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Lease out land, bring in GMOs, it’s the way out

Sunday November 06 2016

Uganda is a “Matooke Republic,” and quite a bit of the plantain crop comes from Isingiro district in the west.

Soon, that will be no more as the worst drought in nearly 20 years ravages that part of the country.

Its livestock industry, and that of neighbouring Kiruhura, is under threat as cattle perish. It last rained there in April.

Stories of hunger are now the norm.

Years ago this was a lush area, but now its hills are bare. The local authorities have now banned charcoal burning.

But the story of Isingiro is a Ugandan story, and the situation is worse in eastern Kenya. The rain gods are angry with us, it would seem.

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The future calls for drastic action if East Africans are to eat. The region may have to go to bed with the devil.

The wider environmental crisis in the region has probably reached a level that state resources alone cannot reverse. The farmers have reached their wit’s end, and are not able to pay for environmental repair to their lands.

Therefore, to begin with, barriers to trade in food in East Africa need to be totally erased.

Second, someone with lots of money needs to come in, and for that to happen governments and activists in the region will have to embrace the idea of concessioning land to foreign nations and firms eager to lease it for farming.

The last time the Kenya government tried to lease land in its Tana Delta to Qatar, a storm came down on its head.

High yield crops

Land leases are deeply unpopular, conjuring up images of a “second colonialism,” and highlighting the failures and incompetence of local agriculture in a way that makes too many people uncomfortable.

But a smart way can be found to be found to do these leases, with strong environmental investment policies to boot.
Otherwise, consider this. You go to the most high-end supermarket in Nairobi and they don’t have bananas.

All the chaps who produce bananas have been hit by bad weather, you are told.

Then you head to the fresh produce market, and they don’t have mangoes. You are told, “They are out of season.” It is a common answer you get in markets in Uganda too.

Of all things, our agriculture is so primitive; we can’t have mangoes all-year round. Often times, even passion fruit is “out of season,” as are oranges. We can’t be serious. This is 2016!

The other thing we will have to look at is the hostility to all manner of genetically modified seeds.

With the changing climate, farmers have much shorter windows of hospitable weather to plant and harvest. Even if they could irrigate, water is running out.

We shall have to accept fast-growing high yield crops that deliver a bang in the short window there is to grow and bring them to harvest.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni decades ago liked to boast about how, unlike in Europe, the country can have three harvests a year.

In one particularly euphoric moment, he even declared at an FAO conference that Uganda could feed the whole of Europe, if it weren’t for the European Union’s agricultural subsidies and protectionism.

It was admirable optimism, but clearly he hadn’t checked in with climate change. That now seems so very long ago.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]

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