Danny Gotto, Executive Director, Innovations for Development, Uganda
The intricate tapestry of Uganda’s food system, woven over centuries, underwent a tectonic shift due to colonialism. The reverberations of this historical trauma continue to shape the country’s food landscape, underscoring the pressing need to untangle the threads of colonisation and breathe new life into an ailing system.
Before it was colonised, Uganda’s land was a patchwork of kingdoms and chiefdoms, in a communal system where land wasn’t just a resource, but a collective heritage. It provided fertile ground for families to cultivate food and other crops for their subsistence and to share with their communities, an arrangement steeped in tradition, reciprocity and co-existence.
Colonial geo-political shifts shattered this communal system. The establishment of the British Protectorate of Uganda in the 1900s changed the relationship between society, land and food. A treaty signed between the British Protectorate government and the Buganda Kingdom in 1900 segregated land into two categories: In one, over 9100 square miles of game reserves, forests, mineral-rich expanses, and water bodies were seized as ‘Crown Land’, by the Imperial British East Africa Company, and transferred in the 1930s to various private and state landholders.
In the other segment, 10000 square miles share of less fertile ‘mailo land’ was allocated as private land to the king (Kabaka) and his family, chiefs, and religious institutions, making over 1.5 million indigenous residents squatters on the land, requiring permission and having to pay taxes to live on or farm the land. Ordinary Ugandans, once stewards of their land, were thus displaced, marginalised, and impoverished. Forced migration, and violent conflicts with the colonial government intensified displacement, famine, human and livestock disease, poverty and death.
Landless, indigenous people were compelled to work as poorly paid wage labour for foreign plantation owners, mostly British and Asian, producing cash crops for export, including food, coffee, cotton, tea, and cocoa. Poor wages, substandard conditions, colonial expansion wars and landlessness drove urbanisation. Those migrating to towns and cities often lived in informal settlements, in racially segregated cities, within crowded, substandard living conditions. That situation has evolved into today’s unplanned, poorly-serviced areas of towns and cities. The food system also changed. The indigenous food culture, with a diet of nutritious millet and sorghum slowly yielded to imported influences and local economic pressures.
Between 1910 and Uganda’s independence in 1962, smallholder farmers who were the backbone of local food subsistence would sell to exploitative local middlemen. The meagre payments they received drove farmers towards better-paid non-food crops such as cotton, coffee, tea, and tobacco. Low investment and a fall in indigenous food production led to intermittent famines in many regions in the early 1900s. In response, the colonial government introduced fast-growing crops like cabbages and potatoes (locally referred to as ‘Irish Potatoes’ given their Irish origin) to contain famines. Urban communities increasingly depended on commercial and informal food markets, with poor food hygiene and high levels of additives in imported fast-foods exposing them to communicable and nutritional diseases.
Landless people joined the struggle for Uganda’s independence, seeking change to these forms of exploitation. Independence brought them political change, but limited socio-economic change. Colonially confiscated ‘crown land’ became national public land, still producing cash crops, without restoring land to or compensating original inhabitants who were displaced from their land. Despite key new constitutional political freedoms, a priority for development over decolonisation, and adoption of a neoliberal economic model sustained inequalities in wealth and weakened economic self-determination.
Today’s burgeoning urban population grapples with exorbitant food prices, in commodified food markets. Food prices are affected by international commodity prices, conflicts, emergencies and pandemics like COVID-19 that destabilise food supply chains, particularly where imported foods such as wheat or rice have supplanted local staples. Climate change compounds this vulnerability, with water-stressed regions facing challenges in producing food from rain-fed agriculture. Under-investment in largely female smallholder farmers constrains their ability to generate livelihoods or to apply technological innovation, at a time when commercial seeds demand increasingly costly synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
Policy deficits related to food systems extend down other policy corridors. Neoliberal economic policies in the last three decades, influenced by international financial institutions, have focused on finance and export sectors, while starving the food sector. The formal private sector, pivotal in shaping the policy landscape, focuses on export-oriented production at the expense of indigenous, locally-consumed food. Trade liberalisation has promoted a further surge in unhealthy, food imports, further disconnecting people from their indigenous dietary roots. Markets flooded with ultra-processed foods catalyse a rise in food-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as hypertension and diabetes, from 22% of total national deaths a decade ago to 35% today. Kampala contributes to nearly 50% of all cases of NCDs.
The urgency to halt this trajectory cannot be overstated. Systemic transformation hinges on a multifaceted, people-centred approach towards food sovereignty. Closing knowledge and resource gaps to facilitate appropriate modern farming techniques, protecting indigenous seed stocks, and implementing inclusive land reforms are pivotal, as is recognising and supporting the role of urban agriculture. Restoring indigenous seeds, practices and foods in ways that prevent local resource depletion can make healthier, affordable foods available and accessible. Legal and tax measures can curb marketing of unhealthy foods, together with promotion of a seismic shift in public awareness to alter consumption patterns.
Reclaiming a healthy and self-determined food system isn’t confined to Uganda’s borders.
The trends outlined are found in other African countries, and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa has engaged on their global corporate drivers. A global forum on food sovereignty is bringing together thousands of indigenous, small-scale farmer, worker and other movements in a ‘Nyeleni process’ to advance food sovereignty at all levels (https://www.foodsovereignty.org/nyeleni-process/) In east and southern Africa (ESA), as noted elsewhere in this newsletter, we need to and can collaborate regionally to dismantle the colonial and (neo)colonial features of our food systems and to strengthen food sovereignty, supported by updated and harmonised food system laws, taxation to discourage harmful foods and by promotion of climate-relevant healthy approaches for farming, producing, processing and promoting consumption of healthy foods.
Uganda stands at a pivotal juncture in its food system trajectory. The path to decolonising its food system and building food sovereignty may raise challenges. It is, however, a path that can and must be traversed, to reach a future where food is not just to survive, but a testament to self-determination.