The Breadbasket Paradox in Southwestern Uganda

Over 80% of Ugandans are involved in agriculture.

Over 80% of Ugandans are involved in agriculture.

My first couple of weeks in Uganda have provided ample food for thought.

I’m living in the town-centre (and district) of Kabale, which is located in the southwestern part of the country that borders with Rwanda to the south. It’s a long way from the capital city – nearly nine hours on the bus – moving and meandering along the skinny highway, slumbering slowly through road construction, and shifting gears for the road going up, up into the steep hills of Kigezi.

From Kampala to Kabale, the view from the bus window frames just a fraction of the narrative: that the majority of Ugandans (over 80%) dwell in the rural countryside, and eke an living out of the food they grow as small-farmers. I saw their figures in the distance, blurs of bright moving colours – yellow, orange, lime green – mostly women, throwing the efuka (hoe) back over their shoulders and down into the land they were clearing. They worked together on the patchwork quilt of plots to move earth. On one plot there was upwards of thirty women, working in long row, swinging their tools in and out of tandem.

Cultural inheritance has led to many small plots of land.

Cultural inheritance has led to many small plots of land.

The geography left me awestruck. Hills, valleys, streams and moist low-lands: a Mecca of a thousand micro-climates – diverse conditions of light/shade, temperature, air-flow, soils and moisture necessary for growing potential for a plethora of crops. I saw it all along the stretch of nine hours and counted off on my fingers. Low, flat stretches of papyrus (crop used for textiles), fruit trees filled with avocados and mangoes nearly engulfing homes, vast stands of matoke (plantains) and bananas, fields of vegetables terraced into the hillsides, the corn nearly ready for harvest, evidence of export crops like coffee and tea. There was sugarcane, king grass for animal fodder, and grains like millet, and sorghum spread out to dry in front of people’s homes. I spotted cattle, and goats grazing, chicken crossings, bleating sheep…With two rainy seasons throughout the year, and enough sun to produce year-round, farmers here can manage at least two-harvest cycles out of most crops.

Indeed, they call Kabale the ‘Bread Basket’ of Uganda for good reason.

But like so many other resource-rich places in the world, there’s a sad catch. The bread basket isn’t actually providing for the local population these days – in fact, those who grow the food (rural small-scale farmers) are feeling hunger and malnutrition the hardest. The Kabale District has reported that over 45% of the population is malnourished (2008), though the Kigezi Healthcare Foundation (KIHEFO), a local public/private organization that provides outreach services to hard-to-reach communities in the region, has found that the number is significantly higher, especially amongst children under five.

KIHEFO's Nutrition & Rehab Centre in Kabale, Uganda.

KIHEFO’s Nutrition & Rehab Centre in Kabale, Uganda.

My first day ‘at the office’ with KIHEFO, which doubles as the Nutrition & Rehabilitation Center in Kabale town-centre, kicked statistics aside and offered, instead, some real-time learning about the current system’s symptoms. I met the center’s most recent patient – a seven-month old boy who had been referred to KIHEFO by the Kabale Hospital. He had survived a bout of malaria, just barely. He weighed 3.5 lbs. Since opening the nutrition clinic two years ago, KIHEFO has seen multiple cases to this same severity, and have provided support services to over 200 children and their caretakers.

The last couple of weeks have been about grounding in Ugandan culture, learning from my new colleagues at KIHEFO, and attempting (always with a huge dose of humility) to dig a little at the complexity of food insecurity that is exacerbating human health here. My eyes and ears have been wide open here, though I’m certainly no expert, nor am I pretending that I can even come close to providing an all-encompassing analysis on what’s causing the poverty paradox…

Over the past few years, I had been writing health and food security related grants for KIHEFO via my work in Edmonton. I used a lot of development jargon (‘CIDA-speak’) and terms like ‘soil degradation, deforestation, climate change’ and so forth, to justify claims to dollars. It’s not an inaccurate story of what’s contributing to food insecurity here, but it’s also ‘symptomatic’ versus looking at real root causes. It’s not that soils are entirely aggravated nor that farmers aren’t producing enough, but rather that larger, more structural forces are affecting which foods are being produced, how they are produced, and most importantly, who they are produced for.

As the authors of ‘Fed Up’ point out:

“Most people are not hungry because there is too little food available, but because they are too poor to buy the food that is available” (2012).

What's causing the bread basket paradox?

What’s causing the bread basket paradox?

That certainly seems to be the case in Kabale, too. The fields are full of vegetables, yes. The city market is brimming with a diversity of fruits, vegetables, and grains. But those vegetables that used to feed households have been shaped by state and an unregulated market into “cash crops” for regional and international export. Back in the late 1980s, when Museveni (today’s current head of state) signed onto the Structural Adjustment Program (with the International Monetary Fund) – government services all-around were drastically slashed in exchange for an international loan, and market regulators were tossed out the window. It was hoped that moving from household production to cash-crop exports would bolster the farmer’s income, but purchasing power of the small-farmer in Kabale has actually decreased over the years…meaning farmers are making peanuts off their crops, unable to afford additional food sources and supplments, and left with maybe plantains or corn, or sweet potato and cabbage, onions and Irish potatoes (and so forth) to feed their large households. Cash-crops forces people to mono-crop field and diet.

Then there’s this craze for accessing the “improved seeds” in Uganda. I’ve heard it from farmers, read it in the papers, scanned it on the NAADS  (National Agricultural Advisory Services) website, and even heard it directly from agro-NGOs. Everyone wants to get their hands on these magical seeds that yield the fast and furious. ‘Improved seeds’ is actually just a euphemism for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These seeds are engineered by foreign companies, and are, apparently, responsible for nearly wiping out the local varieties of vegetables here in Kabale. ‘Improved seeds’ are also terminal seeds – meaning, after harvest, the farmer can’t save seeds for the following season. Oh yeah, and most of these ‘improved seeds’ are only effective when applying the same companies brand of pesticide/fertilizer. No state protection of small-farmers and these marketing ploys that pull them deeper into poverty. None whatsoever.

Ngozi support group from Ibumba, Kabale, Uganda.

Ngozi support group from Ibumba, Kabale, Uganda.

There are other issues, too: agricultural land grabbing, the high rates of HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB, scattered land distribution, lack of access to markets, national corruption…

In the coming months I’m excited to further explore these roots and more, and also uncover how small-farmers and organizations, including KIHEFO, are responding to the pressures of the global food system in localized ways. I’ve already met some amazing agricultural ‘movers and shakers’ here, and am just as anxious to share their stories, as I am to better understand what’s causing the sad irony behind the Breadbasket Paradox.


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