Uganda’s Household Farmers Become Organic Exporters

Four out of every five Ugandans is a small farmer who uses mostly traditional methods to grow crops without much help from chemical pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. In a modern world where the demand for organic products is growing as quickly as any crop, these older agricultural practices, common in Least Developed Countries, have created some new opportunity.

This week, representatives from Uganda’s government and its private organic trade association are at Rio+20 to tout their nation’s place as producer and exporter of organic products, including fresh and dried fruits, coffee, cotton, and many others.

Tom Okurut, executive director of Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), issued a pre-Rio+20 statement that said his country will prioritize organic agriculture during this week’s Brazil meeting, for the benefit of Uganda’s economy, society, and environment.

“Organic farming is in line with objectives of sustainable development and therefore Uganda will showcase its organic agriculture potential, which will open up markets for organic products not yet selling on the international market,” said Okurut.

Tradition of Organic Farming

Informal organic production methods have been the way of many Ugandan farmers for centuries—thanks to remarkably low levels of fertilizer use.  Even among African nations, where use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers is low, Uganda’s farmers stand out. Due to expense, availability issues, and lack of training in proper fertilizer use, they add only about one kilogram of fertilizer per hectare, less than 3 percent of the amount used in East Africa and only 11 percent of the already-low Sub Saharan average (nine kilograms per hectare). This had led to declining productivity for some conventional crops, but created an opportunity for organic alternatives.

Certified organic production, with regulated use of natural techniques like crop and grazing rotations, natural pest predators, livestock waste fertilizers, and compost, didn’t take off in Uganda until the 1990s. Uganda’s private sector promoted the practice through the efforts of the National Organic Agricultural Movement of Uganda (NOGAMU), an association that unites organic farmers, processors, exporters, and organizations to promote and develop the sector. NOGAMU was  founded in 2001. The country adopted the Uganda Organic Standard (Ugocert) in 2004 and in 2007 joined in a regional standard, the East African Organic Products Standard, with Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, and Rwanda.

Despite many well-documented political troubles during this era, Uganda’s growth in organics was impressive.

Between 2002 and 2007, the nation’s ranks of certified organic farmers swelled by 359 percent and the acreage being farmed organically grew by 60 percent. By 2003 Uganda had more land devoted to organic farming than any African nation and more than twice that of its closest competitors (Tanzania and South Africa).

200,000 Organic Farmers in Uganda

Exports of organic products, which stood at U.S.$3.7 million in 2003-04, had climbed to $22.8 million by 2007-08. Today NOGAMU lists more than 200,000 organic farmers in the country, and more than 250 organic organizations to which they belong.

And organic farming also drives growth in productivity that allows farmers to get the most out of every inch of soil—a huge boon in Uganda where 95 percent of the nation’s farmers work less than 10 acres, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Animals Industry, and Fisheries. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) joint study on transitions to organic agriculture and productivity gains found that across Africa the increases in yields were 100 percent, and in East Africa up 125 percent, after moving to organic production.

“The green economy is important to Uganda; it creates a lot of opportunities to create wealth for different actors from farmers to traders in a way which is more sustainable, in a way that can protect the environment.” Musa Muwanga, the CEO of NOGAMU, said for a UNEP-UNCTAD film project aired at the 2011 UN Conference on Least Developed Countries in Istanbul, Turkey.

The same film project shared the experiences of Vincent Ssonko, an organic pineapple farmer in Uganda. (Watch the video at the top of the page.)

“The main benefit I’ve had from organic agriculture is an increase in income. I’ve been able to educate my children, and I’ve also been able to harvest enough food to feed my family.”

“The main benefit I’ve had from organic agriculture is an increase in income. I’ve been able to educate my children, and I’ve also been able to harvest enough food to feed my family,” Ssonko said.

The UNEP-UNCTAD report revealed that an average pineapple worth perhaps 200 Ugandan shillings (about 8 cents U.S.) in a local market can fetch 600 from an exporter who will package it and ship it to Europe. And exporters like Biofresh also produce good, steady jobs for Ugandans while promoting education and further development of organic farming.

Not all of Uganda’s organic products are shipped overseas. NOGAMU runs a shop and a delivery service in the capital city to supply a modest but growing demand from local homes and hotels. Local organic favorites include staple foods like matooke (steamed bananas), millet, cassava, local vegetables, fruits, and juices, and livestock products including eggs.

Greener agriculture is benefiting Uganda’s environment as well as the economy, important in a nation known for natural wonders like the famed mountain gorillas. Conventional farms can emit an additional two-thirds as much greenhouse gas, spray pesticides which are dangerous to farm families, and use synthetic fertilizers that foul aquatic ecosystems.

Organic Farming Not Easy

While past successes are encouraging, Uganda’s organic industry also faces challenges. Organic farming isn’t easy. Producing certified crops takes patience and much proper training in the effective use of organic techniques to battle familiar farming challenges like pests and soil degradation. Farmers must also be educated in the ultimate economic benefits of adopting a more labor-intensive method of agriculture. Some schools and other educational opportunities exist to promote the practice, but more are needed in order for growth to continue.

Still, future growth seems likely because organic’s rewards and incentives, in the form of a wide export market, are tangible.

The market for organic food and drink is estimated at U.S.$50 billion and growing by IFOAM, the global organization of organic trade. While much of that product demand originates in wealthy developed nations, it creates opportunity for developing countries like Uganda to build a sustainable export business that protects natural resources while boosting the economy through the creation of long-term green jobs.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Brian Handwerk is a freelance writer based in Amherst, New Hampshire.