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When President Yoweri Museveni visited Joseph Ssebugenyi’s farm in February, what he saw was the peak of over 14 years of focused work. Yet the successful Ssebugenyi became a farmer almost by accident, because of an insult. Oryomushuma (you are a thief), a man who had brought potatoes for sale in the market told him.

It was early 1995 and Ssebugenyi was a small-time fresh foods seller in Owino market. The man insulted me because I had picked one of his potatoes. But this insult changed the course of my life, he says. The insult was too big for the then 40-year-old and father to over 7 children, that when he went back to his home that day, he sat and evaluated his life. He was not satisfied with the meagre money he made. It was barely enough for me and my family to survive on, he says. He was making an average of sh2,500 per day. And this had to be shared with transport costs from his Kanyanya home, a Kampala suburb, to the city where the market was. That night, he decided to abandon hawking the heaps of fresh foods and start farming. My friends laughed loudly when I told them about my plan the next day. They said I would never make it in agriculture because I had no capital, Ssebugenyi says.

He keeps quiet momentarily, then boasts about the cool air in the sitting room of his newly furnished house. Gesturing at the fan and then at the smooth cemented floor, he says, These are the fruits of my hands. This house came from the farm. When he decided to leave Kampala for his village back in 1995, he only had a deserted old house to go to. He had left it when he was fleeing the 1982 bush war. I came with nothing from the city apart from a black coat, a trouser, a shirt, two slashers and a hoe, he says. He also had a small saucepan that trebled as a food pan, a kettle and a saucepan. I did not even have a sh100 coin to transport me from the trading centre (Kasana-Kikyusa) to my village in Bulemalwogi when I came, he remembers. When he finally reached home, he found the place was infested with snakes and other reptiles, and the grass overly grown. He had not bothered to visit it regularly because, “I did not think I would ever return. My initial evaluation was that I would not manage.

I tried to plot a way back to the city, but had no money. I had no way out but to work, he says. And that involved slashing overgrown grass, evading snakes and other reptiles, encountering stingy insects, a daunting task. He had five acres of land under coffee and had returned to renovate the coffee garden and earn from it. I vowed to clear at least five coffee trees daily. The first days were difficult, but after two weeks, I had made a routine, he says. The garden had been planted way back in the 70s but had been abandoned during the war years. The coffee trees had grown wild and had become a forest of sorts.

He worked himself so thin that people thought I had AIDS.The tongues had been wagging already: Wherever I passed, I could here them say, Laba oyo ekibuga kyagaana, (see that failure from the city) but it did not deter me. By the end of 1995, when he was almost clearing the entire five acres of coffee, the coffee season began and he unexpectedly started to earn money.

It was difficult to believe that the forest I had neglected for so many years was now paying, he says. But even before the harvest, he had already identified another enterprise – pineapple growing. I had seen other people in the village dealing in pineapples and also wanted to invest in them, he says. He did not have any money to invest though. His coffee would only start to bring money in November. He turned to friends for assistance: I had cleared over an acre ready for the first pineapples, so I went out and started begging for suckers (plantlets), he says. Some people gave him as little as 10 suckers while others gave him more. He planted and had to wait for another 18 months before he enjoyed his first harvest. Today, he gives out suckers too; keeping heaps and heaps of them lying around his shamba.

He now has 12 acres under pineapples within each acre containing over 12,000 plants. In total, he has 20 acres under commercial agriculture. In the coming season, he expects to harvest at least 140,000 fruits and sell them at an average of sh700 each. Ssebugenyi also has over 800 plants of bananas that he commercially maintains, which he turned to when the coffee wilt attacked most parts of the country in 1997, including his garden. I had to look for another enterprise to replace the reducing coffee fortunes, he says.

At any one time, there are at least 100 bunches of matooke, ready for harvesting. We sell each of them at around sh5,000,he says. And this is only because he does not have his own transport to take them to Luweero market or Kampala. Ssebugenyi also maintains 5 cows. Two of these were donations from in-laws when two of his daughters introduced their fiances. He bought the other three. He keeps some milk for domestic consumption and sells the rest. Ssebugenyi cherishes his farm, which he calls my office. I make sure I visit my office before doing anything else, he says. It is not surprising that he knows every part of his 20 acre farm like the back of his hands. Go and harvest the bunch from the other end, he tells one of his workers. He adds, But not Nakabululu. Knowing your office makes work easier. That is why I make sure that I know every inch of this farm, he says. As age slowly catches up with him, he is venturing into another field – planting hard-wood trees for timber.

When he had just come back on 1995, he planted several musiizi trees. The 13-year-old trees are now tall and can produce at least 30 pieces of timber each. He wants to plant more of them. When the NAADS programme started in Luweero in 2000, Ssebugenyi was one of the village farmers selected to benefit from the programme. NAADS, he says, has been instrumental in giving him and his workers more skills. A NAADS coordinator, Dr. Kazibwe, regularly comes to visit and advise me, he says. His success has since attracted other groups including CARITAS. Challenges It has been challenges through and through for Ssebugenyi. Lack of capital, poor markets, pests and diseases have at any one time affected his progress. I did not have capital to start with, but overcame that by using the available resources, he gestures around while adjusting his sombrero.

Land is a very big capital that so many people do not know how to use. I had this land and used it to become who I am today,he adds. There is also a scarcity of casual workers to plough the farm. At any one time, I need at least six people on the farm. But workers are very rare, he laments. He also had a transport problem which has since been solved with the gift of a truck from President Museveni. Achievements He is cagey about how much he earns annually and only says he counts his earnings from what he has been able to do. This house is entirely from that farm, he says.

It was constructed through an initiative by the then bishop of Luweero diocese, Cyprian Kizito Lwanga. They required that a person pays 50% of the cost through the church. I was the only one who qualified because I had backing from my farm, he says. Ssebugenyi has also been able to educate his children through university. One did computer technology, while the other did accounting, he says. Land is capital. People should realise this and use it to fight poverty,he says.

Story Credit: Joshua Kato

Source: NewVision Uganda

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