Countrywide, maize farmers are decrying low prices for their harvest. Although this is attributed to overproduction, most farmers in the eastern districts of Iganga, Kamuli and Jinja are also counting losses to striga. One of those is ZIPORAH ELUMBI who narrated her frustration to Arthur Matsiko.
A teacher by profession, the 24-year-old mother of two set out a demonstration garden of maize with an aim of concentrating on commercial maize growing as a reliable economic activity.
With 6kg of maize seed, 25kg of urea and 25kg of dub, Elumbi planted a demonstration farm on half an acre of land in Nakirumbi, Igombi sub-county in Iganga district. Having used fertilizers and a hybrid variety of maize seed, she anticipated to harvest between 1,500kg and 2,000kg of maize.
Two months after planting, a strange weed grew in the middle of her garden, stunting most of the crop. Although her initial plans were to plant on five acres of land after a successful demo, she now confesses to how striga is strangling her farming escapades.
STRIGA CRAMPING CROPS
Locally known as kayongo, striga is a resilient parasitic weed that attacks cereal crops, causing yield losses of between 20 and 80 per cent and can result in total crop failure in severe infestation. Each striga plant produces 20,000 to 50,000 seeds, which can remain dormant and viable in the soil for up to 20 years.
With every planting season, a portion of the striga seed bank in the soil germinates and infests the host crop, while producing and increasing the overall striga seed inventory in the soil. This escalates the problem over time.
According to a 2016 study conducted in Kamuli and Jinja by One Acre Fund (OAF), 82 per cent of the surveyed farmers could recognize striga but only 12 per cent knew how to control and prevent it.
OAF is a not-for-profit organization enabling farmers to access quality agricultural inputs on credit. The organization provides inputs such as hybrid maize seed, fertilizers and practical skills about modern farming methods, among other services.
Elumbi is one of 11,000 farmers in Kamuli, Buikwe, Jinja and Iganga districts receiving farm inputs on credit from OAF since 2013. Recently, MPs on the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture visited Iganda and Kamuli to appreciate the effect of striga on farmers and their crops.
Committee vice chairperson, Robert Migadde, told The Observer that although government has been paying attention to fall armyworm, striga has proved to be more death-defying.
“When striga attacks, there is no alternative apart from cutting down the garden, yet for armyworm you can only spray,” said Migadde. “Some farmers have been confessing to harvesting three bags [of maize] in an acre because of the effect of striga.”
He revealed that the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) has developed a striga-resistant maize variety amidst other efforts to thwart the leechlike weed.
“Striga is very dangerous in the east, and they are saying it has been there since 1940 but we have never taken any deliberate efforts to stop it,” added Migadde, calling upon government to prioritise eliminating the weed.
On its part, OAF drafted, introduced and facilitated consultations and passing of the Kamuli Striga Control and Prevention Ordinance 2017 to enforce community action against striga.
The farmer-centred organization, among other efforts, is also backing government to prioritize fighting striga so that farmers such as Elumbi can always plant to harvest revenues.
Like Elumbi, most farmers are decrying low prices of maize seed. Currently, a kilo of maize costs between Shs 250 and Shs 300, down from last month’s Shs 600 and last year’s Shs 1,500.
This has forced most farmers to store their harvest in anticipation that prices could rise. Although the 2017 East African Regional Maize Supply and Market Outlook report ranks Uganda among the top maize surplus-producing countries in the region, low prices could force some farmers to either eschew or plant for consumption only.
One such is Merab Basiika. A resident of Magamaga west in Jinja district, 60-year-old Basiika has been a maize farmer for over 30 years.
When The Observer visited her garden last week, she was harvesting from what she planted in March. Basiika told us she had never experienced prices lower than Shs 500 per kilo of maize until this season.
Disappointed, she is using Malathion Dust to preserve her harvest for as long as prices can rise, lest she starts planting only for consumption. A beneficiary of OAF, she calls upon the organization to liaise with government to ensure prices are stable so farmers could gain from their sweat.
According to Sharon Muhwezi, OAF’s head, government relations and policy analyst in Uganda, OAF does not link farmers to the market but prepares them to store their produce to avoid selling at “dumping pieces”.
“Our ultimate aim is to have agreements with bigger companies who buy in bulk and have capacity to process maize for export,” Muhwezi says.
Having lost part of her garden to striga, Elumbi is now regretting her resources spent on her initial attempt at commercial farming. Unless a solution to striga and prices is found, she would consider ditching maize farming to concentrate on her teaching career.