Over the next few weeks, Project Diaspora will be covering the plight of Uganda’s aloe vera farmers who are trying to find international markets for their product. Part 1 of Project Aloe is an overview of how I personally got involved. Subsequent articles will provide more details into the challenges of trying to assist these farmers.
I thought it was an innocent question and I was expecting a simple answer, you know, one of those that make you slap your forehead and go, “Doh! I knew that!”.
I was standing in my mother’s garden. The weather was cool this particular August morning, and a light fog was rising from the surrounding deep forest. I was trying to chase away the morning chill with heavy sips from the tea cup in my hand.
My mother paused from weeding a row of beans and looked up. I was standing in a row of prickly plants that looked like pineapple but had no fruit. There were four rows across and about 15 plants deep.
“Aloe Vera,” she said with a somewhat defeated sigh, “that’s aloe vera.”
Somehow, I knew there was more to the story.
About 4 years earlier, a man called Hajji Ali Sessanga, formed Uganda Commercial Aloe Vera Farmers Association in Kampala and started soliciting farmers around the country to buy and start planting aloe vera seedlings in large quantities. I will get more in depth on Ali Sessanga a bit later. He convinced the farmers that there was a ready foreign market and that large quantities of the processed aloe gel were going to be bought at a good price, after the aloe matures in 18 months. Of course the sales pitch was enticing to a farmer making less than 500 dollars a year. The possibility of tripling or quadrupling one’s income in one year singularly on a one-crop investment was too enticing to ignore.
Breaking Down the Scheme:
For the sake of accuracy and simplification, we’ll just focus on the affected farmers in Masindi District alone. But the numbers can be extrapolated for use with other districts around the country. For currency conversion, we’ll use 1,750 shillings to one dollar rate equivalent.
Mr. Sessanga bought radio airtime and baited farmers with promises of getting rich quick. Interested farmers were to pay a 5,000 shilling membership fee before getting access to the seedlings. The membership provided no guarantees nor was it a specifically binding agreement. After a membership card was offered, the farmers were free to purchase as many seedlings as they could afford (this was encouraged) at a price of 1,500 shillings each. One acre of aloe vera can accommodate about 1,600 plants. The average aloe vera acreage per farmer in Masindi District is estimated at about .75 acres. Translated, that means that on average, each participating farmer in this District invested about 1,800,000 shillings, or roughly $1,028 in aloe vera. This is a lot of money for a peasant farmer. This is not counting the time invested in weeding and upkeep of these gardens for nearly three years. Now multiply that effort by the roughly 1,000 farmers that participated in Masindi District alone.
Under normal circumstances, aloe vera matures for harvest in about 18 months. After which it can be harvested 3 to 4 times a year. In the healthy loam soil of Masindi, yields of the aloe vera leaves weighing about 1.5Kg were not unexpected. A healthy aloe plant, produces 3-5 leaves per harvest, or up to 15 leaves per year for every plant. The farmers were offered a price of 3,000 Uganda Shillings per Kg. Given that price, the average farmer stood a chance of making $20,000 and $26,000 per year on an acre of aloe vera. With that kind of a potential jump in income, it’s a wonder more farmers in Masindi District didn’t sign up for aloe vera.
A Call to Action
After hearing the story, I went around the district to meet with some of the farmers and see the size their harvests. It was sad to hear about the amount of effort they put into planting and maintaining their gardens. After several visits, I gathered some facts on how many farms and farmers were affected, the promises made to them and the potential economic impact that had affected the area.
Fortunately, before coming to Uganda, I had a chance meeting with Marsha Wulff, founder of Africeuticals™, and has invested in marketing African medicinal plants in the states. I sent the report to Miss Wulff , along with high resolution photos of the plantations that I had visited. Miss Wulff passed the report around to her colleagues and after four months, the consensus was reached that it was difficult to help the farmers get an international market for their aloe gels without a processing plant near the growing fields. There was already a glut of aloe vera on the international market and African aloe vera was not economically viable as transportation costs added to the cost of the raw material purchase itself. There is also the added costly hurdle of getting the international aloe vera certification before any international commercial partnerships can be aligned.
Meanwhile, back in Masindi District, I requested a meeting with some of the coordinators within the region. I had spent quite some considerable time researching the world-wide aloe vera industry and it’s many complexities, and I wanted to pass along my findings. Since the District was large, there was a sort of rudimentary organization with the participating members. Coordinators were appointed region-wide as a way to quickly disperse information. I arrived late to the meeting after a long, bumpy matatu ride from Kampala. There was a small gathering of farmers who were desperate for any kind of good news, and were none too pleased to hear what I had to say. Nonetheless I delivered the facts of my findings.
I explained what they were up against. I took care not to make any promises that I couldn’t keep.
The best scenario and outlet for the farmers was to have them create their own local market for their processed products. A process that would involve bringing a processing plant to the region as well as the various components to process and package the myriad of aloe-based finished products, i.e., soaps, tea, lotions, gels, and drinks. The very same processing plant I found out, that Sessanga himself claimed to have procured as early as April of 2007. Jane Nafula, reporting for Uganda’s The Monitor newspaper found that:
Sessanga said the machine worth $300,000 (Shs540m) would process Aloe Vera into toothpaste, medicinal liquids, cosmetics and animal feeds. He said members would also export Aloe Vera flowers to Sudan where there is a market for it. The flowers are used in making Aloe Vera herbal tea.
The products would be geared for the local African Market. Another advantage of bringing the factory to the region would be the secondary and tertiary economic impact it would have on the region. The factory would employ a small subset of workers. The farmers would also employ more farm hands to help harvest their aloe crop or to plant and maintain additional acreage. In essence a processing plant serving 1000 farmers would in effect impact a community of about 5000 directly and more indirectly.
While I saw the upside if a plan could be in place; the financial, logistical, and project management hurdles are overwhelming. Over the next few weeks, I will cover what I have discovered in my efforts to assist these farmers find international markets for their product. It’s been almost six months since I encountered these farmers. In that time, I have learned a lot in regards to Africa’s inability to get a fair deal in regards to international agricultural trade.