It may have been slower to embrace exports than some of its East African neighbours, but Uganda is now targeting rapid growth in fresh produce shipments, not least to the UK. Fred Searle reports

Transforming a country’s food system from one geared towards domestic supply to one that embraces the outside world is no easy task. In food, Uganda has a tradition of being largely self-sufficient and, generally speaking, the East African nation produces more food than it consumes – thanks to its fertile soils, favourable climate and plentiful lakes. 

Poverty still limits people’s access to nutritious food, especially in the north and east of the country. But agriculture plays a huge role in Uganda’s economy, employing over 70 per cent of the population and accounting for a quarter of the country’s GDP.

Given that most Ugandans live in rural areas and practise farming, increasing incomes from agriculture is vital to reducing poverty, boosting prosperity, and creating jobs – especially for women and young people.

An effective way of doing this is through exports, which largely generate higher returns for producers. Although agriculture already accounts for a third of Uganda’s export earnings, the country’s government has identified huge potential to increase exports across a range of sectors, not least fruits and vegetables. This of course requires considerable investment in modern packhouses, cold storage, food safety procedures, logistics and so on. But a number of businesses are already rising to the challenge, not least avocado producer Agricado (p.40-41) and jackfruit processor Zahra Food Industries.

From its base in Kampala, Zahra specialises in dried young jackfruit grown by around 300 smallholder farmers. It exports to food manufacturers in the Netherlands, which turn the fruit into burgers and meatball-esque jackfruit balls, for sale in retailers such as Albert Heijn. As production expands – and demand for plant-based meat substitutes grows – the supplier also wants to reach additional markets, particularly the UK, the US, and France. For the full story, head to the FPJ website and search for ‘Uganda’s jackfruit journey’.

Economic evolution

In a special press conference with FPJ and other international journalists in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, President Yoweri Museveni said Uganda has been slower to embrace exports than the neighbouring countries of Kenya and Tanzania since its “involvement with the outside is very recent”.

European culture and economic systems were more prominent in Kenya during and after colonisation because more Europeans were allowed to settle in the country, he explained. Uganda, by contrast, has been slower to enter what Museveni called “the global system of money”, having remained a “pre-capitalist” society “until very recently”.

One thing the President is keen for Uganda to avoid in future is what he called “the slave role” of African countries in only exporting raw materials to the West and being shut out from value addition at source. “We cannot be producers of raw materials only and be precluded from value addition to our own products; it is not acceptable,” he said. 

While fruit and vegetable production data is limited, it is understood that matoke (similar to plantain), cassava, sweet potatoes, beans, onions, pineapple, mango and green-skin avocados are among the most widely produced crops. But it is in Hass avocados that Uganda sees perhaps the greatest opportunity to generate export revenue.

Export ambitions

Post-Covid, the Ugandan government wants to boost exports across a wide range of industries in a bid to drive economic growth and recover the 300,000 jobs that are estimated to have been lost during pandemic lockdowns. As well as fresh produce, target industries include coffee, sugar, grains, poultry, beef and others. 

Uganda’s Presidential Advisory Committee on Exports and Industrial Development (PACEID) was set up in 2022 to advise Museveni on ways to address strategic and operational bottlenecks that stop Uganda fully realising its industrial and export potential. Measures include working with trade representatives, investing in better infrastructure, and improving logistics.

The body aims to help Uganda double its total exports from the current total of $6.6bn to $12bn by 2027. And the fruit and vegetable sector is where PACEID is targeting some of the fastest growth, with ambitions to boost exports by 60 per cent each year.

If achieved, this would take Uganda’s fresh produce exports from $45m to $196m by 2027. Of this, $7.9m of Ugandan vegetables and $4.4m of Ugandan fruit was exported to the EU in 2022, according to UN Comtrade data. But PACEID has identified several issues that the country must overcome to succeed on the international stage. These include the country’s fluctuating prices, lack of investment, low-quality inputs (such as seeds, pesticides and other chemicals), weak grower cooperatives, and poor economies of scale.

Open for business

Museveni encouraged the British government and UK companies to invest in Uganda and help increase production of various products, including fruits and vegetables. He also stressed that there are untapped opportunities for Uganda to trade more with members of the Commonwealth.

“Chinese companies are investing and producing products that are sold in Uganda, within Africa, and to third parties. But the British are not using their opportunity,” he said.

Museveni’s comments follow the news in November 2022 that Britain plans to remove tariffs and quotas on almost all imports from Uganda by the end of 2023. Uganda and other ‘least-developed’ countries are part of the EU’s Everything but Arms deal which allows exports of all products except arms to the EU duty-free and quota-free. After Brexit the UK stopped being part of the deal but is reportedly in the process of signing a similar agreement with Uganda.

Airfreight opportunities

Fresh produce trade will also benefit from the construction of new cold storage facilities at Entebbe International Airport near Kampala – for perishable export cargo such as fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers. The airport now has two cold storage units: one run by DAS Handling that is around 30 years old, and another operated by Menzies which opened in 2022 thanks to funding from the Chinese government. This has doubled total capacity to 100,000 metric tonnes.

Morris Ongwech, who is cargo manager at Uganda Airlines, says more needs to be done to encourage export growth from Uganda, for example by lowering airfreight rates where possible from Entebbe. With more airlines now shipping from the airport, there is greater price competition between carriers, and this has helped to drive up export volumes.

Total cargo volume (of which 96 per cent is fish, fruit, vegetables, and flowers) rose sharply from 2015 to 2019 and has been picking up again since a marked decline in 2020 due to Covid. In 2021, the last year with complete data, Uganda airfreighted over 39,000 tonnes, according to the Civil Aviation Authority.

After a fourfold rise in airfreight rates at certain points during the pandemic, prices have now fallen lower than pre-Covid. And Entebbe’s rates are currently on par with those offered by carriers at Nairobi Airport, which has led to increase in the volume of freight transiting through Entebbe in recent weeks.

Uganda’s principal air links with Europe are into Liège, Brussels, and Amsterdam – from where produce is forwarded to other markets – but the Ugandan government also aims to reopen direct links with the UK and France (see page 42-43).