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We are not eating our own food

In Eastern Uganda, for generations being a farmer meant growing and eating your own food. But buying and selling food is becoming more common, and it is bringing new worries.

It is still dark in Nampologoma when the cock's crow heralds the start of a new day. In this eastern Ugandan village nearly every household is woken by this live alarm clock, setting people on the way to their farms. This has been the way in Nampologoma and the surrounding district for as long as anyone can remember.

These days the cock's crow is one of the few reminders of the way things were, for everything else appears to be changing – not just in Nampologoma and the wider district of Butaleja, but across eastern Uganda.

One of the biggest changes has come in the form of cash: farmers who once practised subsistence agriculture – consuming most of the little they produced – are now heading for the market to sell their crops.

"Even the traditional food crops we used to consider purely for home use are now being sold. We are moving towards seeing farming as a business that should earn us money," says Richard Mugwiri, an agricultural extension officer in the district.

The reason: Uganda is bidding to become the breadbasket of Africa and beyond, encouraged by a growing regional and global demand for its agricultural produce.

The villages of Nampologoma and Bubaali have begun to feel the impact of a nationwide move towards agricultural reforms, and some experts, such as anthropologists Michael Whyte and David Kyaddondo, who have published a research paper tracking this transformation, say the changes are creating anxiety.

Food security is defined by the United Nations as "access, at all times, to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."

But Whyte and Kyaddondo say Ugandans have a slightly different definition: "Food security, for most rural Ugandans, is about being as self-sufficient as possible," they say in a paper on food security and the cash economy. However, they add, this self-sufficiency is being steadily eroded – by the penetration of the cash economy into all aspects of rural life.

Damalie Mugudi, who lives in the village of Bubaali sells half her food crops in order to pay for her children's school fees. "When my harvest is 50 sacks of groundnuts, I will sell 25 sacks. The money is little. I do not have to labour to transport it because buyers come right to our doorstep with their big lorries." The bulk of these crops find their way to the Ugandan capital Kampala and neighbouring Kenya. Some are also sold locally, often bought by farmers when home supplies dwindle.

What is worrying some is that farmers may be selling too much food, thus exposing themselves to the risk of hunger.

Mugudi says families who do not produce enough food for home consumption are looked down upon by the rest of the community, and are seen as "poor people."

"Some families in Bubaali sell most of their food and starve," says Mugudi's neighbour, 42-year-old Jennifer Wasswa, but she adds that this is not common. Another problem is that some men also sell food meant to be eaten at home, without the consent of their wives.

Cotton used to be the main cash crop in this region. But cotton farming declined precipitously after the collapse of ginneries and marketing structures during the regime of military dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s. As cotton dwindled, rice thrived.

In Nampologoma today, thousands of men are engaged in rice cultivation, their produce often destined for the export market. Begun by the Chinese in 1976 over a cultivable area of 2,380 acres on the swamps of the river Manafwa, the Doho Rice Scheme employs some 4,385 farmers as farm labourers. In a good season these farmers can earn up to US$ 3,000 – far more than a school teacher's salary.

"Food security cannot be ensured by not selling food, rather, it is by producing the surplus and selling it to buy food stock that lasts longer such as millet. One bag of rice buys three bags of millet," says Dr John Mudusu, chairman of a massive farming initiative in Nampologoma called the Doho Rice Scheme.

In Nampologoma, the switch from growing food to earning wages and buying food, has not led to starvation as some feared, but there are changes nevertheless. With more cash in their pockets, men are said to 'develop wings'. They can now take a second or third wife or spend money on 'luxuries' at the village trading centre.

"For us, the issue is not whether people should sell food or not," says Henry Kizito, Executive Director of VEDCO, a non-profit organisation seeking to develop agri-business in Uganda.

"The issue is of increased food production, good post-harvest handling to minimise losses and value addition. We do not discourage farmers from selling their crops; we encourage them to produce surplus and to sell it because they need the money. We also help them to find good markets."

As farmers come to rely on selling their labour or selling some food crops to earn enough money to eat, they become more dependent on the fluctuations of the market for their food security.

Dr Michael Abu Sakara, country director for Sasakawa Africa Association, believes there is no going back. "The time is over when villages and countries were food sufficient and needed little from outside. Today we live in a global village. We need a national framework, plus an international space that allows people to grow and market their food. Agriculture must be made profitable for farmers in Africa to ensure food security," he says.

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