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August 25, 2008

UN cuts relief food imports from US, benefiting Ugandan farmers

The rise in the cost of food has devastated consumers from the cities of North America to the tiny villages of Africa. But for many of Uganda's farmers, higher food prices have been the best thing to happen to them in years.

Since last year, the Ugandan arm of the world's top food aid agency, the UN World Food Programme (WFP), has cut its imports from America and bought more than 60 percent of its food aid locally, boosting the market and income of rural farmers.

The primary reason? Higher global food prices.

"The WFP saved the farmers," says Paul Masaba, a farmer who grows maize, potatoes, wheat and coffee in Kapchorwa, a small, dusty town nestled at the foot of western Uganda's Mount Elgon. "We now have a ready-made market at a fair price."

The WFP still imports maize from American farms for its relief efforts in Africa, but the increased cost of transporting the food added with rising food prices has made the idea of buying African food more alluring.

Masaba says that he expects to sell 300 bags of maize to the WFP this season, netting upwards of one million Ugandan shillings (700 dollars). Before joining the Kapchorwa Commercial Farmers' Association and entering into the WFP contract, Masaba says, he was "working at a loss" due to a lack of capital, low productivity and a non-existent market.

Because there were no thriving markets or set prices, "middlemen" or businessmen who would buy crops at a low price then resell them to exporters for a large profit, would exploit the farmers, Ugandans say.

Grace Cheberen says she was one of the oft-exploited growers. "We at least now have a fair price for our maize, which has opened our market," she says. "Before, our maize did not have a price."
Local consumers would pay the farmers what they could afford, sometimes at half the value of the produce.

"I feel happy that my produce is being appreciated and that I am able to pay for my children's school fees," Cheberen says, pointing past lumbering banana trees to a half-finished building that will become her office and store. She earned three million shillings (2,100 dollars) from her contract last year.

Lydia Wamala, spokeswoman for the WFP's Uganda office, said that the UN agency has always tried to buy around half of its food on the continent, but the percentage increased to 65 percent last year. "It's becoming more and more of a trend to buy food from African growers instead of importing from abroad," Wamala said.

Indeed, the WFP saw the food price crisis as a "good opportunity" to increase the income of local farmers, the agency said. The WFP added that it plans to partner with the US-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to increase its buying from small-scale farmer groups in Africa.

But the boom in Ugandan farmers' incomes may only be temporary. With higher food prices also come higher prices for farming inputs, such as fertilizer, seeds and fuel.

Vice-chairperson of the Kapchorwa Commercial Farmers' Association, Joyce Banan, says the WFP price is really "not enough for the farmers."

Still, the farmers say the contract has motivated them to better organise and bargain for prices within their own local markets. Through the farmers' association, the growers competitively sell a myriad of produce to Ugandan consumers.

"Farmers were just barely surviving before, that's why they have remained poor," Banan says. "But I can talk now, and say this is the price I want for my maize."


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