The Uganda president’s brother General Salim Saleh is spearheading Operation Wealth Creation, a nationwide programme to promote commercial farming. But aid agencies say the initiative has been beset by problems and that Gen Saleh has failed to deliver the results that were expected.
Against the clamour for more land to be handed to commercial farmers to feed Uganda’s exploding population, Bruce Robertson strikes a cautionary note. The Cambridge-educated Mr Robertson has been working in agriculture in Uganda since 1995 and warns that the rush to create big farms could backfire. Robertson, a South African whose Gulu Agricultural Development Company works with 90,000 small farmers in northern and eastern Uganda explained “ The large agriculture schemes that I have seen have not been successful. It is best to invest in smallholder farmers’ production.”
The primary reason commercial farming will have only a limited effect is that there simply is not enough arable land available, he says. Only 20 per cent of Ugandans live in towns and cities, meaning the rural areas are relatively well populated. “Where are all these large tracts of fertile land?” Mr Robertson asks. “If you do find some open land there’s probably a good reason nobody’s living there.” This is partly because much of the land is owned by communities and families, which means it is often unclear who has the right to sell property. Land claims and disputes have grown even more complicated after the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army rampaged through the region in the 1990s and early 2000s, killing 100,000 people and displacing 2.5m more, according to the UN. “If you work with these subsistence farmers and help them introduce better seeds and provide training, you will double food production,” says Mr Robertson. “That way you will create jobs rather than lose jobs, which happens with big commercial ventures.”
But agriculture is not held back by just a lack of available land. Uganda has a chronic lack of electrical power infrastructure, while inadequate transportation links also restrict efforts to increase crop yields and earn foreign currency.