In an interview, Zijjan David Livingstone, the MP-elect for Butembe County in Jinja district took questions about the troubled sugar cane growing and the defeat of President Museveni in Busoga by closest challenger Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu in the February 2021 general election.
Zijjan, an NRM leaning independent MP, insists Museveni was defeated because Basoga are still bitter that they can’t sell their sugarcane to millers.
He says the only way government can repair the broken relationship in Busoga is by delivering on its pledge to construct a sugar factory for cane growers to mill their own sugar without depending on private sugar factories. Below are excerpts.
How big is your sugarcane plantation?
I farm on 450 acres of land but since the collapse of the sector, I’ve reduced that to 180 acres. I have been selling to Kakira Sugar.
So what was your loss?
I would say I have lost about Shs 400 million per year for the last three years due to my inability to sell sugarcane.
Is Butembe constituency as affected as other parts of Busoga with sugarcane growing?
Butembe is where Kakiri sugar is located, which is the largest Sugar miller in East Africa. It’s the heartbeat of the sugarcane question in the eastern region.
The issue of farmers growing sugarcane all over their land apart from the entrance to their houses is more predominant in my constituency than anywhere else. The reason is because after the independence of South Sudan, it started importing a lot of our sugar because it wasn’t manufacturing anything.
As a result, a tonne of sugarcane rose to the tune of Shs 180,000. So sugarcane became the thing in Busoga. When war broke out in South Sudan, the nation collapsed all of a sudden. As a result, there was too much sugarcane but the millers were not able to buy it because they couldn’t sell the sugar.
They had it in their stores and as you know, sugar expires and that led to the fluctuation in sugarcane prices. The prices didn’t just drop but the millers are not crashing the cane at all.
So we ended up with a lot of cane in Busoga without the millers crashing it. In 2019 we produced half a million metric tonnes of sugar but our consumption capacity is just 360,000 metric tonnes.
So why do people continue planting sugarcane well knowing that the market has collapsed?
It’s not like these people planted when the market was this terrible. When they planted, the market was still very good because you know sugarcane takes at least two years to mature.
But like I said, at one point this sugarcane cost Shs 180,000 per tonne, and an acre of land gives between 40-50 tonnes of sugarcane. That is good money. In Busoga it’s not that people have not farmed other cash crops but the challenge is that at harvest, everyone is harvesting the same crop and there is proliferation of the same crop, which fluctuates the market.
So sugarcane became more commercially viable because people would get their money in lump sum. It’s because of sugarcane that people have been able to send their children to school up to university even in rural Busoga. Even before the sugarcane could mature they would sell what they call a flower and get their money.
Of course, reason would dictate that you grow other crops but if you’re getting good money, who cares about other crops. You just sell sugarcane and buy other things. Now it’s not economically viable that’s why they are burning it. But remember they invested heavily to grow it because it’s capital intensive.
Some rented the land, some hired tractors to till the land. They got bank loans so if they cut it; they still have to meet the financial obligation.
South Sudan is a recent problem but even before it, there was an issue of food insecurity caused especially by sugarcane growing.
One would say so but with the assumption that food insecurity in Busoga has only started with the advent of sugarcane. I’m a born and raised in Busoga and we have always had food challenges. The investment in agriculture even by government via budgetary allocations has been minimal.
The farmer in Busoga is not aided to farm well. So the sugarcane question is only being used as a scapegoat to say that it has replaced food crops. Can I ask you a question, before the proliferation of sugar millers, was Busoga a prosperous region? The areas have always wallowed in abject poverty even before the start of sugarcane growing.
But wouldn’t it be fair to say that sugarcane growing worsened the situation?
I have told you here that because of sugarcane, people have been able to educate their children up to university with lesser difficult.
When they were still growing maize, everybody would harvest and it would lose value on the market. So comparatively speaking, the pros for growing sugarcane outweigh the cons. I can tell you that if government fixed the sugarcane question, we would not be hearing this noise from Busoga.
You’ve said that government should come in and fix the issue, what exactly do you want it to do?
The Sugar Bill before it was passed had an article on zoning, which would have placed millers in 25 kilometre radius away from each other. Because there wasn’t enough sensitization on the part of the local farmers on how the zoning would work, they opposed the clause and it was removed.
The Act also creates a Sugar Board, which is meant to monitor the sugar industry. Up to today, the board has not been operationalized. I hope in the coming budget; it will be allocated resources so that it ensures that there is a commensurate consideration of an out-grower farmer without infringing on the benefit of the miller.
The president also promised Busoga farmers a mill and that promise is yet to be realized. We think the president should honour that pledge so that farmers are able to crash their own sugarcane.
But even that will not solve the major issue of the market…
We want government to find a market for sugar. Uganda needs to become a better negotiator in the East African common market in regard to what we can sell to our neighbours. Kenya sells a lot more to us than we sell to them.
When they said we can sell our sugar to them, there were very stringent measures that an ordinary farmer couldn’t cope with. When Tanzania accepted our sugar, it only allowed 20,000 metric tonnes; very insignificant compared to how much sugar we produce.
When government starts a mill for us, it shouldn’t necessarily drive towards more production of sugar but should look at other products that can be released out of sugarcane such as sanitizers, spirits, industrial sugar, biogas, toilet paper, packing material and a lot more.
Sugar shouldn’t be the primary goal. The Sugar Act also needs to be revised so that we arrive at a compromise that benefits both the miller and out growers. The problem we face now is that the out grower is stuck with his or her sugarcane.
You’ve said you want the out growers to be the primary source of raw materials for the millers but they seem unreliable. How can a factory depend on you when the prices drop; you burn the sugarcane?
I was born in Kakira and I can tell you that factories have always primarily depended on out growers. But I think there is a bit of politics and capitalism aggression on the part of the millers to fail the out growers.
This is why I think the lasting solution will be a deliberate effort by the president to intervene. What we are talking about is a crisis in that people are not able to afford even basic necessities.
If you look at the election which just ended, the greatest reason why the NRM performed the way it did has to do with the sugar question. Until that question is solved, there might not be a marriage between the government and the farmers.
You talked earlier about the zoning clause that was finally removed from the bill; is there something that the MPs missed by choosing to delete that clause?
In my view, it’s the commercialization of politics where a lot of money changes hands before a law is passed. I don’t know whether there were any farmers among the MPs who passed that law.
Although I can’t substantiate it, I think sugar millers compromised some of those MPs, that’s why a lot of them were punished in Busoga through the election. If you have people who don’t have a direct stake, they are not going to negotiate with the same energy.
You are a sugarcane farmer and you are going to be part of the 11th parliament, what role do you see yourself playing?
I want the Sugarcane out grower’s voice to be heard. I want to see that the Sugar Act is amended so that the law can serve the common person.
I want to see that the Sugar board receives the requisite resources to do its work. I look at myself as the legislative voice of the sugarcane out grower.
Away from the sugar; who will you be voting for as speaker of parliament?
So far only Rebecca Kadaga has asked for my vote and presented a manifesto.
If another candidate wooes you would you consider them?
I will compare their manifesto with hers. If theirs is superior, then I might adjust.
And if after the Kyankwanzi retreat the president tells you who you should vote for; would that influence your opinion?
I don’t think the president will be tempted to do that. I think he believes in democracy and the will of the people. If he does that, he will be violating my right to cast my ballot where I’m convinced.
I think candidates should be given an opportunity to present their manifestos and let the voters decide. The party has always had a candidate but not out of coercion. A president can’t walk in the hall and then says this is the person you should vote for.