When You Come to My Village, You Should Sing and Dance

We are family
I got all my sisters with me
We are family
Get up everybody and sing…

Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, (c) 1979

In many regions of Uganda, greeting visitors with singing and dancing is a sign of welcome and respect. Returning the greeting in kind is good form. “When you come to my village,” Ugandans would advise, “you should sing and dance.”

Many of the Roots-Africa team danced. I was given a pass because of my knee. Until Masaka. In Masaka I sang and danced. High above the city, the Hollandia Hotel where we stayed has a large outdoor stage and a DJ. After dinner and a few beers, we watched comedians and dancers. Then the DJ pleaded with the audience to participate. Knee or no, it was my turn.

Our guide that day was Ugandan MP Hon. Nandagire Christine Ndiwalana (Hon. Christine), a medical doctor and a member of Parliament with whom we toured farmers’ projects in the Bukomansimbi District 73 miles southwest of Kampala. She’s one who warned us that we should sing and dance. So, I invited her to karaoke with my Roots-Africa teammate Linda and me.

I chose the infectiously upbeat song, We Are Family by Sister Sledge and while we in no way came close to the performance by Sister Sledge in the video above, I must report in all humility that Honorable Christine, Linda, and I brought down the house. The few people left in the audience by the time we performed rushed the stage, jumping and dancing along with us. Afterward, the DJ gave us bottles of Nile Special Lager. No Grammy award would have felt better.

And we couldn’t have chosen a better song. We collectively were – everyone we met – we are, family in this effort to help Uganda and her farmers battle food insecurity. We are united in helping Uganda build strong agricultural businesses to lift her people out of poverty. We may come from different countries, different walks of life, and different political persuasions, but on this one thing we are in lockstep: we want to see a prosperous Uganda and Ugandans.

Roots-Africa focuses on Agriculture, the mainstay of Uganda’s economy and the key to her future. In 2018, about 72% of Uganda’s land use was agricultural, much of it is subject to rainy and dry seasons. We visited in the rainy season when everything was lush and green. Within a month though, Ugandans told us, would come the dry season, reducing farm productivity, and keeping Ugandans chained to subsistence farming.

According to a policy statement from the Ministry of Agriculture, in FY 2022, ag products accounted for 50.3% of total exports and employed about 64% of all Ugandans. We met Hon. Christine in a meeting with Agriculture Committee members in Parliament. The Committee had prepared a report for us outlining their National Agricultural Policy, Vision 2040, and Uganda’s National Development Plan (NDP) III. Both  outline ambitious strategies to transform Uganda from a peasant to a modern, prosperous society.

National Agricultural Policy We were there to explore ways Roots-Africa can work in a nonpartisan manner with Parliament and the Ugandan and American governments to promote food and nutrition security. Their vision (“A competitive, profitable, and sustainable agricultural sector”) and mission (“Transform subsistence farming to commercial agriculture”) dovetail nicely with Roots-Africa’s. We sought to make them aware of ways we can partner to enhance sustainable agriculture and value-added products, increase employment opportunities, and as a result, promote domestic and international trade.

According to the report, in FY 2018 Parliament set base performance indicators and FY 22 targets for increasing: the percentage of growth in the agricultural real gross domestic product, export values of agricultural commodities, production volumes, store more water and irrigate more lands, the percentage of water for functional production facilities, job creation and labor productivity, storage capacity, Uganda’s share of ag exports to total exports and the value of ag imports in the US, agriculture’s share of financing to total financing and the number of farmers who access agricultural finance, and the level of satisfaction with service delivery in the agroindustry. They are also focused on reducing the percentage of food insecure households, households dependent on subsistence agriculture as a main source of livelihood, and post-harvest losses for priority commodities. They’ve hit several of the targets and are making progress on the others.

The National Development Plan III (NDP) The third of three five-year national plans to be implemented, the goal of this NDP (FY 21-25) is to increase average household incomes and improve quality of life for Ugandans.  Anticipated key results include: an increase in total export values of process agricultural commodities and products (coffee, tea, fish, dairy, meat, and maize), a reduction of the total value of imported cereals and cereal preparations, vegetable fats and oils, and sugar preparations, an increase in the ag sector growth rate, increased labor productivity, more jobs, and a reduction in the percentage of households dependent on subsistence agriculture as a main source of livelihood.

Challenges to both as one might imagine are funding, capacity, and cash flow. According to a report from the Department, the annual budget for the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry, and Fisheries is 564 billion Ugandan shillings (~$152 million USD). Of that ~132 billion shillings (~$35 million USD) come from the government of Uganda for development and ~377 billion shillings (just over $101 million USD) come from external sources. While that may sound like a lot, for a country like Uganda it’s a drop in the bucket. Recent budget cuts and delays in the release of funding have further hampered forward movement on both Policy and Plan.

In addition, limited post-harvest handling and value-added activities have held Uganda back, as has a lack of input suppliers, inadequate infrastructure (labs, vehicles, Internet connectivity, and office space). Weather has also been a factor: heavy rains and flooding, increased emergence of pests, vectors, and diseases, and unstable production due to reliance on rain-fed water supplies. In the Karamoja Region,  as a result “about 518,000 people, 41% of the population, are estimated to be severely food insecure between March and July 2022.” The COVID pandemic led to postponed and cancelled activities (extension service delivery, consultations, trainings, meetings, etc.), further delaying Uganda’s progress. And finally, in Uganda as everywhere these days, politics always comes to bear.

Uganda is a presidential republic where there’s sharp disagreement between the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) led by President Yoweri Museveni since 1986, and the so-called Opposition or National Unity Platform. We weren’t in Uganda for that and didn’t visit Parliament to take sides, in fact we assiduously avoided controversy of any sort. We came, we visited governments and villages across the country to evaluate Roots-Africa program efforts to date and look for ways to assist Uganda in meeting shared goals. Period.

Regardless, with few exceptions, no one wanted to talk about anything but agriculture and opportunity anyway. We were there to meet the farmers, the policy makers, the dreamers, and Roots-Africa changemakers. And to sing and dance. Because after all, we are family.

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