SOROTI: Fruit farmers in Teso sub-region are bemoaning insufficient demand for fruits from Soroti Fruit Factory which has made them that has left them stranded with surplus produce and huge losses.
In a series of interviews with theCooperator, several farmers from soroti and the neighboring districts said they had severally been turned away by the factory claiming it already had sufficient supply, dashing their hopes and leaving them stuck with perishable produce.
“I was told to come back with my fruits three times by the factory management who reasoned that they had bought enough fruits the previous day,” Felix Tukei the chairperson Apungurei Fruit farmers SACCO in Bukedea district, recalls.
Tukei says that as a result, he was only able to sell a small portion of the rejected fruits to produce dealers in Kenya, but the majority of it ended up rotting.
Lilian Ikilai, a pineapple farmer in Kalaki, Pallisa district, narrates a similar experience. Ikilia told theCooperator that she has about 700 trees of ripened citrus in her farm, but the factory in Soroti cannot afford to buy it, leaving her at the mercy of middlemen from Kampala, Kenya and South Sudan, who she says are exploitative. “Their bags are always thrice the size of our own bags here, and they pay only shs. 50,000 per bag,” she says.
If the status quo continues, Tukei is worried that he and other farmers in Teso may not be able to improve their household incomes and transform their livelihoods, as anticipated at the launch of Soroti Fruit Factory last year.
In the recent past, Teso sub-region has been striving to distinguish itself as a fruit-farming community. Anticipating the launch of the fruit factory, the area, with significant government support, scaled up fruit growing, such by the time the factory was launched in April last year, Teso sub-region had about 8million fruit trees.
When Soroti Fruit Factory was eventually launched, it was expected to have a production capacity of 96metric tons of fruit per day, and 120,0000 metric tons annually, crushing oranges, mangoes and citrus fruits into ready-to-drink concentrate juice for the market here and abroad.
At its commissioning, President Museveni directed that smallholder farmers in the area be given priority to supply fruits to the factory so that they could improve their household incomes.
Since its launch, however, the factory has not been able to operate at full capacity. A source from the factory’s management who preferred to speak anonymously told theCooperator that the factory is only able to process 6 tons per hour, 48 per day (while operating one shift of 8-hours a day), meaning that at most, the factory can only process slightly in excess of 17,520 tons of fruit annually.
As a result, the factory has decided to limit the purchase of its fruits to farmer groups and associations, instead of individual smallholder farmers. “The factory is not able to absorb all the fruits produced in a season from every individual farmer,” says Douglas Ndawula Kakyukyu, the Chief Executive Officer at Soroti Fruit Factory.
But neither is the factory able to exhaust the fruits produced by registered farmer groups. So far, the factory has registered 63 groups from 35 districts in Eastern Uganda. Of these, Teso Tropical Fruit Cooperative Union, the biggest farmers’ union in the region which also owns 20% shares in the factory accounts for 59 primary societies, but the factory is only able to buy fruits from only 27, per season.
“Every two months, we deliver strictly 27 lorry loads of 10 tons each to the factory from our Union. This is not even half of what farmers produce,” says Joram Opio, the chairperson of farmers at Teso Tropical Fruit Cooperative Union.
Now, under their umbrella Teso Fruit farmers, the farmers are urging the government to consider increasing the production capacity of Soroti Fruit Factory so as to buy all their produce.
“We were convinced to invest in citrus fruit farming by the government claiming that the factory will be the ultimate innovation to the market crisis, but it all looks messy now,” Alex Opit, a citrus fruit farmer from Serere district says.
Opit says that due to inconsistency in weather patterns, some of these farmers have had to heavily invest in irrigation schemes so as to be able to harvest quality yields in large quantities.
“We’re now no longer sure whether all these investments were necessary, or whether we shall recover the costs,” Tukei says.
But Opio says despite the existing frustrations, the factory has done more good than harm for the local communities and says the only concern is its production capacity. One way of expanding the factory capacity, Opio says, is by inviting more investors to invest in the project.
The factory is presently owned 80% by the government of Uganda through Uganda Development Corporation, and 20% by the Teso Tropical Fruit Cooperative Union. “Let the powers that be invite more investors into the project,” Opio says.
When contacted, Michael Werikhe, the state minister for trade, without divulging details, told our reporter that the government is aware of the situation at Soroti Fruit Factory, and is working at addressing the farmers’ concerns.
He said that by the end of this year, the factory, in addition to mangoes, oranges, and citrus fruits, will start processing watermelons, pineapples, and passion fruits.
Besides fruit growing, fish farming, cattle, and poultry keeping are the other economic activities practiced by the people of Teso Sub-region.