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Bunyoro’s burgeoning sugarcane industry: gains and misses

Sugarcane cultivation has emerged as a pivotal component of plantation agriculture in Bunyoro sub-region, essential for providing raw material for milling and supporting the burgeoning industrialisation efforts.

Notably, Bunyoro hosts several prominent factories such as Bwendro Dairy Farm, Hoima Sugar, and Kinyara Sugar Works, collectively employing over 8,000 individuals.

These establishments contribute not only to the local economy but also to national development by producing various goods and byproducts, including sucrose, jaggery, syrups, cellulose fiber, fodder, fuel (such as bagasse), and alcohol.

The push for industrialisation, fuelled by the need for affordable energy sources, has been instrumental in supporting these initiatives.

Uganda’s Energy Minister, Ruth Nankabirwa, recently highlighted the underutilisation of energy credits offered to industrialists, emphasising the importance of substantial power consumption to mitigate excess power generation capacity.

Presently, significant investments have been made in power infrastructure, including projects like the Karuma Hydropower dam, Isimba dam, Ayago, and various mini-hydro projects.

However, the absence of grassroots enterprises such as manufacturing and agro-processing could lead to a surplus of redundant power generation.

Sugarcane cultivation, in particular, is conducive to grassroots involvement, facilitated by sugarcane out-grower schemes.

These schemes have proven instrumental in improving livelihoods, raising living standards, and augmenting household incomes, especially for small and medium-scale landowners.

Historically, Bunyoro’s economy has revolved around peasant cash crop production, including coffee, cotton, and food crops.

The decline of traditional cash crops like coffee, compounded by factors such as disease and fluctuating prices, has necessitated the emergence of alternative industries.

Sugarcane cultivation has filled this void, reminiscent of similar transitions witnessed in regions like Zimbabwe following the decline of the tobacco industry due to global anti-tobacco campaigns.

With the advent of oil production, Bunyoro has experienced a surge in speculative ventures, exacerbating pressure on household incomes.

Infrastructure developments, urbanisation, and the expansion of the education sector have intensified this strain.

However, the rapid expansion of sugarcane cultivation has raised concerns regarding environmental degradation, with the region experiencing significant forest loss above the national average.

This environmental impact not only threatens local ecosystems but also contributes to social unrest and agrarian crises.

Moreover, sugarcane cultivation poses challenges to food security, as arable land is diverted from food crops to sugarcane plantations.

Displacement of families engaged in traditional crop cultivation, coupled with land disputes and encroachments on communal land, further compounds these issues.

Instances of land grabbing, such as the controversial case involving Hoima Sugar Works and the National Forestry Authority, over the giveway of land said to be part of Bugoma central forest reserve, underscore the need for robust land management policies and environmental safeguards.

Furthermore, the discharge of untreated effluents from sugarcane distilleries into water sources poses health risks to communities reliant on these resources for domestic purposes.

Allegations of corruption and collusion within national regulatory bodies, such as the National Environmental Management Authority, raise questions about the integrity of governance structures and their susceptibility to external influences.

While sugarcane cultivation presents economic opportunities for Bunyoro, its unchecked expansion warrants careful consideration of its environmental, social, and ethical implications.

Effective regulation, sustainable land management practices, and community engagement are imperative to ensure that the benefits of this industry are balanced against its potential adverse effects.

The writer is a Journalist with The Albertine Journal

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