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Agriculture in Uganda



“Agriculture is the backbone of Uganda’s economy” is a popular assertion that has made it all the way into Uganda’s State of the Nation addresses which the current President of Uganda, His Excellency Yoweri Kagutta Museveni has given, such as the one of 2011. The Government of Uganda (GoU) (Ministry of agriculture, animal industry and fisheries, 2013) defines agriculture as “the growing of crops, livestock or fish" Others (National Geographic, 2015) define agriculture in a more explicit and a more encompassing manner as “the art and science of cultivating the soil, growing crops and raising livestock.” The GoU’s definition of agriculture allows a deduction that Uganda’s agriculture sector includes crops, livestock, agro-forestry and fishing activities. Although not specifically stated in the GoU’s definition, soil cultivation and management are implied as components of Uganda’s agriculture. Uganda’s agriculture is mostly soil based – crops are primarily grown in soils and animals are reared on the land.

Evidence exists that agriculture – soil cultivation and management for the growing of crops, livestock and fish - is indeed the major contributor to Uganda’s nutritional and economic well-being. In the 1990s, for example, scholars (Nation's Encyclopedia, 2015) documented that Uganda’s agriculture sector employed 82 percent of its workforce, accounted for 90 percent of its export earnings and contributed 44 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). During the same period,  other reseachers  (Mwebaze, 2006) estimated  that 95 percent of Ugandans farmed both crops and livestock for food and cash incomes; and that the majority did so on small farms. In the 2000s analysts (Chemonics International Inc., 2008) concluded that agriculture remains a major economic sector, which is contributing 85 percent of Uganda’s export earnings. More recently, in the 2010s, analysts (index mundi, 2015) confirm that agriculture is still the most important sector of Uganda’s economy, employing over 80 percent of its workforce. Uganda, according to a scholarly categorisation  (Mkandawire, 1987), is a merchant state for it depends on surpluses extracted from agriculture. This is as opposed to a rentier state which primarily obtains its revenue in the  form of rent from the country’s mining activities. This is not withstanding the recent oil exploration activities that have started in Uganda. It is thus fascinating that the preveiling dominant categorisation of the majority of Ugandan farmers is that of ‘subsistence farmers.’

The GoU (Ministry of agriculture, animal industry and fisheries, 2013)  defines subsistence agriculture as 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. The GoU’s definition is consistent with other definitions of subsistence agriculture. The New World Encyclopedia, for example, defines subsistence farming as a mode of agriculture in which a plot of land produces only enough food to feed the family or small community working it. All produce grown is intended for consumption as opposed to market sale or trade. It follows, logically therefore, that subsistence farmers, as defined by the GoU, would not count in Uganda’s GDP. This is so, since in the context of the GoU’s definition they would produce only for consumption. Meaning that there would be no exchange of money for products among Uganda’s ‘subsistence farmers’. If it is accepted that subsistence agriculture is inconsistent with production for sale, the categorisation ‘subsistence farmers’, particularly as defined by the GoU, is illogical for Uganda whose farmers are the backbone of its economy. Nevertheless, ‘subsistence farmers’ is the predominant categorisation in wich the majority of Ugandan farmers are currently lumped.

On the basis of  the misapplied categorisation - ‘subsistence farmer’ - GoU officials  (National Planning Authority, 2013) aspire to transform Uganda’s agricultre sector from subistence farming to commercial agriculture. The imagery that  accompanies this aspiration and as it is articulated  in Uganda’s Vision 2040  (National Planning Authority, 2013), invariably always is that which glorifies mechanisation – a tractor opening land on a wide scale, a combine harvestor, and the like. The GoU (Ministry of agriculture, animal industry and fisheries, 2013) defines commercial agriculture as the production of crops, livestock or fish for sale. The GoU’s recently launched agricultural initiative  (Operation Wealth Creation, 2015) with its claim of promoting commercial agriculture is a good example of an intervention which embodies the GoU’s definition of commercial agriculture. 

In its execution, Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), complete with a standard operating proceedures manual, bears similarities with Ghana’s failed Operation Feed Yourself (OFY), that scholars (Mkandawire, 1987) assesed a pet project of General Achempong who was the President of Ghana from 1972 to 1978 .Like OFY, the execution of OWC is by paternalistic and  commandist presidential decree, which prescribes a particular kind of agrarian reform. In the case of OWC, it is the four-acre formula. In his four acre formula, President Museveni (Kirunda, 2015) prescribes to Uganda’s farmers as follows: use one acre of your land for cash crop production, one acre for fruit production (for sale), one acre for diary production (for sale), and the final one acre for food crop production. Deducing from President Museveni’s four-acre formula, he, in fact, acknowledges Uganda’s smallholder farmers, often mis-categorised as ‘subsistence farmers’, as the primary contributors in Uganda’s agricultural sector. OWC, after all, is premised on Uganda’s farmers using three quarters of their land to engage in commercial agriculture and only one quater of their land for use for subsistence agriculture.

Deduceable from the four-acre formula is that OWC seems a tool through which the state is acting as the mediator for deeper capitalist penetration into Uganda’s rural areas for the purpose of increasing extractive production for sale. This is consistent with Uganda being a merchant state. OWC is strategic in targeting smallholder farmers, those commonly mis-categorised as ‘subsistence farmers’. This is because, researchers have confirmed that smallholder famers are the majority in Uganda. Smallholder farmers in Uganda, according to researchers (Fowler, 2014), include the 58 percent whose farm size is less than one hectare and the 38 percent whose farm size is more than one hectare but less than five hectares. This means that only a minority, four percent, of Uganda’s farmers are large-scale farmers (Fowler, 2014) – those whose farm size is  more than five hectares  of land.  OWC is telling in its seeming ommission of a major category of Uganda’s farmers – nomadic agro-pastoralists - whose farming practices are preferred not confined to only four acres of land. The four-acre model on which OWC is designed is  limited to sedentary crop farming and zero grazing of animals. It is incompatible to in-built mobility that is within the nomadic agro-pastoralist way of life.

There are large sections of nomadic agro-pastoralists all over Uganda, but perhaps the Karimojong community is the most vilified of them all. Karimojong, as is the case with all nomadic pastoralists world over, derive their major subsistence from herding and husbandry of domesticated animals – food and trade are primarily from animals. Uganda’s most recent national livestock census 2008 (Uganda Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, 2010), confirmed that Karimojong nomadic agro-pastoralists own significant herds of livestock of Ugandan indigenous breeds – 19.8 percent (2.3 million) of Uganda’s cattle, 16.3 percent (2 million) of Uganda’s goats, and 49.4 percent (1.7 million) of Uganda’s sheep belong to Karimojong. Karimojong have for hundreds of years practiced nomadic agro-pastoralism as a way of life that has guaranteed their food and nutrition security.  The GoU, nevertheless, renders nomadic agro-pastoralism as a backward way of life needing ‘modernising’. Factoids denegrating the Karimojong way of life are abunduntly spread  (Jones, 2009). Factoids, from the perspective of the GoU, of other ‘development workers’ and sadly of the majority of Ugandans, which present Karimojong as an uncivilised and a stubborn lot of cattle rustlers who are a ‘problem’ that needs ‘solving’.

Like all other Ugandans, moreover, Karimojong actively practice agriculture – mainly livestock rearing and crop growing too - from whence they derive food and cash. A World Food Programme (WFP) assessment in 2008  (Owaraga, 2015), for example, found that Karimojong acquire the bulk of the food that they consume from their own efforts - 33.3 percent from the market; 25 percent from their own production; and six percent from hunting, fishing and gathering. It is feasible, moreover, that the WFP assessment under estimates Karimojong’s own production for it likely excludes food derived from nomadic pastoralism. Contrary to popular perception, nevertheless, the WFP assessment, debunks the perception of Karimojong as being overly dependent on external food aid. Karimojong derive from their own efforts the bulk of food that they consume – over 64 percent. The GoU and others in the ‘development’ arena seem to intentionally misrepresent farmers in Uganda (both sedentary crop and animal farmers, and nomadic agro-pastoralists). This includes, describing the majority of Uganda’s farmers as ‘subsistence farmers’ in the spirit of the GoU definition, when they are not. It includes defining the majority of Uganda’s farmers as inefficient and backward, which is not the case. 

The misrepresentation of Uganda’s farmers seems necessary for the GoU and others in the ‘development’ arena to justify their ‘modernisation’ initiatives. OWC, for example, it is reported  (Atibuni, 2015),  is the replacement of its most recenlty failed predecessor,  the GoU’s National Agriculture Advisory Services (NAADS)   programme. NAADS also aimed at improving agricultural productivity, but alledgely failed due to mismanagement by technocrats. Judging from ‘modernisation’ initiatives for Uganda’s agriculture, GoU officials and others in the ‘development’ arena have a binary view of Uganda’s agricultural sector. They seemingly relegate Uganda’s complex endogenous farming practices as backward; while heralding exogenous global-western farming practices as modern. Their dominant binary view of Uganda’s agriculture is deduceable from interventions such as NAADS, which are  externally resourced (financially and technically) by the global-west.

Other examples of externaly resourced agricultural interventions for Uganda, from whence the dominant binary view is dedcuable, include interventions by United Nations agencies, such as the “Agricultural Techonology and Agribusiness Advisory Services (ATAAS)”  (International Fund for Agriculture Development, 2015).  Through ATAAS the International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD)  proclaimed to help Uganda’s farmers to move into commercial agricultural production and to increase productivity by adopting ‘appropriate’ techniques. Other externally resourced agricultural interventions, from whence the binary dominant view can be deduced, include those by international governmental agencies, such as of the United States (US) Government   (Embassy of the United States - Kampala Uganda, 2013).  In the form, for example, of the “Commodity Production Activity” and the “Marketing and the Enabling Environment for Agriculture Activity”, US programmes which reportedly aim to increase agricultural productivity and profitability of Uganda’s farmers. Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF)  is inundated with  numerous projects through which its exogenous global-western ‘development partners’ provide funding for Uganda’s agriculture. Often the funding is earmarked specifically for tailored projects which are normally accompanied by external ‘expert’ advise and advisors from the ‘donor’ country. Such projects, for example, as of the Danish Government’s  (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, 2015) “Agricultural Sector Programme  Support”  and its “Public Sector Agricultural Support.” 

The categorisation smallholder farmer, the more appropriate categorisation for the majority of Uganda’s farmers, sadly, in Uganda, is often misused when it is used interchangeably with the categorisation ‘subsistence farmer’. The latter, moreover, is often used as narrowly defined by the GoU. The dominant imagery of Uganda’s smallholder farmers, often miscategorised as ‘subsistence farmers’, is of their practise of endogenous traditional organic farming methods, which methods the ‘modernisation’ school of thought relegates as backward and primitive. Inferred from Uganda’s Vision 2040  (National Planning Authority, 2013), the ‘modernisation’ school of thought perceives Uganda’s endogenous agriculture to include methods such as: depending on rain-fed agriculture as opposed to irrigation; use of handheld hoes as opposed to being mechanised; and producing for household consumption only as opposed to for the market which requires value addition through agro processing. This negative and sometimes inaccurate view of the practices of the majority of Uganda’s farmers is the basis on which ‘modernisation’ of agriculture interventions are planned by the GoU, UN agencies, governments and ‘experts’ of the global-west. Financial year after financial year, Uganda’s national budgets which are significantly resourced by the global-west, reveal disdain towards Uganda’s complex endogenous agriculture and reveal preference for exogenous so-called ‘modern’ global-western agriculture.

Proponets of ‘modernisation’ seemingly desire the emergence of large-scale farmers to replace smallholder farmers. Their rationale being that large scale farmers would more widely and more effectively adopt and use global-western ‘modern’ farming methods, such as the use of fertilisers (most likely the artificial kind), the use of ‘improved’ planting seed varieties and the use of ‘improved’ animal breeds. Within the ‘modernisation’ school of thought is a view that promotes the ethnocide of smallhoder farmers and Uganda’s endogenous organic farming practices. The ethnocide would allow for the emergence of large scale farmers who use ‘modern’ global-western farming practices - such as prescribed by the African Green Revolution model  (Christian Aid, 2011), the logic seems to follow. Such pracitces, for example, as farming using expensive, non-reusable, ‘modern’ seed varieties that produce better yields if treated with synthetic fertilisers.

Highly disturbing is the failure of advocates of the ‘modernisation’ school of thought to highlight the negative environmental consequences of introducing and promoting‘modern’ agriculture production in Uganda. Scientists  (Papendick, Elliott, & Dahlgren, 1986), moreover,  as early as the 1980s,  have already confirmed and linked ‘modern’ agriculture practices to causing negative environmental consequences in the global-west. Consequences such as wide spread soil erosion, soil degradation and pollution of water systems. Scientists  (Papendick, Elliott, & Dahlgren, 1986), furthermore, recommend the practice of  cultural and alternative farming methods – such as are characterised by Uganda’s complex endogenous agriculture (crop rotations, meadow crops, mulch tillage) – as the better farming methods in terms of environmental conservation and of ensuring diversity in crop types and therefore diverse sources of nutrition.

The push for ‘modernisation’ of Uganda’s agriculture’ is dumbfounding . It is so, considering that researchers (Rukundo, 2014) have established that Uganda currently uses amongst the lowest amounts of artificial fertilisers - less than two percent (or one kilogram per hectare) as compared, for example, to the African continent’s average use of nine kilograms per hectare.  Irrespective of  their low usage of fertilisers and of pesticides and their predominant practice of complex endogenous farming methods, Uganda’s smallholder farmers have leveraged Uganda’s economy and have provided food and nutrition to Uganda’s population and beyond. Studies by experts  (Fowler, 2014) have concluded that Uganda’s small farms use limited resources more efficiently than large holdings in Uganda. Small farms in Uganda produce the highest return per acre (net of  traded inputs). Meaning that the net crop income per acre of small farms in Uganda is four times greater than that of the large farms in Uganda.


This first part of the Kigo Thinkers synthesis of the thoughts that were triggered by its thinking session on agriculture concludes with food for thought questions as follows:

  • Which farmers do the Uganda national budgets cater for?
  • Which farmers do the Uganda national budgets not cater for?
  • Which farmers should the Uganda national budgets cater for?
  • How do Uganda national budgets cater for farmers in general?
  • What kind of agriculture do the Uganda national budgets cater for?
  • What kind of agriculture do the Uganda national budgets not cater for?
  • What kind of agriculture should the Uganda national budgets cater for?
  • How do Uganda’s budgetary allocations facilitate or impede rural urban migration? 

These and many more questions such as these are addressed in the subsequet parts of the Kigo Thinkers’ synthesis report: “Uganda’s National Budgetary Allocations to Agriculture in Support of Smallholder Farmers and Rural-Urban Migration.”

Background to Analysis:

This social cultural contextual analysis of the meaning of agriculture in Uganda is Part I of a wider Kigo Thinkers’ synthesis report: “Uganda’s National Budgetary Allocations to Agriculture in Support of Smallholder Farmers and Rural-Urban Migration.”  On Thursday, 25th June 2015, at Hotel Kigo in Lweza in Uganda, the Kigo Thinkers held a policy dialogue – a thinking session - that discussed the question: “Can the 2015/16 Uganda national budget support ‘smallholder’ farmers to improve agricultural production and to stem the rate of rural-urban migration?”  The thinking session is one among such events that Kigo Thinkers   has organised under the traditions of the Chatham House Rules, which protect the identity of the opinion holder while encouraging the sharing of opinions.

It is important to know, however, that the session was attended by active citizens of Uganda and other persons who live and work in Uganda. They included persons in academia; persons working in Government of Uganda (GoU) ministries and departments; persons working with civil society organisations; persons that are active in governance politics of Uganda and more over of varied political persuasions; and persons active in Uganda’s private business sector. The policy dialogue, the thinking session of 25th June 2015, was sponsored with grant funding from the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa (OSIEA)  and from the Bank of Uganda.

About the Author:

Norah Owaraga is one of the Founding Kigo Thinkers. She is a cultural anthropologist who holds a Master of Science Degree in Development Management, from the Open University United Kingdom. Owaraga’s research interests include the association between Africa’s social institutions, food security and food insecurity in Africa. She focuses her studies on Uganda. Owaraga is the Managing Director of CPAR Uganda Ltd, a Ugandan development company that is limited by guarantee and is without share capital. CPAR Uganda Ltd is established for the benefit of active poor rural communities of Uganda, particularly the greater Northern Uganda. Owaraga is a social entrepreneur who through her Alinga Farms is enabling famers in her home district, Pallisa in Eastern Uganda, to practice agriculture for food and for their livelihoods with dignity. For more on Owaraga, her views and opinions follow her on Twitter, on Face Book, and visit her blog: The Humanist View.

While Owaraga has authored this analysis on behalf of Kigo Thinkers, the views herein expressed are not necessarily those of Kigo Thinkers.

Works Cited

Atibuni, Kefa. "'Operation wealth creation' should address flaws in Naads programme." Daily Monitor, January 21, 2015.

Chemonics International Inc. Moving from subsistence to commercial farming in Uganda - Agricultural productivity enhancement program. Final Report, Kampala: USAID Uganda, 2008.

Christian Aid. Healthy harvests - the benefits of sustainable agriculure in Africa and Asia. London: Christian Aid, 2011.

Embassy of the United States - Kampala Uganda. Press release: new programs to improve basic crops and agriculture trade. August 13, 2013.  (accessed September 16, 2015).

Fowler, Martin. "The smallholder/large-scale farmer conundrum: is a shift in focus required?" In Agriculture finance year book 2013/2014 - new technology in financial services new gains for agriculture, by Animal Industry and Fisheries Bank of Uganda and Ministry of Agriculture, 16-24. Kampala: Republic of Uganda, 2014.

index mundi. Uganda Economy Profile. June 30, 2015.  (accessed September 15, 2015).

International Fund for Agriculture Development. IFAD in Uganda. 2015.  (accessed September 16, 2015).

Jones, Ben. "Who are the karimojong?" The Guardian, February 17, 2009.

Kirunda, Farouk. "Museveni's four-acre prosperity formula is possible." The Observer, June 25, 2015.

Ministry of agriculture, animal industry and fisheries. National agriculture policy. Policy, Kampala: Republic of Uganda, 2013.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark. Denmark in Uganda - agriculture. 2015.  (accessed September 2015 16, 2015).

Mkandawire, Thandika. "Introduction." In The state and agriculture in Africa, by Thandika Mkandawire and Nacer Bourenane, 1-25. London: CODESRIA BOOK SERIES, 1987.

Mwebaze, Sandra M.N. Country pasture/forage resources profile - Uganda. Research, Kampala: FAO, 2006.

National Geographic. Education - Agriculture. 2015.  (accessed September 15, 2015).

National Planning Authority. Uganda vision 2040 . Strategic plan, Kampala: Republic of Uganda, 2013.

Nation's Encyclopedia. Uganda - Agriculture. 2015.  (accessed July 26, 2015).

Operation Wealth Creation. About operation wealth creation. 2015.  (accessed September 16, 2015).

Owaraga, Norah. The Karamoja dilemma. February 2, 2015.  (accessed September 16, 2015).

Papendick, Robert I., Lloyd F. Elliott, and Robert B. Dahlgren. "Environmental consequences of modern production agriculture: How can alternative agriculture address these issues and concerns?" American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 1986: Vol.1, pp. 3-10.

Rukundo, Haam. "Uganda earns big from organic agriculture." Africa Agribusiness Magazine. July 18, 2014.  (accessed September 17, 2015).

Uganda Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries. The national livestock report 2008. Census, Kampala: Republic of Uganda, 2010.



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