Many years ago, every home had a granary where excess food during bumper harvests would be stored.
It was a taboo not to have one and village chiefs checked on families regularly to ensure they didn’t just have granaries, but there was also food stored in them.
In some communities, you will still find granaries today but they will be most likely empty. I was in Akwang in Agago district over the weekend to check on our Rotary project there and I visited a community near the school that we support. There were granaries but people didn’t keep any food there; ‘it would be stolen,’ they told me.
Of course, these granaries are very old-fashioned and I don’t even think they can hold food safely today even if it wasn’t stolen. They are baskets smeared with mud, in the same way a mud-and-wattle hut is built, sitting on three pegs. They are grass-thatched. Better technologies exist today.
Anyway, as we drove down along the Kampala-Gulu highway, I saw many people drying their maize. Uganda has had such a bumper maize harvest that a kilo has plummeted from Shs 900 to Shs 200.
And even at Shs 200, there is nobody buying. According to media reports, Uganda produces five million tonnes of maize every year and half of it is sold to Kenya and Rwanda, who also had their own bumper harvests this year. That led to the collapse of the maize market.
The smart guys at the ministry of Finance have acted fast and approved Shs 100 billion to be available as credit to grain traders willing to buy the same maize at Shs 500 per kilo. There was never lack of money by grain traders to purchase maize, even at Shs 900.
Anyway, Shs 100bn, which is approximately $27m, may not be a lot of money but it would be a good start to reopen the now defunct Produce Marketing Board (PMB).
That would be long-term and better than providing money to traders at 15 per cent interest, who may not even use it to buy maize anyway.
The role of PMB was to buy maize and other such crops from farmers at fair prices, store them, and then sell whenever the market stabilized. We killed it and left the farmers in the cold.
What is happening in the maize sector today has been a long time coming and next time, it might be beans or some other crop. In the end, people who were returning to agriculture in the last few years will abandon it for boda boda business and/or sitting in trading centres waiting for a truck of goods to have an accident so that they become rich instantly.
However, even without reopening PMB, the ministry of Finance could have used the Shs 100bn to make modern silos affordable to individual households and communities. I was once at an agricultural conference in Munyonyo and companies like Crest Tank and Steel & Tube were exhibiting (I think in partnership with World Food Programme) small silos for households.
The prices of these silos were the same as your home water tank. So, a family could save money and buy themselves a silo they can have in their home. A family with few acres of maize could buy a silo of maybe two tonnes and keep it at home. It would enable them store their crop until when the prices have stabilized.
Alternatively, 10 households could come together and buy a 20-tonne silo and have it installed in a home of somebody they can trust. They could create different padlocks to ensure no single person can open it in the absence of other members.
That is how saving groups in the villages keep money in improvised safes — metal trunks similar to those children go with to boarding school.
In fact, many communities which have water shortages are doing this with water tanks. They can do the same with silos. The silos would replace the old-fashioned granaries made out of mud and wattle. Farmers would keep their maize in these silos instead of selling their crops on the cheap.
There are also bags that are on the market today that work as silos. They are made or sold by Bukoola Chemical Industries and cost a mere Shs 10,000. Each bag has a capacity of 100kg. Once you put your produce in these bags and seal them properly, your maize or beans would be stored safely for up to 10 years.
The technology is simple; the bags, which have two layers of polythene liners and one of woven polypropylene, create a hermetically sealed environment that deprives oxygen to any insect that may wish to enjoy the grain.
Such airtight bags could help farmers avoid selling their produce cheaply in fear of post-harvest losses. The smart guys at the ministry of Finance could have thought about such before coming up with the Shs 100bn idea.
The writer is a communication and visibility consultant