The average person in Uganda eats 660 pounds of bananas each year.
That’s a lot of bananas: It’s at least 50 percent more than the weight of a full-grown male mountain gorilla. Ugandans eat more bananas per person than the people of any other nation.
I’m a banana farmer in the Rakai district of Uganda, so you might think that I’d have trouble keeping up with our country’s strong demand for bananas. The vast majority of Uganda’s bananas supply local markets, but we also export them. More than 1,000 tons each year head to Europe. Many of the bananas on my farm make their way to the United Kingdom, and other Ugandan farmers send bananas to Belgium and Germany as well as neighboring African countries.
It’s another example of how much the business of food production relies on global trade. Maximo Torero Cullen, the Chief Economist of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), recently made a striking point: “One of every five calories people eat have crossed at least one international border, up more than 50 percent from 40 years ago,” he said.
Many farmers in our area have diversified into coffee, partly because the market for bananas can be unpredictable, with prices rising and falling in ways that are beyond our ability to anticipate or control.
Ugandans enjoy coffee, but we don’t drink it the way we eat bananas: Most of the coffee we produce ships overseas. It’s our best export crop.
I’m diversified in another way: Our main product is goats. We sell boer and mubende goats for meat. But that’s not all: We breed goats and educate fellow farmers in goat care and management. We also sell goat manure as a fertilizer, though lately we’ve been using it almost entirely to help our own bananas grow.
Our goat operation is international. We’ve sold to customers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania. We’ve imported hybrids from South Africa because we seek to crossbreed them with our indigenous breeds to produce goats whose offspring grow up fast. The economics are risky, however, as a healthy male goat can cost as much as $1,000, plus $200 in freight. Yet the rewards of innovation can make it worthwhile.
If Africa had a better infrastructure, these prices would go down and international trade would go up. We need better roads and more rails. Another problem is the lack of electricity, which makes it impossible to freeze food during packaging and transportation. In a better-functioning system, more calories would cross more borders.
Sometimes it seems as though we don’t need to promote trade as much as we need to remove the obstacles that prevent it from reaching its full potential.
COVID-19 has disrupted much of the activity we already have. Borders have shut. The paperwork is immense. The rhetoric is hostile: Kenya and Uganda have accused each other of introducing cases of coronavirus. During the crisis, our exports to the UK dropped as the cost of airlifting cargo from Entebbe rose.
Even local trade is distorted. To combat COVID-19, our government gave away so much maize flour that the demand for bananas dropped. As prices plummeted, fewer trucks arrived on our farm to pick up the fruit. Bananas became so cheap, we wound up feeding them to our goats.
Bans on public gatherings halted our trainings, which make up a big share of our farm’s revenue. Livestock extension services stopped. Between April and July, nobody in Uganda could acquire vaccines for livestock.
The good news is that since the easing of the lockdown orders this summer, we’ve sold more goats than ever before. People are moving into the business and they’re turning to us for their stock.
One of the lessons of 2020 is simple resilience: In farming, we never know what to expect. Nobody saw the pandemic coming. As the world grappled with it, business in Uganda and everywhere faltered. People struggled but new opportunities emerged. To seize them, we had to adapt, even on our goat-and-banana farm in a developing country.
The only thing we can know about tomorrow with certainty is that Ugandans will continue to grow and eat bananas. More trade and a resilient food supply chain will help those healthy bananas and goats cross more borders to feed and nourish more families.