Female capitalist farmers are becoming increasingly visible in Uganda, with the food sector in the country becoming market-oriented. (A decade ago, the government had introduced numerous reforms to increase the market responsiveness of the sector.)
Interestingly, crop husbandry in Uganda has always been gender-sensitive. While the cash crop sector - which includes coffee, cotton and sugarcane - is male dominated, the food crop sector is a female bastion. Women grow 70 per cent of the food and control 60 per cent of the selling and exchange of this produce. A study by Women in Development, contracted last year by the Ministry of Gender and Labor, revealed that women are also skilled in post-harvesting activities, such as processing and storage. With the food crop sector entering the extremely competitive open markets, Uganda's women capitalist farmers have finally arrived.
Meet Josephine Kizza, the toast of the Ugandan food crop sector. Kizza has even earned public recognition for her achievements from President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. "This one is 'Muzukusa' (one who wakes others up)," announced Museveni.
Kizza, who has nurtured a corporate image by wearing business suits, made her fortune cultivating vegetables and fruits, and rearing livestock. Her three-and-a-half-acre farm has an annual turnover of Shs 30 million (US$1=Shs1,720). Museveni called for people to take inspiration from Kizza's entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, he expressed the hope that her farm would become a place where poor women could get a first-hand look at commercial farming.
Then there is also Jessica Nabisere, who owns eight acres of land on which she grows pineapples. She earns Shs 80 million from the produce and has takers from as far as next-door Kenya.
An atmosphere of competition now prevails in the country. No longer do women dole out free produce - such as fruits and grains - to people: they'd rather sell it in the markets and earn more money.
Taking advantage of their competitive streak and potential, several institutions have furthered the female farmers' success. The Development Finance Company of Uganda, a commercial bank with a 15 per cent female clientele, created a US $3.5 million special package for women. The company has also trained 22 women entrepreneurs. The Kampala-based Women Trust Bank now makes women aware of their legal rights and imparts commercial skills before providing them with loans.
Yet, if more women are to become entrepreneurs, society needs to change its outlook and lend more support. Josephine Okot, a former civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture and now owner of Victoria Seedlings, believes that the key to women rising in the food sector is a positive attitude. "Earlier, young women were not encouraged to adopt a business-like attitude. Even now, for those women who have made it big, it is a lonely journey," she rues.
For some, however, farming has been a turning point in life. Take the case of Bettina Nabunya, who had attempted suicide when her textile business collapsed. Nabunya tried her hand at mixed farming and her fortunes revived. "I expect to yield Shs 870,000 against an investment of Shs 500,000," says Nabunya, of her latest venture.
Nabunya is a beneficiary of the African Woman Food Farmer Initiative (AWFFI) - a programme designed to economically empower women food farmers. The programme, run by the Food and Hunger Project, began in 2001. Since then, AWFFI has loaned $623,000 to women. To help continue the good work, President Museveni has also given a $100,000 grant to the programme.
Despite the success, women farmers fear that men will find ways to subjugate them in the food crop sector. "Crops grown for subsistence are increasingly becoming cash crops and falling under the control of men," cautions the Agricultural Investment Strategy of the Ministry of Agriculture. Mahbuba Kaneez, a researcher, who has toured Ghana, Uganda and Zimbabwe extensively, observes, "National policies have failed to take up the cause of women farmers, creating insecurity and making them more vulnerable."
Many also fear that the apparent change of guard - men taking over the food crop sector - will have ominous implications, especially when malnutrition is becoming a national problem. Ever since the economy opened up, the government launched an export drive in earnest - completely overlooking domestic needs, ignoring the spiraling malnutrition amongst women and children, and leaving half of Uganda's 27 million people to starve.
As a result, many are of the opinion that women should remain in charge of the food crop sector, as they are known to put the needs of families before hardcore commercialism. "It has been the woman's primary role to ensure household food security," says Dr Augustus Nuwagaba, of Makerere University Institute of Social Research.
Fortunately, some Ugandan communities are becoming women-friendly. Buganda, one of the most economically advantaged communities in central Uganda, has allowed women to become landowners. As a result, men can no longer take property-related matters for granted. In fact, Nabunya, whose husband works in the UK, has already put his properties into joint ownership with his wife.