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January 07, 2012

Ugandan farmer makes good with fresh fruit exports

Having ventured into the world of commercial farming 15 years ago, James Kanyije has manoeuvred his way around quite successfully.

After graduating with a diploma in business studies in 1996 from Makerere University Business School, then referred to as the National College of Business Studies in Nakawa, Kanyije joined the employed ranks.

He worked with the Uganda Fish Parkers, where he received a wage of sh80,000 per month, eventually joining Icemark Africa Limited five years on.

Armed with a good knowledge of the fresh fruit industry in the UK, Spain, Belgium and other countries in Europe, Kanyije ventured out on his own at the turn of the millennium.

“I started small and gradually expanded. I was using farmland that I jointly owned with my brothers,” he says. “I sent my first consignment of fresh produce to Holland around September 2000, and after two years, orders started coming from France and other parts of Europe.

“People would read the labels on the boxes and would call me. We reached 1,000 tonnes of exports in 2007,” he says.

 Kanyije’s 100-acre farm, where he grows matooke, apple, banana, sugarcane, okra, sweet potatoes, hot pepper, gunda and carrera for the European market.

“Twice a week, we send at least 200 boxes of potatoes, 20 boxes of okra, 240 boxes of matooke to Europe. We also ship at least 5,000 boxes of bird eye chilli every week, but we need much more,” he says.

Ugandans in Europe also love the matooke, while Asians and a big portion of the West Africans generally like the white and the purple egg-plants commonly referred to as entula in Luganda.

“I have at least seven dedicated buyers in the UK, but most times I am unable to fulfil the orders. Even with 500 outgrowers getting the required quantities is still a struggle,” he notes.

Kanyije says the current heavy rains are as much a blessing as they are a challenge. With rains going into a third straight month, some of the matooke plantain stems are weakening and eventually breaking under the weight of full grown plantain.

To ensure that maximum output is derived from the plantation, Kanyije employs about 44 workers on the farm to tend the farm. Even then, he says additional labour is still needed to tend the 40 acres of matooke, four acres of apple banana, two acres of sugarcane, four acres of sweet potatoes and the other crops.

“Around this time last year, there was insufficient rain and we had to search for water to irrigate the land since the soils here are not so good. We even hired a rain maker, who failed to deliver the much-needed rain,” Kanyije says.

He adds that the rains fell shortly after the rain-maker was sent away. However, it dawned on him that he needed to mulch his farm, especially the banana plantation, to check soil erosion.

He says finding the required amount of grass to cover all the 40 acres of matooke will take a while.
He also uses the hot pepper rejects as a pesticide and fungicide in the banana garden, something he says, has added to the quality of his crop output.

“The scent from the hot pepper is strong enough to drive away dangerous insects from infecting the matooke stems. Additionally, when the hot pepper rots, it forms manure,” he says.

Without giving a detailed account of his earnings from the exports to Europe, he says he has been able to sustain his household and build a clinic of sh650m for residents of Busika, a neighbouring town.

He says each box of matooke and okra is sold at 14 pounds in the UK, that of African eggplant is 10 pounds, with the average prices of the rest of the crops at 14 pounds per box in the European market.

In October, Kanyije sold about 10,932 boxes of hot pepper, 2,306 boxes of matooke, 3,716 boxes of bird eye chilli, 1,875 boxes of African egg plant and several other boxes of sweet potatoes, apple banana, avocado, mango and beans.

Kanyije says without a cooling unit, losses occur when flights to Europe are cancelled or delayed because fresh fruits are perishable.

“The Government talks about supporting agriculture, but people like me with large farms are receiving little or no support. The Government should finance us and pass legislation that bans the importation of certain inorganic fertilisers,” he says.

He adds that there is need for all stakeholders in the fresh food export business to approach the international market as a single group from the country.

Kanyije argues that by approaching the international market as an individual erodes gains from exporting and weakens chances of penetrating foreign markets.

Pointing at a plantation of okra that is withering due to poor quality seeds, he says the Government should source for good quality seeds from countries like India.

Kanyije says a kilogram of okra seeds purchased from India costs 100 euros (about sh360,000).
To make things worse, a section of the farm has been hit by a rare virus streak that eats up the stems of the sweet banana locally known as ndizi, drying up the stem and the leaves of the crop, eventually killing the plantain or making it ripen prematurely.

He adds that fresh fruit companies that send contraband into the UK alongside their merchandise are making it harder to do legitimate business in the country.

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