In March, Moses Mbaziira, a large-scale maize farmer in Buteke village in Luweero district, Uganda, prepared 10 acres, bought improved seeds, planted and weeded his farm.
Then there was good rainfall and Mbaziira, like many farmers across the country, realised a bountiful harvest. But he does not see much value for his labour.
“We have not benefited from the good harvest: The prices are too low. How can you sell a bag of maize at Ush20,000 ($5.3)?” Mr Mbaziira asks.
John Sitati Cherot of Agule village in Serere District is also dismayed by the low maize prices.
“I cultivated six acres of maize and spent Ush100,000 ($26.6) on hybrid seeds, then Ush350,000 ($93) on weeding per acre. And now, with a kilogramme of maize going for as low as Ush200 ($0.05), I cannot recoup the Ush3 million ($800) I invested,” Mr Cherot said.
In Kamwenge, Tororo, Busia and Kiryandongo, the price of maize ranges between Ush280 ($0.075) and Ush300 ($0.08) per kilogramme and, according to the Uganda National Farmers Federation, most buyers are traders from Rwanda.
Moses Tuma, chairman of Kisenyi Millers Association, one of the grain processors, says this is the best time to buy and stock maize.
“But it is only good if you have enough capital to buy without selling for now,” Mr Tuma said, considering that across the country, demand for maize flour is low.
“We are selling a kilogramme of maize flour at Ush900 ($0.24), but last year it was selling at Ush1,600 ($0.43). But even at Ush900 ($0.24), it is only schools that are buying,” he said.
The glut and the fall in prices does not affect maize only. In Kampala, there has been a drop of nearly Ush5,000 ($0.13) in the price of a bunch of matoke.
But even as food prices continued to fall, inflation increased from 2.1 per cent in June to 3.1 per cent year-on-year in July, according to the latest data from the Bank of Uganda.
Analysts now say the low government investment in the agricultural sector is akin to the proverbial milking of a cow without feeding it.
Agriculture’s contribution to GDP increased to Ush3.2 trillion ($858 million) in the first quarter of 2018, from Ush3.1 trillion ($828.5 million) in the fourth quarter of 2017.
GDP contributions from the sector averaged Ush2.85 trillion ($760 million) between 2008 and 2018.
Agnes Kirabo, executive director of the Food Rights Alliance, a coalition of civil society organisation championing sustainable agriculture and food security, suggests that the government buy maize from farmers, store it and sell it on behalf of the farmers when the price improves.
“But they have decided to leave the sector in the hands of people who are exploiting farmers,” she said.
Uganda does not have silos across the country in which to store the harvest, with the few available being privately owned.
Chris Kaijuka, chairman of the Grain Council of Uganda, observed that Uganda’s main grain customers, Kenya and Rwanda, also experienced bumper harvests, but added “They will soon run out of stock and come to us.” He wants farmers to be helped to preserve their grain for export to these two countries soon.
The Ministries of Trade and Agriculture have been listening.
In a joint statement, the two ministers last week said that the government was planning to buy 500,000 tonnes of maize from farmers at Ush500 ($0.13) per kilogramme to address the current prices.
Finance Minister Matia Kasaija said grain dealers in the country would get Ush100 billion ($26.7 million) to buy maize and store it for sale later when prices are improve.
But farmers want at least Ush700 ($0.19) a kilo.
The sector has had fluctuations in budgetary allocations.
For instance, in financial year 2011/12, the government gave the agriculture sector Ush447.16 billion, representing 4.8 per cent of the budget, but this dropped to Ush336.04 billion (3.2 per cent) in the next financial year.
Following protests from civil society, the government was forced to have a rethink and upped the allocation to Ush473.7 billion ($127 million) in the 2014/15 budget, but that still fell short of what it had committed to under the Maputo Declaration.
In the financial year 2016/17 the allocation was raised to Ush823.4 billion ($220 million).
In the budget for this financial year (2017/2018) the allocations was increased to Ush828.5 billion ($221 million), something that has excited farmers.
Ms Kirabo says the focus on increasing production will require setting up irrigation schemes and markets for the produce.
Opolot Okasaai, formerly the director of crop resources in the Ministry of Agriculture, said Uganda needed to establish silos that would store farmers’ surplus produce and release it when there is scarcity.
“You can tell farmers to keep their produce until prices are good but they also have needs,” Mr Opolot said.
“The alternative should be the government advancing money to farmers through their co-operatives and when prices are good, the government then sells the produce at good prices and refunds the farmers,” he added.
Agriculture is among the key sectors expected to deliver Uganda to middle income status by 2020. But the big question is, can it really play that role when the price of 10kg of maize is enough to pay social media tax for only a week?