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Mobile Phone Farmers: The Good, Bad And Ugly

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By Daniel Karibwije

To farm, one must use either a hoe or tractor to break ground and sow seed. It involves getting hands dirty and gumboots become more prestigious than the latest Nike or Clark shoes. There is a section of Ugandans we shall call mobile phone farmers.

They own prized land and rely on data, megabytes and airtime bundles via mobile phone to inspect the farm manager, uncle, nephew or cousin on how many litres of milk are in today. Airtime bundles are the avenue to supervise how many cows are alive or dead of a mysterious disease. Welcome to mobile phone farming.

The good about mobile phone farming is that the owner of the farm has chosen to subsidise the entire lifestyle of the manager. I use the word good in a very calculated manner. The landowner in Kampala monitoring harvest activities taking place 300km away is a donor providing grant facilities. This is similar to a European country extending a grant to Uganda. Since the grant does not require repayment and there is no interest attached, no pressure on productivity, why not enjoy the party? The farm manager is at liberty to inform the mobile phone farmer that only 10 litres have been milked today. Never mind that 100 litres have been sold.

Now let us move to the ‘bad’ of mobile phone farming. Some of the people involved in mobile phone farming are government technocrats. They use ministry, department and agencies’ cars to subside farm activities. Thus, they do not understand investment in agriculture but are decision-makers. Officers will insist that the type of car they need for official business must be a pick-up. Why? Under the cover of doing government work, weekends will see mileage increased, taxpayers are footing the fuel bill and the band plays on. The farm is not making any profits and people begin to say farming does not pay. Due to weekday phone farming, these technocrats are the same people making decisions and budget allocations suffocating farmers in the village.

Extension services? Fake farm inputs? Development of co-operatives? They neither understand nor care about these farm essentials.

We can now turn to the ugly. Uganda is supposed to be the food basket of the region, but we are importing oranges from South Africa! Really? Recently, I tuned into a Zoom meeting with public officials discussing

the Parish Development Model. On the table, an army officer working with Operation Wealth Creation was complaining why we do not consume Ugandan products, yet a glass container of Nescafe coffee and a prepared cup were by his side. How can imported tinned beans even have space on our supermarket shelves? This is ugly. We wonder what to do about youth unemployment and speak ill of agriculture. An own goal?

There is a reason why the Madhvanis are stationed in Jinja and Mukwanos in Fort Portal. You either sleep at the farm for it to make business sense or contract a farm manager with clear goals, objectives and key performance indicators. Farming is a business and is a vital step on the development curve. Let us not deceive ourselves that we shall become a middle-income country without food security.

In China, food is a national security issue. Agriculture is respected and employs 35% of the labour force.

Perhaps Robert Kabushenga, former Vision Group boss, was right when he said: “It is what you inspect that gets done not what you expect.”

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