Category Archives: Uganda

The Vanilla Thieves

I have recently returned from an assignment in Kasese, western Uganda. My client for this work was Rwenzori Farmers’ Cooperative Union, a collection of over 3,600 farmers growing coffee, cocoa, and vanilla.  They asked me to assist them in developing a marketing plan that will guide them to greater sales of their crops, especially coffee and cocoa.  And they are focusing on those two crops because they have grown frustrated with the perils producing vanilla.

Vanilla is highly labor-intensive, causing it to be the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron). It grows in pods, similar to oversized green beans.  Because it is high value and small, thieves have taken to sneaking into the vanilla fields and making off with the end product of the farmers’ eighteen months of cultivation (planting to harvest. ) In less than one hour, a croplifter can make off with nearly the entire crop.  Consequently, many of the farmers have shifted their efforts to coffee and cocoa.  Not nearly as valuable but also not readily susceptible to thievery.  For example, coffee picking requires the harvester to move bush to bush over several acres to pluck only the ripe red berries.  Then to return on a later day to pick the next round of ripening berries.  No thief wants to work that hard.

Vanilla hails originally from Mexico where the vanilla vines are pollinated by Melipona bees.  Once the vines were exported to and cultivated in Asia, Polynesia, and Africa, farmers discovered a problem: No Melipona bees to perform pollination.  Some ingenious guy – – reputed to be a young slave in Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean – – figured out how to hand pollinate the plant.  The plant offers just a 24 hour window when the flowers are open for pollination.  So, the farmer must continuously roam his few acres to discover which flowers have just opened and are available for his deft fertilization touch. After his handiwork, the farmer must wait nine more months for the full 6- to 10-inch pod to develop.  Inside the pod are thousands of tiny spec-like vanilla seeds.  You have seen them in high quality vanilla ice cream. And outside the pods are any number of thieves roaming around ready to relieve the farmer of his hard work and valuable crop.

I met with a group of farmers to learn about their crops.  Since I came from America and also spoke nearly flawless English they assumed I was a crop expert.  I am not. They asked me which additional high value crops they should plant, making up for vanilla theft. I had no idea, but I didn’t want to disappoint them so I quickly ran through my mind all of the produce I like at Whole Foods that is even more expensive than everything else at Whole Foods.  With only a slight pause to think, I rattled off saffron, macadamia and cashew nuts, red and black pepper corns, cinnamon, passion fruit and mango.  Any of you agronomist readers might want to weigh in here on high value crops.  I also passed along the farmers’ query to the agricultural experts at my NGO since my answer was far from complete and farther yet from actionable.

At another session with farmers we brainstormed brand names for their coffee. We came up with some ideas that they will test with their customers and run by trademark lawyers. For example: Mountain Grown and Uplands Natural. They also wanted to consider some brand ideas in Lukonzo, their local language.  They particularly liked Enzururu and Abanya Kithwe.  The former means snow and the latter, native of the mountain.  I did my best to convince them that if they had aspirations of exporting their coffee brand to Europe or America, few westerners could remember or pronounce Enzururu and Abanya Kithwe.  This probably holds true for words from the other 40 languages spoken in Uganda.

Two nine-year-old boys overtook me on the street in Kasese, my assignment home base.  “Hello father. we are starting a football team.  Do you want to be our coach?”  Apparently they didn’t know that my football career peaked in 9th grade when I was the second string QB.  I averaged minus two yards per carry.  I threw one pass that season.  It was intercepted. The next year on the sophomore B team, I didn’t even rank second string.  Mercifully for the coach, and I guess for me too, I broke my ankle and did not complete the season.

But the boys were not curious about my American football experience.  Of course the football they were referring to was soccer, known everywhere in the world as football – – except in the U.S.  What these youngsters also didn’t realize was that I had never touched a soccer ball until college intramurals, never set foot on a soccer pitch until then, never saw a soccer match until college. I was woefully unprepared to be a soccer coach.  However, that didn’t stop me from writing a 9th grade essay comparing and contrasting football and soccer.  My major finding was teams in both sports field an 11-man squad. Profound.

Once I begged off the coaching invitation – – due to the fact I was scheduled to leave Kasese in two days – – they shifted their request from coaching to the purchase of a soccer ball.  In fact, I suspect this was their real goal all along. They just wanted to butter me up with the coaching request.

Matooke and G-nut Sauce

I spent nearly three weeks in November in Uganda working with Masindi Seed and Grain Growers, Limited. This is a maize (corn) farmers’ co-op owned by rather low income farmers.

First we need a primer on low income farmers. They are dirt poor.  In order to plant and grow their crop they must take agricultural loans to purchase seed, fertilizer, and pesticides.  After the growing season, farmers in the region bring their harvested maize to the co-op to be weighed, cleaned, dried, ground into corn flour, and warehoused in 220 pound bags.  The co-op then seeks buyers for the product. Once they sell the maize flour, a few weeks or months later, they pass on the proceeds to the farmers.

But there is a problem.  The farmers, being dirt poor, need to receive payment for their delivered crop immediately, not a few weeks or months later. They must pay off their agricultural loans soon after harvest or they will be hit with late payment penalties by their creditors.  One farmer told me, “My bank made me sell my crop too soon, at a low price, so that I could repay my loan to them. I was left with very little for my family.”

The co-op is struggling.  They do not have enough capital to pay farmers at time of delivery.  Instead they warehouse the farmers’ maize while seeking out buyers.  But quickly finding a paying customer is not easy.  So the farmers wait and wait for the co-op to sell their product and pay them.

Over the last couple of years many farmers have given up waiting.  Instead they sell their crop to independent traders who show up at the farmers’ fields and offer bottom dollar.  The farmers receive a much lower price from the traders – – in part because the maize in the field has not yet been cleaned, dried, ground, and bagged – – but the farmers need money so badly after harvest that they make the trade off: immediate cash now at a low price versus cash weeks or months later at a higher price.

So many are opting for immediate cash now that the co-op is losing its customer base and is in danger of collapse.  My job was to write a business plan to guide the co-op back to vitality.  The crux of the task will be for the organization to find a business partner, a joint venture partner, a donor, or a lender to help get it back on its feet.  The NGO that sent me to Uganda, Catholic Relief Services, will monitor the co-op and, with some luck, report success sometime in 2018.  Or perhaps not.

The country itself is struggling a bit.  Population growth is too high – – tenth fastest in the world – – at 3.27% annually over the past five years.  By comparison the U.S. has grown 0.75% in the same time frame. Uganda is already densely populated. The country is the size of Oregon and has 43 million people. Just 4 million live in Oregon. Governance is poor there with an autocratic president who has overstayed his constitutional limit in office.  President Museveni is now in the fifth term (of a two term presidency) that started in 1986.

Winston Churchill called Uganda the Pearl of Africa and indeed, at one time it was.  In the 1970s Idi Amin made short shrift of that moniker. He expelled 60,000 Indian descent citizens who were a very successful merchant and administrative class. By the end of his eight year misrule Uganda sported the poorest growth rate in Africa. Idi Amin was followed by a series of not so great leaders up to the current long term president (too long term.)

But my sponsors seldom send me to smoothly functioning democracies where everything is going swimmingly.  In fact, going where everyday people need and appreciate the assistance I can provide is the reason I accept these assignments.

I generally don’t go for the food.  A typical Ugandan restaurant has a menu with two columns.  One lists “food,” meaning a staple like matooke (mashed plantain), posho (stiff corn porridge), muwogo (mashed cassava root), or rice. The other column lists the sauces that one may cover the food with: beans, beef stew, and my favorite, g- nut sauce. G-nut stands for groundnut.  We call them peanuts in the US. All in all, not bad, but then again not destination dining.  Fortunately however, some 15,000 Indians returned to Uganda after Amin’s downfall, bringing back with them a selection of Indian restaurants serving much more than just the basic food above.

I do go for the scenery. This time in Uganda I visited Murchison Falls and its eponymous national park.  These falls on the Nile River are Uganda’s highest at 141 feet.  (Niagara Falls are 167 feet.)  Worth noting is that the Nile runs through much of Uganda (and South Sudan and Sudan) well before it reaches the country it is most famously associated with, Egypt. Murchison Falls National Park has the usual assortment of large African animals: elephants, hippos, lions, giraffes, Cape buffalo, mosquitoes, and spiders.

I also visited the much debated source of the Nile.  The Ugandans claim it is the point where the river emerges from Lake Victoria.  Naturally this point is in Ugandan territory.  Other countries with rivers feeding into the world’s second largest lake claim that their feeder streams are actually the source.

So if you want to get into a heated debate, suggest to your Ugandan bartender that the real source of the Nile is in Burundi.

Who took my cow?

Back in Africa, I am just now wrapping up a 2.5 week assignment in Uganda.

Heading north from Kampala, the capital, we passed through rolling green hills, fertile fields of grain, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables, and crossed the Nile at Karuma Falls (more like rapids than a bona fide waterfall) before reaching Lira. Uganda sits astride the equator in East Africa and I am working not quite astride the equator near Lira a sizable northern regional town of 100,000. My clients are grain and legume farmers, growing corn, millet, soy, sesame, peanuts, and more.

I am providing leadership skills training to the management team of a rural farmers’ cooperative. We have covered co-op organization, ways to run effective meetings, the key elements of a business plan, internal communication, and conflict resolution. I am also teaching the rank and file members of the co-op the finer points of business communication so that they will be better able to engage with their customers.

At the first training session, I asked the farmers how they communicated with the buyers of their crops. One farmer raised his hand and answered, “Prices are too low.” Not exactly a response to my question. So I asked again how they currently communicate with buyers. Another farmer had the reply, “Prices are too low.” Still not getting the essence of my question, I asked once more and received the same response: “Prices are too low.” So, on the fly I adjusted my business communication class to include negotiation skills – – in the hope that better negotiation ability will increase the likelihood of receiving a fair price for their crops. And also in the hope that this topic would shut them up about those damn prices.

As usual, I spent the first couple of days of my assignment – – before starting the training – – by meeting a sampling of leaders and farmers to conduct a needs assessment. Otherwise, how would I know what I should cover in my training classes? During this needs assessment stage I visited the members of a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA.) They were meeting in a farmer’s well swept dirt compound under a large shade tree.

The thirty members of this VSLA meet weekly to set aside money for the future. They each bring their passbook to be stamped with the number of shares they save each week. Each share costs 3000 Ugandan shillings (about $1.15.) They are permitted to purchase up to five shares weekly. Thus the maximum would be nearly $6 savings per week – – a princely sum for a poor farmer. Their savings are pooled and they may borrow from their communal kitty for any need: seeds, fertilizer, children’s school fees, bicycle, cow. In fact, they are required to take out a loan from their VSLA each year. And they must repay the loan, plus 10% interest, before the end of the year.

There are no nearby banks in this rural area. And besides, the amounts saved would be below the minimum account requirement of most banks. So, the VSLA members secure their cash in a lock box that has three padlocks. Three different members each hold a key. Of course only one member will take the cash filled box home with him for safe storage…and then bring it back for the following week’s meeting. I would feel very vulnerable if the lock box were at my home, especially in December after a year’s worth of savings – – even with three padlocks.

At the end of the year the cumulative value of each member’s savings, plus the 10% interest earned from loan repayment, is returned to the members. But not quite 10%. The interest must be reduced by the amount of bad loans – – there are deadbeats in every group. If someone does not repay his loan, the VSLA will attempt to confiscate something of equivalent value from the deadbeat. Like his bicycle or his cow. Such is village justice in rural Uganda.

Following class one afternoon I learned that the farmers like to get together after a hard day of work in their fields to share the local equivalent of a cold beer. Late in the afternoon, while passing by a convivial group of 15 farmers, I was invited to join them seated in a circle around a large cast iron pot. In the pot was MARUA, a fermented millet alcoholic beverage. Six hollow reeds, three feet long, served as straws. They passed these six shared straws around the group so that all revelers could take sips of the hooch. One of the lengthy reeds came to me. (NB – the nearest Ebola case is still at least 2000 miles away.) Drawing a beverage up a three-foot long straw takes quite a pull. By the time it reached my mouth I was anticipating refreshment. It was lukewarm, slightly alcoholic, a little bit thick, and decidedly unpalatable – – easily ranking in the lower decile on my lifetime beverage list. But like the good soldier (that I once was) I swallowed it with a smile and passed the straw to the stranger next to me.