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Falling Chia Prices Cripple Cooperative

GULU – Paicho Area Cooperative Enterprise is still grounded without any business activity, a year after it was formed with failing chia prices.

These prices, once a reliable source of economic growth for the cooperative, are slipping, prompting concerns and forcing a broad rethink of the cooperative’s business plan among members.

Formed in November 2019, largely to increase production and marketing of chia in Aswa constituency, Paicho Area Cooperative Enterprise comprises of four primary cooperatives; Ajulu Growers’ Cooperative Society Limited, Kidere Farmers Group, Teolam Okumgoro Cooperative Society Limited and Paicho Central Kal Growers’ Cooperative Society Limited.

Its birth followed an initiative by UN Women to boost the production of chia for export to Europe and Asia, to improve the livelihood of farmers in Gulu District. The project, which ran on a Shs 1.23 billion budget, was purposed to empower at least 2,000 farmers in Patiko, Palaro, Unyama, Paicho and Awach sub counties in Gulu District between 2019 and 2020.

The UN Women gave farmers seeds, tarpaulins and threshing machines for drying and sorting harvested chia. The women also promised to buy a kilogram of chia at Shs 6,000, above the market price, which was then between Shs 4,000 and Shs 4,500.

Simon Opiro, the interim chairman of Paicho Area Cooperative Enterprise, said the project offered a demonstrable opportunity for farmers to earn an extra buck.

“Being a sole product that was still new in the sub region and northern Uganda, we thought we could tap the opportunity,” Opiro told theCooperator in an interview.

Opiro said when they formed the cooperative each of the primary cooperatives had some chia harvests. At Paicho Central Kal Growers’ Cooperative Society, about 60 people each grew an acre of chia, but the market was crushed by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The price of chia dropped so low that farmers sold a kilogram at Shs 1,000, instead of the promised Shs 6,000 because no one was buying in bulk,” Opiro said.

Asked how many tons of chia were produced, Opiro said they didn’t not quantify the harvest because people were desperately looking for buyers.

“Most of the chia was bought from individual members, not from the area cooperative, because there was no other option of selling the chia at a profitable price,” Opiro added.

Asked about the future of the cooperative, Opiro said, “The committee members resolved that the cooperative should start operating, but we don’t have money to do that.” 

“The Shs 30 million budgeted to start running the area cooperative should come from the four primary cooperatives, but they are also struggling to run their own cooperatives,” he said.

For now, Opiro said; “The Area Cooperative Enterprise is inactive. Even though the interim committee calls meetings sometimes, there is nothing much.”

Joel Lawoko, the chairperson of Ajulu Growers’ Cooperative Society and secretary of the Area Cooperative, said 30 members of Ajulu Growers’ Cooperative planned to plant an acre of chia each with the hope of earning big, but they were told their crop had to be tested in Nairobi to prove it was organic.

“Covid-19 broke out and interrupted the whole chia-testing process,” Lawoko said.

“They instead asked us to get other buyers, but that was not easy, so up to now, some farmers still have the chia they grew in 2019,” he said.

“Even when we pleaded that they should buy our chia, they insisted that they could not do so before testing the crop. They said in 2018, they bought Uganda chia and poured it because it was inorganic,” Lawoko said.

Nicholas Kilama, the general secretary of Teolam Okumgoro Cooperative, said they will not dissolve Paicho Area Cooperative Enterprise just because they made losses. “We shall stop planting chia and concentrate on other crops. The loss from chia wounded our hearts so much that no one planted even a grain of chia this year,” Kilama said.

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