Why efforts to make peasant farmers go commercial are unlikely to yield success
President Yoweri Museveni spent a week in Luwero District on Operation Wealth Creation. The president was teaching farmers to adopt modern farming techniques in order to increase their output and become commercial farmers. The actions of the president may have excited the affection of local people there but it was heavily derided on social media, today the most powerful medium of communication that has overtaken traditional media such as newspapers, radio and television. It seems everything Museveni does these days only attracts criticism from our elite.
I have always been intrigued at Museveni’s seeming disinterest in his own brand, which he has left almost entirely to his critics to shape. Just imagine if Hillary Clinton left the narrative around her candidature to Donald Trump and his supporters. Yet all most of the criticism of the president’s pictures pushing a bicycle with water did not address the policy implications of his actions, leave alone the politics, which I think was the driving motive.
I suspect Museveni’s aim was primarily political, seeking to identify himself with ordinary people by projecting himself as the champion of their interests by appearing and acting to be like them. This may be politically functional but I hope he does not see it as a strategy for rural transformation. Yet having watched him in many districts, I suspect Museveni believes that he can transform rural livelihoods by teaching farmers modern farming techniques.
It is true that the president’s efforts can increase the incomes of a few peasants who are exceptional. Indeed many peasants have become prosperous as anyone who has travelled through rural Western Uganda and seen their homes and cars can attest. But these efforts, even if they were to be institutionalised, cannot transform the lives of the majority or the structures of Uganda’s economy.
The problem with contemporary efforts at fighting poverty has been doing things directly for poor people – paying their children’s fees, picking their medical bills, giving them farm implements, fertilisers and improved seeds for free. The most effective tools are those that are indirect and tend to instigate, stimulate, activate, or precipitate change. For instance, by supporting the growth of downstream industries like fruit or food processing, one can precipitate the growth of a robust commercial agricultural sector where extension services are done by the private sector.
In northern Uganda Mukwano Industries helps farmers produce sun seed used to make vegetable oil; in Kalangala BIDCO helps farmers make money from oil palm; BAT previously played a key role among tobacco farmers. In all these cases, these private companies negotiate contracts to purchase farmers produce and then give them loans to buy farm implements, fertiliser and improved seed. In 2005, Mukwano was paying only about Shs 5 billion to farmers for their sun seeds. By 2010, it had grown to Shs 36 billion.
There is always a risk when governments help farmers increase their output without a corresponding effort to create markets. When successful, such efforts bring farmers to grief as prices collapse, thereby discouraging them from producing the same crop the next season. However, by finding or negotiating export markets, government efforts to increase agricultural production can be successful. Yet even with export markets, the challenge is to make farmers’ output meet certain quality and product standards.
Across time and space, “experts” have tried to make farmers go commercial by encouraging them to produce one variety of crops. Success has been scanty because peasants engage in agriculture primary to produce enough food for their family consumption. They only do commercial production when they have achieved what James Scott in his classic, The Moral Economy of the Peasant, calls “subsistence security.” Treating a peasant as a Schumpeterian entrepreneur misses his existential dilemma.
Peasant agriculture is heavily reliant on nature. However, nature is capricious; a flood, a storm, a disease or a prolonged draught can destroy a peasant’s entire produce or livestock. The vagaries of weather have across time and space fostered the adoption of particular technical arrangements like planting techniques, seed varieties and timing. When “experts” come from the city asking peasants to change these tried and tested ways of ensuring subsistence security, their advice falls on deaf ears. Simply put, a peasant household has little scope for profit maximisation that is taught in economics classes.
The most effective way to transform agriculture is to have a strategy that attracts excess labour out of agriculture to industry. In nearly all transforming countries, this has been through the growth of manufacturing. This has a secondary transformative effect i.e. the movement of people from rural to urban areas. Once a country’s urban population expands rapidly, the demand for food, and hence the price of crops, increases. This is what makes agriculture profitable by inducing entrepreneurs to venture into rural areas to invest in agriculture thereby allowing commercial relations and profit maximisation to penetrate agrarian relations.
This process need not be exactly like what was witnessed in Europe, especially England, where peasants were forcefully displaced from land through the Enclosure Movement. However the impetus for commercial agriculture cannot be sustained when every peasant owns his/her own land and gets involved in agriculture primarily to meet his/her subsistence needs. This is because in such circumstances, the market is a secondary, not primary, aim of farming.
Studies of peasant agriculture from 19th Century France, Italy and Russia, from 20th Century Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and across Africa show the resilience of these peasant mores in the face of elite attempts to “advise” them to do commercial agriculture. Because the vagaries of nature pose a continuous risk to peasant survival, peasants are very risk averse. So they tend to prefer crops that can be eaten over crops that can be sold. They are more inclined to plant several seed varieties in order to spread the risk, and they prefer seed varieties that ensure stable even though modest yields.
This has been the challenge of agronomists, politicians and other experts who have sought to induce peasants to go commercial. Without understanding the challenge of subsistence security, experts have expended their voices in fruitless exhortations about the value and virtue of commercial agriculture. Museveni has presided over very impressive rates of economic growth by historic standards globally. But Uganda has not transformed from a peasant to an industrial society. Why? It is because Uganda, like Africa (except Ethiopia lately) has not found a way to grow manufacturing.