Farmers in northern Uganda should finally get a ready market for their cassava after an ethanol extraction factory opened in Lira.
The $1.8 million Kamtech Logistics plant, opened on February 20, is a joint venture between Ugandans, Saudi Arabians and Lebanese investors.
While production of cassava in Uganda has been on the rise, farmers have not been as lucky selling their crop due to low demand, low prices and unscrupulous middlemen.
Production has been rising since 2010, after the country received $30 million under the World Bank’s East Africa Agricultural Productivity Project (EAAPP). Consequently, Uganda led research on cassava and shared new technologies with Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania.
Under the EAAPP, Kenya is leading research on dairy productivity while Tanzania is focusing on rice. Ethiopia is championing technologies to improve the productivity of wheat.
Chris Omongo, a cassava researcher at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro), said that since the EAAPP was implemented, cassava production in Uganda has increased from six million metric tonnes annually to 11.3 million tonnes, but it has not been matched by a corresponding rise in demand and prices.
According to Dr Omongo, the World Bank loan enabled Naro to research and distribute improved cassava technologies to farmers, leading to a surplus.
Farmers now see the Lira plant, which is using 15 tonnes of cassava daily to produce 4,000 litres of ethanol, as a good market for their produce.
Augustine Akutu, a cassava farmer in Amuria district in eastern Uganda, for example, lost more than 1,000 tonnes of cassava due to the lack of a ready market and low prices.
“I had a lorry-load of cassava in my store that I had kept hoping that the price would rise to at least Ush400 ($0.13) per kilogramme, but now it is rotten,” said Mr Akutu.
A kilogramme of cassava in Amuria is currently trading at Ush250 ($0.08), but the price is expected to rise at the start of the rainy season.
“Prices increase during the rainy season because that is when it is difficult to dry the cassava,” said Mr Akutu.
According to Dr Omongo, 36 per cent of Uganda’s cassava is grown in the north and 38 per cent in the east.
Tobby Akecha, a director at Norah Agro Transformation Ltd — the company contracted to supply cassava to Kamtech — said they are now buying from these two regions, where production of the crop has increased rapidly over the past five years.
He said that Norah Agro Transformation Ltd will be buying cassava from northern Uganda and the Teso sub-region at Ush400 ($0.14) per kilogramme.
For Helen Mary Akiror, a secretary at Arapia Farmers’ Multipurpose Co-operative Society (AFMCOS), a new avenue to sell their produce will enable the company cut farmers’ links with middlemen. She cites the case of a trader who has been buying cassava flour from AFMCOS, but has defaulted on payments amounting to Ush4 million ($1,357.4).
Ms Akiror said AFMCOS is holding talks with Nile Breweries for a possible deal. Ethanol is present in alcoholic drinks and is also used as a fuel and as a solvent.
Ibrahim Eitani, a director at Kamtech Logistics, said that extracting ethanol from cassava will also provide bioproducts such as animal and chicken feed, as well as aceltehyde, which is used in the production of acetic acid. By-products of acetic acid are used in printing processes, creation of wood furniture and the treatment of bacterial infections.
While the Lira plant can also use sorghum and maize to produce ethanol, the company chose to use cassava because it is widely grown in northern Uganda.
Equally, households use the crop for food only, unlike maize which is highly commercialised, while production of sorghum is fairly low.