There are No Subsistence Farmers in Uganda

The majority of Ugandan farmers are smallholder farmers, but they are commonly mal-characterised as “subsistence farmers” that are engaged in subsistence farming, which is:

A type of farming in which most of the produce is consumed by the farmer and his or her household, rather than being produced for sale?”

National Agriculture Policy 2013

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Case in point, for instance, an example of such mal-characterisation is contained in a 2016 report, an analysis of the results of the 2014 population census, in which it is reported that:

“Nearly two thirds (64 percent) of Uganda’s working population was engaged in subsistence agriculture.”

Uganda Bureau of Statistics

Let assume, for the purpose of engaging with the assertion, that the labels “subsistence agriculture” or “subsistence farmer” are correct and that 64 percent of Uganda’s population is producing for own consumption, rather than for sale. If that be the case:

  • Where does the food that is sold in the many farmers’ markets in Uganda come from?
  • Who grows the food and sells it to the Ugandan market, from whence Ugandans and others non-Ugandan buy it and consume it?

As a matter of fact, indeed:

“The country (Uganda) produces a wide range of crops, including cereals such as maize, millet and sorghum; root crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes, bananas and pulses like beans and peas.

It also produces animal products from dairy and beef animals, poultry, sheep, goats, pigs, rabbits and edible insects.

The inland fresh water bodies provide large quantities of fish.

The available foodstuffs of both plant and animal origin potentially offer a balanced diet.

Subsistence farmers produce most of the food. Wider use of modern technology could undoubtedly boost production.”

Uganda Food and Nutrition Policy 2013 “Situation Analysis (underline emphasis is mine)
  • Now, how is it that those who are characterised “subsistence farmers,” those who produce for own consumption, are at the same time producing most of the food that is consumed in Uganda?
  • How is it that the agriculture sector, in which smallholder farmers dominate, is a significant contributor to Uganda’s gross domestic product (GDP), if the majority of the actors in the sector, Uganda’s smallholder farmers are “subsistence farmers,” who are producing mostly for own consumption?

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The only way in which agriculture is a significant contributor to Uganda’s GDP, is if the produce of its smallholder farmers is sold by them and is bought by others who didn’t produce it. Economic exchange must take places and money changes hands, so to speak.

This means, de facto, that Ugandan smallholder farmers likely produce for sale in as much as and or even more than they produce for own consumption. And for many that is likely their major source of livelihood.

On the one hand, the current President Yoweri Kagutta Museveni led National Resistance Movement (NRM) Administration of Uganda, the authors of government policies, acknowledge that “Subsistence farmers produce most of the food” using ‘African-Ugandan’ knowledge systems.

While, on the other hand, the NRM Administration is overtly dismissive of our ‘African-Uganda’ knowledge and it advocates for “wider use of modern technology,” likely the kind that is exogenous in origin. How so ironic.

In the same way as Ugandan farmers are not peasants, they are most definitely also not subsistence farmers. The time for us to detoxify our discourse and to rid it of the colonialists lens is now.

Starting with our national policy documents, which we urgently need to ensure that they are clean and don’t contain such colonialist racist and culturally imperialistic factoids such as: Ugandan farmers are peasants or that Ugandan farmers are subsistence farmers.

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