cassava and sweet potatoes through to grains like millet, sorghum and corn as well as beans, and groundnuts.

Since the 1980s, the major cash crop in Uganda has been coffee, closely followed by tobacco, and then tea and cotton, although the ‘70s and ‘80s saw collapses in the infrastructure which meant that cotton and tea in particular lost their markets and farmers started to sell their staple crops for cash in regional and local markets instead.

Diversification was the message of the 1990s and many non-traditional exports were attempted, supported by the World Bank and the Ugandan Development Bank. So why now does the government want to return to traditional farming practices?

Exports continue as people die of hunger

Famine is the answer.  Mwesigye said that she regretted the fact that Ugandan citizens are still dying of hunger in a country that has enough crops to export to other parts of Africa. New national laws may be imposed that require every household to grow its own root crops such as cassava and sweet potatoes. Some districts have already made the growing of cassava mandatory, and insist that farmers grow 100 plants each season. The Agriculture Ministry is putting aside money to enable farmers to buy seed, on the basis that the law will be passed. The crops in question are those that deliver food security, which means they can be grown in a wide range of conditions, store well and can allow a farmer to keep his farm and family going until the next season, when new crops can be planted. So as well as cassava, the law may allow the growing of sweet potatoes, millet, beans, soybeans and sorghum. Penalties for those who don’t follow the rules have yet to be decided. The Minister said that she didn’t want to, ‘… punish people for not growing food because even in prison, they will be fed on food. So they will be sentenced to community service.’

One problem that the Ministry faces is the diverting of funding. Mwesigye admitted that much of the money given to district administrations to support farmers in growing more food crops has been diverted to other areas of work, or simply disappeared, which is one reason the Ministry wants to have a central system of funding management to address the growing famine. Of the eighty Ugandan districts, at least fifteen are currently classed as experiencing famine.

Biofuel and fossil fuel policy could shape Uganda’s future

And while famine continues, Ugandan researchers, working with an international team, have begun to explore the production of bioethanol from non-food crops. The National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) has tested elephant grass and softwoods as well as cassava waste, to see if these cellulose based materials can be used to produce ethanol. It’s an important development, because such cellulose based crops cannot be digested by humans (although elephant grass is eaten by livestock, and cassava waste is fed to domestic animals) and so there isn’t the fear that biofuel production could divert food crops from tables to biofuel production. The idea is to combine biofuel research with the exploitation of Uganda’s fossil fuel reserve and to create policies that insist that oil companies blend extracted oil with biofuel, giving Uganda’s oil reserves a longer life and ensuring that a viable biofuel industry develops within the country to reduce carbon emissions and support local infrastructure. It is hoped to have the first cellulose based biofuel in production within 12 months.

Women hand-sorting coffee beans in Uganda courtesy of sarahemcc at Flickr under a creative commons licence

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