Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Market information: Good for farming business and food security

“Why is it that our youth today are easily spending 1000 shilling on a single vote to keep Sharon in the Big Brother Africa House, and are rather less inclined to pay for mobile market info at 1200 Shilling a months?”
This food for thought was shared by Enoth Mbeine of FIT-Uganda during one of the sessions at the successful APF Uganda Market Information Symposium held in Kampala on 15 and 16 September. It sums up that the innovations are there, but getting them implemented and refined may take another quantum leap: farming needs to be seen as a viable business, especially by the youths.
Close to 170 participants from the business sector, farmer groups, government, development agencies, NGOs and service providers (including media) rolled in and out of the venue for two days. They networked, shared information at the market, listened to diverse presentations on innovations in the sector from Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda, and discussed ways forward.

High versus low prices: what works better?
Bjorn van Campenhout, researcher at IPRI, set the meeting off on the first day with a challenging econometric study of the relationship between prices an…. Some interesting observations: Research from Tanzania shows that the mere availability of cell phones (by looking at geographical coverage) has stabilized prices. And from measuring market integration (looking at transaction costs and transaction speed) a useful tool can be devised for policy makers to get an overview of production bottlenecks.

Overall this good price data help farmers; or as Bjorn stated: ”in the villages the prices are really low, because the farmers do not have the bargaining power “.
Nonetheless, the vote is still out whether high prices are better for food security than low prices, or vice versa. Even the big players like FAO, IFPRI etc. all seem to change opinions every few years (see box).
Evidence suggests however that particularly the poorest farmers suffer from both as they are both producers and consumers of the same product (e.g. maize and maize meal).
Other presentations on day one included a comparison of different 2nd generation MIS models (Kizito – Makerere); the regional food balance sheet (Achora – EACG), and afternoon group sessions with various inputs including farmers’ stories. On that last note honorable Mutebi Kityo (former MP and farmer) shared a striking tale:
“A farmer had produced a lorry full of sweet potatoes and proceeded to sell it to middlemen at one urban market. The middlemen were only willing to offer him 7,000 shillings which the minster found too low.  He then thought of going to sell them to another market.  The middlemen at both markets connived over the phone to offer him a lower price of 6,000 in order to frustrate him. He ended up going back to sell them at the first market at a price of 4,000 shillings because it was too late”.
This gave rise to a vehement discussion (both in plenary and in the corridors). Boniface Kiyombe  of HIVOS – the session’s facilitator – flagged a paradox in what was said: “why is there so much emphasis on the negative role of middlemen: farmers sometimes seem to trust them sometimes more than their neighbours”
Other issues touched upon, which also deserve further attention were:
  • ICT literacy and gender differences: boys are more literate, but women are the main producers!
  • Warehouse receipt systems: overall they provide better prices for farmers but can government make them work better / are they in the right location?

Practical examples

During both days many practical examples were shared particularly on bridging the information gap to and from farmers and how that can help farming business. FIT-Uganda’s Robert Kintu shared the FARMIS approach through which it pilots revived and improved crop cards into an ICT friendly basic database for farmers to plot their business. The system emphasizes the need to systematically keep track of key farming data ranging from input costs, to plot size, location, credits, production yields and (post-harvest) losses, and revenue. And as Robert Kintu of FIT mentioned: “Even the cost of free seed is calculated, to make sure farmers can use it for forward planning”.
Focus of other inputs during the event was on innovations through media (Bunyoro Broadcasting Service and New Harvest), but also through other VC actors and supporters such as Amitsa (agro-input dealers) and Lion Assurance and Stanbic Bank. All presentations are available here.
Way forward
The event was positively evaluated by the participants because of its rich content. At times less presentation and more interaction was called for. It was agreed that lessons and actions from this and the first  MIS symposium need to take precedence in the 3rd MIS symposium next year. The different actors are then to report on the progress in integrating lessons learnt into their planning cycles. In separate group sessions participants designed actions for the next 12 months on three main issues:
  • Effective and efficient system for the collection of national food security and trade indicators
  • Increased access and usage of MIS by the end users
  • Harmonized regional market information systems as a key to sustainable regional trade development (DRC, South Sudan and EAC countries)
The event was closed by Ms. Amelia Kyambadde, the Minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry, who emphasized the relevance of the APF market information symposium and network for farmer entrepreneurship in Uganda. And while it was Friday afternoon with the jam piling up, many still remained to network with her and others. A good sign for a fruitful collaboration in the months to come.

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