How politics, not the drought, explains the current famine our country is experiencing
According a report by the government of Uganda last week nearly 11 million people in this country do not have enough food to eat. I have concerns with the way the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) calculates growth in agriculture. I also have queries on how they ask people the meals they have in a day. I will return to these concerns later in this article.
There has been a drought in the country. This has been followed by famine. Practically everyone thinks the famine has been caused by the drought. Yet droughts do not cause famine. Politics or public policy does. Dubai is a desert where they do not even grow food yet they have never had a famine. Why?
A drought is a natural phenomenon characterised by insufficient rainfall leading to shortage of water. Famine is a social phenomenon characterised by food shortage leading to hunger and starvation. The transition from drought to famine is mediated by political institutions and public policies surrounding the relationship between rainfall and food supply. How?
If our institutions and policies worked, we would have invested in irrigation (so droughts would not hurt as much) or there would be a lot of food imported. America has had a drought for almost eight years without any shortage in food supply. Also the Ministry of Agriculture would have had programs for food storage both at the household level (families to have granaries) and at the national level (government to own storage facilities and buy food when there is plenty and sell when there is scarcity).
The point is that over the last 30 years, the government of President Yoweri Museveni has done very well in certain sectors of our economy – where ironically critics claim it has failed. But it has been abysmal in agriculture, where critics are incoherent. For example, while over the last 30 years growth in manufacturing has averaged 9.8% and services 7.1%, agriculture has averaged 3.33%. Because population growth has averaged 3.12%, per capita growth in agriculture has been 0.21%.
The situation in agriculture is even more worrying because according to the 2014 Housing and Population Census, 80% of Ugandans are involved in agriculture; 69% rely on subsistence farming as their main source of livelihood. This means that most growth over the last 30 years has concentrated income in urban areas where manufacturing and most services take place. Indeed, today agriculture contributes only 22% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), meaning that 20% of the population takes 78% of income; 80% earn only 22% of this income.
Secondly, over the last 30 years Uganda has realised no productivity growth in agriculture. By productivity I mean output per unit factor input i.e. one acre of land should produce more maize; one seed should bear more kilograms of the crop and one person should cultivate more land per hour. In Netherlands, for example, one acre of land produces 13,000kg of maize. In Uganda one acre produces 800kg. To realise productivity gains to equal the Netherlands, Ugandans have to apply modern technology: use irrigation, fertilisers, improved seed (which are high yielding and fast maturing) and apply tractors and combine-harvesters.
For the last 30 years there has been little or no application of modern technology in agriculture. Thus we have few places where they use irrigation; use of fertilizers is even below Sub Sahara African standards, there has been minimum application of tractors and combine harvesters (so post-harvest losses are very high), we have very low adoption of improved seed varieties which are fast maturing and high yielding.
Thus, growth in agriculture in Uganda has been sluggish precisely because it is driven by increasing the number of hands using the hoe, lengthening the time spent digging in the garden and increasing the acreage of land under cultivation.
If Uganda does not apply more technology to farming, our agriculture will at some point hit a cul de sac. This is because long term growth can only be achieved through technological change. And if we are not careful, oil money will make our agriculture worse.
What is frustrating about Uganda is the huge gulf between the scale of our challenges and the pettiness of the politics. Museveni personally and his government generally have adopted a very retrogressive political approach towards agriculture. Ironically, their approach is shared by the opposition. How does NRM (and the opposition) win rural votes? By giving patronage from above (small gifts or bribes to peasants), welfare dividends in form of poorly resourced universal primary and secondary education, basic healthcare, and tax relief by abolishing graduated taxes.
It is true there are state programs to give farmers farm implements (like hoes) and to give them seedlings, pigs, cows and goats. There are also attempts to provide agricultural extension services. But even these are done haphazardly. There is no organisation of farmers into cooperatives to make these the institutional voices of their interests. Add this to the land tenure system and you have a toxic combination of adverse incentives for investment in agriculture. But listen to our politicians on both sides of the aisle, read our venerated columnists and listen to our pundits. There is hardly any serious debate on how to transform agriculture.
There is a minor problem with UBOS statistics. If average per capita growth in agriculture has been near zero for 30 years, there would have been widespread hunger in Uganda or large scale importation of food. Yet Uganda is a net food exporter. And if all the growth of the last 30 years had concentrated income in the top 20%, Uganda’s Gini Coefficient would have been bad. At 0.395, it is among the best in Africa. Ugandans eat haphazardly – a mango here, roasted maize or cassava there – as they walk around and do their work but do not consider these as meals. Therefore, when you ask them how many meals they had, the answer may not accurately reflect the reality of their food intake.
Yet in spite of these observations it is obvious agriculture has grown little. Uganda, which has enjoyed growth almost as fast as Vietnam, has been less successful at eliminating poverty. This is because Vietnam’s growth is driven by manufacturing which creates large scale low skill jobs. It also draws excess labour out of agriculture, making investment in the sector profitable and thereby inducing commercial relations to penetrate agrarian structures. But listen to our politicians both in government and the opposition and tell me whether they ever discuss such issues!