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Not worth it: Why Bukedi’s love for cotton is on the wane

For years, Bukedi sub-region was best known as one of the leading cotton growing regions in Uganda; not any more. Over the past two decades cotton production in the region has declined as Bakedi’s enchantment with the once-popular cash crop wanes.

In the early 1970s and 80s, cooperative unions were a lifeline for Ugandan farmers, more so in Bukedi sub-region since, according to the North Bukedi Cooperative Union [NBCU] Chairman, Mr Farouk Gundi, the Union readily purchased tonnes of cotton from the farmers upon harvest.

“The farmers were paid for their cotton there and then and, in addition to providing incentives like free hoes, fertilizers and insecticides, the Union encouraged them [farmers] to cultivate cotton on a large scale,” Gundi said.

Due to its high market value then, Gundi explained, cotton became the main source of income for Bukedi farmers in the 1970s.

“The good soils and environment also boosted the production of cotton on a large scale.”

Gundi recalls that in its heyday, farmers relied on cotton to educate their children, pay medical bills and other household incentives.

 “This was the only source of income for farmers to educate their children and also meet other obligations but because of the underlying factors many farmers have abandoned the growing of cotton.” 

Duncan Kabera, a veteran farmer, agrees:

“Farmers utilised income generated from the sale of cotton to buying bicycles, cows and pay off school fees. It was easy to take their children to school because there was a sure source of income- an individual farmer could take a lorry full of cotton to the ginnery,” he said.

Challenges

However, the farmers’ honeymoon with their beloved ‘White Gold’ was not destined to last. 

Starting in the late 1980s, a series of factors conspired to bring cotton production in Bukedi region to its knees, to such an extent that today few farmers even want to entertain any talk of the cash crop.

According to Gundi, the first major blow to the sector was the NRM government’s liberalisation of the economy shortly after taking power in 1986, which left the farmers at the mercy of middlemen and unreliable market forces.

Another challenge came in the form of mismanagement of cooperatives which led to the collapse of the existing ginneries, leaving the stranded farmers no option but to pull out.

For instance, old hands in the sector narrate that in the past primary societies were able to access loans from the Union. However, in several of these societies (about 75 of them), the leadership started to defraud the Union, leaving it indebted and cash-strapped and to run efficiently. This demoralised farmers.

“At one time the Union had about Shs 500m in debt, which caused it to stagnate,” Gundi recalls.

“The Ministry of Cooperatives was forced to declare the Union non-functional and this paved way for a joint venture [partnership] with the African Resources.” 

Between 1995 and 2003 the joint venture collapsed because of these debts, leaving each entity to run independently. The African Resource Company took the ginnery of Iki-Iki, while North Bukedi Cooperative Union (NBCU) remained with Kabole ginnery.

Despite all these challenges, between cotton production picked up slightly between 1995 and 2003. From 2003-2017, however, it drastically declined once again.

Farmers also expressed frustration about the poor quality of seed available on the market, as well as the low prices they receive for their cotton.

 “Cultivating other crops like rice and beans fetches more money than cotton and this has left farmers with no option but to abandon the growing of the once prosperous cotton,” said Duncan Kabera, a retired Production Manager in the Union. 

“Government should take the blame for the demise of the crop in the country. It has failed to address the issue of prices which is pertinent to the farmer,” he said.

Abubakari Naghenje, a prominent farmer-resident of Bukomolo village, Kibuku District, says that the prices currently being offered by the ginners is not equivalent to the workload of growing cotton from planting to harvesting stages. He appealed to the government to explain the reasons for the low prices to farmers.

Gundi further explained that the harsh environment and poor soils negatively impact on farmers’ harvest and cause them to get discouraged.

 “This remains quite a big challenge to the farmers because of the huge losses incurred and yet they can benefit from other enterprises other than growing cotton,” he said.

Coffee body blamed 

Frustrated farmers also accused the Cotton Development Organization [CDO], a government parastatal charged with monitoring production, processing and marketing of cotton, of exacerbating the problems of the industry by imposing “endless taxes” on ginners, who then transfer them to the farmer.

For instance, they pointed out, a ginning licence goes for Shs 1m, an Export Licence for Shs 2m, while Shs 700 is levied on each ginned kilogramme of cotton.

A tough-talking Gundi believes that the Cotton Development Organization has hung farmers out to dry.

 “The CDO should have taken over its role to negotiate fair prices on behalf of famers. Instead, it is conniving with the ginners to cheat the farmers. This should stop if the crop is to be revamped,” he said.

Leaders speak out

Speaking about the fortunes of cotton in Bukedi, the Budaka District LC5 Chairman, Sam Mulomi, said the declining and unpredictable prices of cotton have rendered the cultivation of cotton a waste of time and resources. 

“Farmers have invested a lot of time and resources but continue to incur losses. It’s becoming inadvisable for the farmers to depend on growing cotton on a commercial basis due to poor marketing and low prices,” he said, citing the many cotton Unions that have collapsed over the years.

“Cotton ceased to be a cash crop; it is now more of a liability. It might be better for farmers to grow perennial crops like mangoes and oranges or even maize, rather than waste time on this useless cotton for which they are being paid peanuts,” he said.

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