Josephine Okot cannot stay quiet, her voice getting louder and louder as she gets carried away with the point she is making. “I’d be sacked if I worked here,” says Okot. “I’m much too loud … you have a horrible office, I’m not coming back.”
The founder of Victoria Seeds, Uganda’s leading seed company, which caters to smallholder farmers and exports to South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is no shrinking violet.
The day before visiting the Guardian, Okot spoke on a panel at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) to discuss two reports on linking smallholders to markets in Africa. Despite having flown in only that morning, Okot was a lively and forceful presence on the panel, befitting an entrepreneur who has won awards including a Africa Award for Entrepreneurship in 2011.
Okot founded her company in 2004, at a time when commercial banks considered agricultural investments to be too risky. She only succeeded in securing start-up capital because of a guarantee from a USAid project. Victoria Seeds has grown into a business with a $2.5m turnover, employing 140 people. More than 900 farmers, mostly women, grow seeds for the company. It markets more than 95 varieties of cereal, legume, vegetable, oil, horticultural and forage crops. The company disseminates seeds across Uganda through more than 400 agro-dealer outlets.
In her interview in the Guardian’s hushed atmosphere and during her appearance at the ODI, Okot bemoaned Africa’s farmers’ lack of productivity and their reliance on rudimentary tools. “The hand-held hoe should no longer be a tool of production, it is an embarrassment that it still is,” she says.
Okot laments the lack of agricultural extension services – the provision of training and advice to smallholders. The absence of advice and good seeds account for crop yields in Uganda that reach only a third of their potential, she says.
“There was an efficient extension service when I was growing up in the 1970s, but such extension is available to 14% or fewer farming households today,” she says. “We need people to advise farmers on how to apply fertilizer, control pests and prevent post-harvest losses [such as those caused by inadequate storage].”
Okot is not alone in stressing the importance of extension services. A report on global food security from the parliamentary development committee this month urged the Department for International Development (DfID) to devote a greater portion of its budget to supporting agricultural extension services, particularly those targeted at women.
More controversially, Okot argues that DfID should not focus on those at the “low end of the value chain”, ie the smallholder farmers themselves, but on businesses that can make a real impact on agriculture – not unlike her own. She recommends that aid agencies support Ugandan companies to become globally competitive, helping them to adopt the latest technologies and skills to increase productivity and drive demand.
“Donors should focus on those higher up the value chain. It is enterprises that are the critical drivers, they drive demand from farmers,” she says. “If donors want to achieve their objectives, if they want to improve livelihoods, they should focus on businesses that add value to output.”
Okot thinks a commodity exchange along the lines of the one recently set up in Ethiopia would improve Uganda’s agricultural sector. “Why not cut and paste for Uganda?” she asks. An exchange, she believes, would improve quality, encourage the construction of adequate storage facilities and boost trading volumes.
While development experts may question Okot’s priorities for donors, few would quarrel with her assertion that lack of finance is a big problem for farmers. She is particularly critical of the absence of longer-term loans. “To bring a seed from breeder stage to the market can take three years,” she says, “but loans often are for a maximum of 12 months. Twenty-year loans are needed at low rates.”
Victoria Seeds commissioned a third seed-processing plant last year to double processing capacity to meet the increasing demand for improved quality seed, and it is planning to move its head office to the Kampala industrial and business park, east of the capital. But the lack of basic facilities there is proving to be a major headache.
Okot is characteristically blunt about the park’s shortcomings. “We can’t operate our business without water, electricity or an access road,” she says, expressing her frustration that the Uganda Investment Authority has so far failed to deliver these basic services.