Gone are the days when farming was a pass time, a way of life, a by the way and the business of the unfortunate rural folk. Initially observing from the 2010 Ministry of Tourism Trade and Industry (MTTI), Uganda Commodity Exchange (UCE), I-Network and farmer cooperatives meeting in Kasese, I-Network’s Okoti Boroa noted that farmers had to be sensitised and shown the urgency of moving away from basic subsistence farming to knowledge-based commercial farming systems or face extinction.
One of the oldest businesses on earth has become more appealing even to the youth in the information age – interesting and there is indeed a very significant connection between information and communication technology (ICT) for agriculture like there is in many other disciplines. It will become apparent as well that any one engaging in agriculture will have to understand the value chain in its entirety so as to reap from the activity.
Yes, extinction. Many readers may find this statement quite radical, but, yes if we sustain peasant thinking, as other people in the sector state, we will soon be labourers on large scale commercial farmers’ land and return to the age of the real ‘royal’ estate owner and the guess who? By the time a farmer is convinced to hire out his land for 25 years to grow one cash generating crop at today’s rates, what are the chances that it will be profitable for all the 25 years, if the idea is workable at all. Using the analogy of real estate, rates hardly remain the same for two years and this is in less active areas. Farmers acting out of ignorance will soon become squatters on their land.
It is therefore important for poor farmers to learn to empower their cooperative unions for collective bargaining and keep their primary asset land as well as own a larger section of the value chain.
While organisations like UCE and the collaborating banks work harder to resolve farmers’ short-term cash flow problems; farmers should become more curious of the trends of consumption, costs of production, storage/bulking as well as marketing costs, so as to determine the possible ranges of pricing for their produce when it is ready for sale.
The curiosity will save farmers from total dependence on the predator – otherwise known as big men (businesses) - that take advantage of their ignorance. Currently it is uncommon for the farmer/producer to remain the poorer in the chain while the big men easily enrich themselves and create squatters within their ‘perceived’ property given that it is probably rented or leased for 25 years.
Farmers must apply knowledge and collective power (cooperatives) to bargain for a good place in society. Unfortunately, it is the novices like me who are crying more than the ‘bereaved’ or almost squatter status farmers. The era of ICT has come with many sources of information as well as distractions, therefore, farmers through cooperatives or such groups must create functions to screen information and repackage it for their use in their respective localities.
Information such as climate changes, inputs and materials pricing, variety of crop or animal, viability of enterprise and many other types, need to be determined early enough for planning purposes. Commercial farmers no longer have the luxury of not wanting to study the interests of their targeted market in terms of consumption habits, types of packaging the consumers like, quantities, etc.
Some NGOs are slowly succeeding in providing farmers with timely and relevant information for decision-making using a unique methodology that introduces the use of community information centres (CICs) for research, information collection and sorting as well as processing and dissemination.
The centres work well with high level farmer groups or cooperatives and model farmers to make farmers understand the power of using information in decision-making, right from the stage of enterprise selection or even earlier. A model of sustainability is now being studied so that these CICs may become part of the agricultural system.
If the farmers own up, the CIC facilitate the monitoring of production, extension services and market trends. A good example of consumer influenced production is that of oil; the producers of vegetable oils from palm, sunflower and cotton for instance, have quickly gone into large scale production largely selling the advantage of vegetable oils over animal fats because consumers have been convinced that vegetable oils are healthier.
ICT, therefore, plays a central role in building the knowledge-base even before production, thereafter farmers may use the same tools to keep records of expenses so as to be able to analyse the profitability of the business through comparison of costs and revenues in future. Through well-developed plans and records, farmers may be able to estimate how much they will produce and prepare for storage and bulking way in advance. They can then go to the market with a clear picture of what they will supply and then discuss price.
Using several tools in combination, the cooperative or group may be able to (using their CIC) process various required forms of information for the researchers, buyers, government, suppliers among others on one side and producers, sellers and support people on the other side. It is also clear that price information is critical and can quickly be accessed using some of the faster tools like the web, radio and short message service (SMS).
Challenges faced by farmers in utilising information cannot, however, be ignored and must be addressed. Many of them are very small farmers and the quantities they independently produce may not necessitate a detailed search and analysis of information. Research currently shows that these farming entities need to combine their efforts for the information to become useful or sensible to the individual farmers. This situation only reinforces the fact that cooperating or grouping will be imperative for survival.
Many of these small holder farmers have cash flow problems that if not addressed may make it difficult to discuss upscaling of methodology. The continued or growing intervention of government and financial institutions is also crucial in creating sustainable growth in the sector.
In addition to the high-level of ignorance among farmers and limited ability to consume information, there is the serious concern of attitude towards change. Change has been an inherent human challenge since the beginning of time that it sometimes gets ignored. However, using knowledge and information to practically set-up a model farm or garden on a smaller scale may be the way to convince the farmers to change.
It is therefore my opinion that it will be very unwise for the majority of Ugandans who are the rural poor to continue speculative subsistence farming in light of knowledge based commercial farming. MTTI, UCE and I-Network, RICNET and Cooperatives will continue to seek methods to sensitise, train and facilitate change in farming however this needs a collective effort for the livelihood of all Ugandans.
- Okuti Boroa is livelihoods consultant at I-Network.