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Atiak Sugar Project plagued by labor shortage

At least 750 casual laborers are still needed by Ayuu Alali Cooperative society to help speed up the planting of sugarcane in Palabek Kal sub county in Lamwo district.

Ayuu Alali embarked on planting sugarcane in March this year, to feed the Atiak Sugar factory in Amuru district, but the planting process has been marred with continued labor shortages and turnover.

In April, Horyal Investment Holding Limited, the lead investor in the Atiak Sugar project in Lamwo district complained that they were losing billions of Shillings, as the seed canes were drying up due to inadequate labor to plant them. The company said it needed 900 workers to plant sugarcane.

Following the investor’s outcry, the Ministry of Agriculture decided to deploy 400 LDUs from Lamwo and kitgum districts to help plant the sugarcane. The development came after leaders in Lamwo turned down a request by Horyal Investment Holding Ltd to import casual laborers from Kamuli district, saying it was risky given the current covid-19 pandemic.

However, Francis Ojwiya, the chairperson of Ayuu Alali Sugarcane cooperative society limited – one of the primary societies partnering with Horyal Investments on the sugar project told theCooperator that the contract of the LDUs expired last week, and they were added only 10 days, which expire on the 15th, June 2020.

“The LDUs are leaving in a few days, and so we have to identify a new labor force of nearly 1000 people to fill their place and finish planting the sugarcane in time,” he said.

Unable to find local substitute labor in time, Ayuu Alali Cooperative on May 24, 2020 got clearance to transport the initially rejected laborers from Kamulu district. In total, at least 200 laborers were ferried unto the sugarcane plantations. 

Ojwiya however says the reinforcement is still insufficient for the task at hand. “They (the 200 laborers) are not even half of what we need,” he told theCooperator.  

Because of insufficient labor, planting of cane has prolonged on longer than is recommended, and Ayuu Alali Cooperative is worried that it will not produce enough to meet its cane quotas for the sugar factory. 

 “It is now three months since planting of the sugarcane started, and we have only planted 2700 acres out of the target 8000 acres. And we have only two months to plant the remaining acres before dry season sets in,” Ojwiya says.

He attributes the insufficiency of labor to the corona virus outbreak, noting “Without Corona, we would have recruited labor from anywhere within Uganda, but now we cannot risk ferrying in many people into our communities with the virus’ community spread increasing by the day.”

Even in Lamwo, Ojwiya says they’re taking extra caution in recruitment. “We don’t want to recruit in big numbers because once one of them emerges COVID19 positive, the community spread that would emerge could spiral out of control,” he says, adding that they would wait for about two weeks and if the infections have reduced, they would recruit.    

For now, though, the project’s prospects, at least as far as this season is concerned, appear bleak. If the LDUs leave on Monday, there will be only 250 laborers left to plant at least 5000 acres of sugarcane, in just a month.

Geoffrey Nyeko, the LCIII chairperson of Palabek Kal sub county attributes part of the labor problem to the low pay paid out to the laborers. He told theCooperator that at least 200 out of the 400 workers recruited from within the district abandoned work last month, complaining of low pay and tedious work.

Ayuu Alali Sugarcane Cooperative Society Ltd comprises of 3,000 out growers who are each expected to manage at least five hectares of the sugarcane plantation.  

The Atiak Sugar factory is a joint investment by Horyal Investment Holdings Ltd owned by businesswoman Amina Hersi and the Government of Uganda, in which the government owns 40% shares through the Uganda Development Corporation.

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