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How welding led Ssemalago to success in agribusiness

When I attended the recent I-Growth Accelerator, I thought it would pass off as any other expo or trade fair.

The event organized by Uganda Development Bank Limited (UDB) in partnership with the Resilient Africa Network (RAN Lab), is an agricultural innovation awards whose aim is to boost commercialization of local start-ups and stimulating a culture of innovation in the agricultural sector.

Workers operating the hay and silage machine

At least 400 farmer and agribusiness groups participated but what struck me most was the Innovation Consortium, a group of at least 15 young people who invented a hybrid hay and silage  machine. For their efforts, the group finished runner-up to Gudie Farm and as a result won Shs 10 million to help improve their machine.

I later caught up with Byron Ssemalago, the leader of the group at their office in Bweyogerere, Wakiso. Here, I witnessed how silage is made. They start by shredding young maize plants which aren’t yet ready for harvest. It can also be got after the maize has been harvested.

The stem is shredded and stored for future use. Sugar molasses are added to the silage and then covered with materials such as tarpaulin, or papers to avoid getting in contact with water. Ssemalago says this animal feed can be kept up to nine months.

On the other hand, hay is simply grass that is dried and then ground by a machine to form a powder that can be kept for as long as five years.

TRANSFORMING MACHINE

Ssemalago says they never set out to come up with such a machine. He says their background in welding inspired one of their farmer friends to conclude that they could make for him a silage machine.

“He wanted to a silage machine but the one available at the market was very expensive; so, he couldn’t afford it. He asked us if we can make for him one that is not very expensive, that’s how we decided to give it a try,” Ssemalago told The Observer.

Ssemalago says after about six months, the farmer came back and told them that he would want to have hay machine also. But as like with the silage machine, he didn’t have the money for a new one. “He asked whether there wasn’t a way how his silage machine could be transformed to perform both functions.”

With that, the group got down to work to see whether they could combine the two to save him from buying a hay machine.

Bingo!

It worked; the first of its kind to have a dual purpose. The farmer was very happy that he recommended seven of his friends. The seven come from different parts of the country with varying sizes of their farms. The size of the farm dictates the size of the machine.

COST OF THE MACHINE

Ssemalago says the machine costs Shs 4.1million without the engine. He says this is done to not only keep the cost of the machine down but also to allow the farmer to choose the type of engine they want. The engines are either bought from India, Germany, Japan or China which origin determines their price.

Byron Ssemalago

“We take our clients to where these engines are sold and we explain to them how each one of them works in terms of its durability. Depending on their resources, they choose which engine to buy,” Ssemalago says.

He explains that the German-made engines are the most durable but their price is almost three times that of the Chinese-made engine which is the least expensive. “We don’t want to sell the engines because people in Uganda want cheap things but they are always breaking down and they will say Uganda’s products are fake,”

Brian Atuhaire, the operation’s director of the group, says.  A Chinese engine costs between Shs 660,000 and Shs 1.8 million while the German engine costs between Shs 1.5 million and 3.5 million depending on the size.

WHY YOU NEED THE MACHINE

Ssemalago says a farmer with at least five Friesian cows can afford buying a hay and silage machine. He says most of the framers who have bought their machines are after earning from their farms by increasing their productivity.

“One farmer’s farm has grown so fast that now he plants about 100 acres of maize for silage,” Ssemalago says.  Atuhaire adds that the unreliable weather and the ever-increasing population of Uganda that keeps on shrinking the land available for agriculture has occasioned the reliance on silage and hay for assured availability of animal feed.

“During the dry season, you can go to a place like Nakasongola and buy a cow which was Shs 1 million during the wet season at just Shs 200,000 during the dry season just because there is no pasture,” Atuhaire says. 

He adds that maize is also very good in increasing milk production. Even when the farmer decides to grow maize for corn, the maize standings after harvesting are as important as the corn itself.

“This is what is done elsewhere in the world; but here we only harvest the maize that constitutes a very small percentage of the weight of the plant which means that the entire 90 percent is thrown away,”

Atuhaire says they want to use the money that they won to improve on their machine such that farmers are saved the burden of buying very expensive imported machines, moreover performing only one function.

“People have been importing silage and hay machines independently and they are expensive to the tune of between Shs 18 and 24 million. I think if we aggressively hit the market, people will buy it,” Atuhaire says.

“We want to visit framers to tell us how they want the machine to look like so that we model it according to their need. Since the machine is manufactured here and therefore we know it outside out, we will be able to improve it basing on farmer’s needs,” he says.

WHO IS SSEMALANGO?

He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Makerere University which he obtained in 2005. He also has a master’s in renewable energy from the same university he got in 2010.

“When I was at campus, I really liked being challenged; I wanted to work in research bodies; unfortunately, in Uganda we don’t have so many such bodies. “At first I complained about it but later together with my friends I said it wasn’t helpful for us to complain all the time yet we are doing nothing about it. That’s how we came up with this idea,” Ssemalago says most of Uganda’s problems are not yet complex that a solution for them can’t be got.

“Our problems are appropriate problems; they are not complex; it’s a matter of being observant to come up with a solution,”

On the other hand, Atuhaire holds a degree in accounting and business management from Kyambogo University. 

He hopes in the next few years Ugandans will have realized the need to embrace technology if they are to benefit from agriculture. “We have got calls from Rwanda and Kenya to go and try out this thing [machine] but we believe before those countries benefit from this innovation our people should do so first,”

bakerbatte@observer.ug

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