This weekend’s work should have been so rewarding that I could easily ignore the festivities in England and not wish I was there. But instead two exhausting 12 hour days meeting farmers in the field just left me with a feeling of how difficult everything is.
We were there to introduce a Kampala-based bank to the farmers, open their individual bank accounts and do CRB checks, all in preparation for distributing ox-plough loans in the near future. Instead, farmers raised questions, the banks appetite for the risk shrank, and everyone left disappointed with the loans unconfirmed.
In Anaka village, we learnt from the farmers the difficulty they have providing their ‘family’ land as security. The bank needs each farmer to get a letter from their local councillor describing the land boundaries, and then have this signed by every family member and boundary neighbour. Amone Patrick told us how hard it is to extract signatures from suspicious family members who have heard about the land-grabbings going on elsewhere in Uganda and think this might be a trick by the bank.
In Alero village, farmers explained how much they struggle to manage their cash flow. December loan repayments are fairly easily paid via cotton, but the payment six months later in June is harder. Little is being harvested by then, and while very good prices are available for those who have stored produce, it takes discipline to do so. They asked too whether they could have insurance in case the oxen dies – but the bank refused: “You’ll just kill the bull and eat it, and then come to us for a payout!”
In Atiak sub-county, the farmers told us they weren’t willing to work in groups to make the loans more affordable. A charismatic elderly female farmer told us that NGOs had tried to share oxen in groups and it hadn’t worked. The bank emphasized the benefits – much cheaper payments, less risk, help from each other with training and looking after the animals. But with a typically Ugandan blend of laughter and deadly seriousness, they said no, it would never work. A few glanced at the nearby stone monument to the horrendous Atiak massacre of around 300 civilians and abduction of many others by the LRA in 1995. Mistrust still runs deep here.
Just outside Pabbo, next to a school filled with Christians singing and shaking tambourines to celebrate Martyrs Day, farmers explained to us how much they need these loans. Omony Jackson, Chairman of the group, already has oxen & an ox-plough. He has cleared 3 more acres for cotton this year, so he’ll grow 5 acres instead of 2. He gets very good yields, so in projected revenue (from cotton) that’s $1700 instead of $700, and that’s pretty transformational for his family.
But at this point the bank raised their own concerns. They won’t include anything but cotton & sesame in their projected revenues; they won’t project a revenue increase of more than 50%; they won’t provide a loan for more than 50% of a farmers’ projected revenue. Those restrictions, no doubt reinforced by the farmers’ concerns, don’t leave us with very many farmers who qualify.
On Sunday evening I travelled back to Gulu with a headache from the sunshine and my bones rattling from the potholes in the murram road. I felt pretty defeated. Shaky land rights, uneven cash-flow, difficulties of working together, and simply low income that relies on the weather – all these things make loaning to smallholders high-risk and complicated. But we have to sit down together and work out a way, because as Omony Jackson told his group, “this is how we will lift ourselves higher”.