Robert Kabushenga is best known as an exuberant CEO but beyond the corporate responsibilities, he is a down-to-earth pragmatist eager to change the scope of farming and elitist mindset of many Ugandans, writes JAMES TUMUSIIME.
At Namayumba trading centre on Hoima road, boda boda cyclists have never heard of Rugyeyo farm. But they know Robert Kabushenga.
I have known the Vision Group CEO from way back, but learnt of his farming exploits only recently through his Facebook page where he posts weekly updates about his work at Rugyeyo farm.
However, when I asked for directions to Rugyeyo at Namayumba, the boda boda cyclists here had never heard of that name. When I indicated that the farm has coffee and bananas, they shouted Kabushenga’s name and offered to take me there.
They had to know. A combination of his media-inspired name recognition and the tremendous work he is doing has made his farm a popular destination of late for elite Ugandans with an interest in farming.
The guest list so far includes two kings; Oyo Nyimba, Omukama of Tooro, and Gabula Nadiope, the Busoga Kyabazinga. And Kabushenga is just getting started because Rugyeyo farm is hardly three years old.
“I’m now convinced we are starting a movement, away from the consumerism that identifies us as a social category to being productive in the wealth sense of the word,” he wrote on Facebook recently.
The 10km journey from Namayumba to his farm is a meandering dirt-road affair with nothing to write home about, until one is finally ushered into this picturesque expanse of banana and coffee plantations in the middle of nowhere.
Here, the outspoken lawyer-cum-CEO that many Ugandans know transforms into a sweaty, overall-and-gumboots-clad man talking about farming like it is all he has known his entire life. In many ways this venture, which sits on more than 50 acres, embodies Kabushenga’s boisterous personality; he brings infectious energy and passion to whatever he does.
Last Saturday, Kabushenga was back at the farm as he has done every single Saturday since he was bitten by the farming bug three years ago.
“I’ve come here every Saturday for two years. Even when I have nothing [major] to do, I still come because you have to establish emotional connection with your farm,” Kabushenga told a small group of visitors.
To a first-time visitor, the immediate attraction in this village, deep in Wakiso district’s Namayumba sub-county, is the spectacular scenery.
The farm itself sits on a hillside that gently rises from the valley to the top of the hill where the view is just breathtaking. After taking in the sights, the lush coffee and banana shambas welcome you to Rugyeyo farm.
COFFEE & BANANA
If the view is breathtaking and the fields lush, the soil is rocky, red and dull. However, Kabushenga is unfazed. He says once you have water and manure, the land is transformed. Evidence of this assertion is there to see as his banana and coffee crops are green and healthy.
The Robusta coffee is at different levels; the first to be planted two and a half years ago has started ripening and Kabushenga was beaming as he picked a handful of beans on Saturday. He said the sample picked earlier and taken for testing by Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) has yielded positive results.
The big harvest starts next year with an estimated 15 tonnes of wet berries, even as he continues to plant more. Through research and reading, Kabushenga has come to know about coffee like the back of his palm. From the height the plant must grow to the expected yield in kilograms per branch, he knows it all.
He uses terms such as ‘training’, basically referring to the bending of a coffee tree when it grows to three feet so that it brings forth more branches. However, three branches are recommended for a good yield.
Asked the key things coffee farmers need to succeed, Kabushenga advises on soil testing, the right planting materials from certified agencies such as UCDA, and proper pit preparation and spacing, among others.
“First establish the soil’s suitability,” he says.”You can go to Makerere University or check with neighbours to see what they are growing and how it is doing.”
For bananas, Kabushenga has organised his farm in such a way that every variety has its own section. He grows several varieties just in case some disappoint. While plantain (gonja), which he recently intercropped with coffee is just coming to life, cavendish (bogoya) is already at four feet and growing.
The matooke he planted first has already given Kabushenga a taste of the fruits of his sweat. In fact, his visitors on the day bought more than 10 bunches, leaving him Shs 250,000 richer - just a hint of things to come. Perhaps what stands out the most at Kabushenga’s farm is irrigation.
In a country where farming remains largely rain-fed, making prolonged dry spells a constant menace, he has invested heavily in two dams, from which water is pumped to the shambas using solar energy.
The intricate drip irrigation system of pipes running through straight rows of banana and coffee trees underlines his commitment to this cause.
Irrigation of any kind in Uganda is estimated at only 0.1 per cent. Coffee is Uganda’s third biggest revenue earner after tourism and remittances from Ugandans abroad, raking in upwards of $490 million. Uganda is Africa’s leading coffee exporter, recording 4.2 million 60kg bags in the 2016/17 financial year.
The government has an ambitious plan of raising this to 20 million bags in the next five years but experts say this year’s production is likely to drop as a result of the prolonged dry spell in 2016. Kabushenga is well aware that irrigation is the key.
Kabushenga has encountered some stiff challenges. First, the work is capital demanding, even for a man of his status and means.
But in his typical bulldozer style, Kabushenga will not let anything stand in his way. He says he has decided to forego certain pleasures, like new shoes, suits and golf, in pursuit of his dream. He has also cut out travelling abroad, among other sacrifices.
One indication he is in it for the long haul, notwithstanding the challenges, is the wooden cabin he is building at the top of the hill. Once complete, the well-planned cabin will give the Kabushengas a fantastic view of not only the shambas down below but neighbouring villages across the valley. He is also talking of agri-tourism and a coffee house.
Other challenges include petty thieves, rodents gnawing at his irrigation pipes, organic manure having to come all the way from Kampala and labour expenses.
Not one to give in, Kabushenga says in one Facebook post: “This stuff needs cash. And I am broke!
But we shall push through. Where there is a will, there is a way. We shall overcome and succeed spectacularly.”