Robert Sabiiti, Agricultural Economist and Uganda’s representative in the UN agencies responsible for food and agriculture shares insights on the steps being taken by Uganda to popularise agriculture with Josephat Juma of The African Executive. Robert, who is currently in the Department of Agricultural Planning, Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries offers perceptions about herbicide use.
Ghana’s President recently decried the unpopularity of agriculture among Ghanaian youth. What disincentives chase African University youths from Agriculture?
It is always important to remember that Africa is not homogeneous. It is characterised by different cultures and other socio-economic challenges. The disincentives range from a poor perception of agriculture to limited investment in the sector.
The low position that agriculture occupies in society even among the farming communities makes it unattractive to the young generation. The historic context of agriculture in Africa, in general, and Uganda, in particular, reveals that farming is a responsibility of the poor and uneducated. The majority view agriculture as an ignoble profession in which one should not be involved if there was an alternative. Most of the small scale farmers confess that they are unemployed. In other words, they focus on agriculture as a way of life and not as a business. In that light, the young graduates will do all that it takes to avoid entering farming except if it is a side activity.
The nature of training and upbringing influences children’s affection for farming. The majority of the communities (including farmers) advise the youth to train hard in other areas for white collar jobs. This was even compounded by the fact that in lower school, students showing errant behaviour were in the past given portions of land to cultivate as punishment for their actions. From that age, the children view agriculture as a burdensome activity and punishment which should be resented.
Lack of investment capital for the young undergraduate students and graduates to acquire land and undertake agriculture is a great disincentive. In addition, the fact that agricultural entails high risk and low returns on investment sometimes makes it unattractive to the elite. This situation is exacerbated by the agricultural commodity prices which are ever fluctuating on the local markets and declining on the international market.
The fact that one has to be in the rural areas to be a good farmer is another disincentive to the young graduates who have been staying and studying in the urban centres most of the time with better conditions of living such as good housing, electricity, various forms of entertainment and easy communication. This aspect even has a stronger dimension in that female graduate youths may find it absolutely more difficult to go and stay in the rural areas where prospects for them to get suitable men to marry them are diminished. Following their footsteps, newly married couples tend to stay in the urban centres where there are good schools for their children, a tendency which will continue to prevail even in their advanced age as long as they still have school-going children.
What steps are being taken by Ugandan elites to attract university youths back to agriculture?
The middle class is being encouraged to undertake market-oriented agriculture and in the process, demonstrate to the graduate youths that agriculture is not only noble but also a profitable and respectable occupation. Programmes specifically targeting the youths in agriculture are being provided. The rural finance services programme will provide the youth with targeted rural finance services to help them undertake different activities, including agriculture. The Policy to employ extension graduates at decentralised levels of government is being strengthened. During the late 1990s, the government initiated a programme to recruit graduate extension staff at the sub-county level to assist farmers improve their agriculture. In the process, the recruited staff appreciated, developed interest and started farming themselves.
Educational curricula is being modified to ensure that agriculture is taught in schools at different levels hence helping the youth to appreciate agriculture. Policy to abolish corporal punishment in general and digging in particular is another stride to boost the status of agriculture among the youths and the young generations. There is a deliberate government policy to mobilise and sensitise the youth about agriculture and encourage them to take it up as a business and not as just a way of life. This is being promoted at all levels of government.
Herbicides (such as paraquat) ensure minimum tillage or no tillage. Are these technologies good for Africa? Why or why not?
Using herbicides such as paraquat which ensure minimum tillage offer both positive and negative aspects to the farming communities, some being scientific while others are socio-economic and environmental. Whatever the case, we need to appreciate why such chemicals were manufactured in order to provide fair comments. It is in that light that I have taken a middle line to provide an unbiased response. While such herbicides help farmers to clear weeds on wide areas in a relatively short time, they pose several challenges:
To begin with, the chemicals are not necessarily selective and will thus destroy untargeted organisms thus affecting the ecological balance in the ecosystem, eventually affecting agricultural production. Minimum tillage is only applicable over a relatively short time after which tillage becomes inevitable to access nutrients leached to the lower layers of the soil structure. The fact that the majority of the small scale farmers in the developing countries like Uganda are illiterate and yet labels on the herbicide containers are in foreign languages makes it difficult for the farmers to read, understand and apply the agrochemicals appropriately thus exposing both the farmers’ health and the environment to danger. Chemical costs may be prohibitively high and thus not cost-effective for the farmers. Finally, the vast quantities of water required after chemical application may not be readily available thus contributing to environmental damage.
In view of the above, a rational balance has to be made between use of labour and herbicides depending on the task to be accomplished and available labour.
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