Category Archives: Uganda

Counterfeit Seed: The Contrarian’s Take

I’m fascinated by Seed Counterfeiting as a potential answer to the old puzzle of why there hasn’t been a Green Revolution in Africa. As an explanation, it has a lot going for it: simple, parsimonious, straightforward and backed by a mountain of anecdote. Yet, at this point, the evidence really is that: just anecdote. Which leaves us open to an intriguing possibility: what if – and I have my devil’s advocate cap squarely on as I pose this question – it’s all a mirage? A kind of rural legend?

What’s undoubted is that lots and lots of people believe seed counterfeiting is rife in East Africa. Stories are easy to come by of farmers buying seeds that come in Certified Seed bags, planting them, and getting very low germination rates or just  poor harvests.  The conventional wisdom in a whole band of Eastern and Southern Africa stretching from Kenya to Zimbabwe has long attributed this to malicious counterfeiting: fraud, if we’re to call it what it is.

But fraud implies malicious intent, and we really don’t have very good evidence for malicious intent. At least not yet.

An alternative hypothesis is out there, though it doesn’t get very much play: maybe the reason so much seed is of poor quality has to do more with incompetence than fraud.

The seed companies in the region are badly undercapitalized. They underinvest in research and development. They fall prey to all the same dysfunctions that all the other institutions in East Africa also fall prey too. What if the problem has more to do with the way these small seed companies safeguard the integrity of their germplasm and handle quality assurance than with any malicious faking in a back alley somewhere?

One problem is the slow rate of new hybrid variety introductions: in Uganda, you get perhaps 3 new maize varieties introduced per year, and some of the top selling varieties have been around for decades. Maintaining the genetic integrity of the parent lines and the foundation lines isn’t straightforward in an undercapitalized industry. Genetic drift ain’t just a river in Egypt, and it’s not unthinkable that the genetic variability farmers report in some of the certified seed they plant stems from this: real companies selling seed that is no longer hybrid without realizing it.

As for non-germination, plenty of handling issues could account for this. Seed is finicky: it needs to be stored right and kept right to stay viable. In the West, seed is kept in cold storage along the distribution chain. How many cold storage facilities for seed have you seen in Africa?

I’ve spoken to thoughtful people who take these concerns seriously, to the point of doubting whether counterfeiting is a significant part of the problem at all. It’s a minority view, but one that injects a needed measure of skepticism. In the end, the prevalence of the belief that malice is to blame for poor seed performance may turn out to tell us more about the absence of social capital and the generalized distrust in market exchange than about the prevalence of malicious counterfeiting.

What’s shocking is that research hasn’t put this question to bed. At least not yet. IFPRI has a study out in the field now in Uganda, for USAID, that should put this question to rest at least in that country. A World Bank study has just been commissioned that ought to be able to answer the question in Kenya, too.

These studies can’t come too soon. I do hope they’re conducted with a genuinely open mind to this possibility.

Because I sure think malicious counterfeiting is a major bar to agricultural productivity growth in East Africa. But that’s not good enough. I want to know.

Some Straight Talk from Feed the Future’s Andrew McKim

In an enormously candid and hard-hitting interview in yesterday’s Sunrise, Feed the Future’s Uganda coordinator Andrew McKim let it rip with regard to Uganda’s failing agricultural policy framework:

McKim blamed the Ugandan government’s failure to crack down on counterfeit seed as a major roadblock that frustrates farmers as well as seed companies from investing in the sector.

“Seeds is one of the most important concerns for farmers.”McKim adds: “But counterfeit seed are widespread and it’s heart-breaking for a farmer to prepare his land and invest in [counterfeit] seed. Seeds are high priority for farmers and the private sector.”

Experts argue that improved seeds are a major factor influencing total agricultural output. In Uganda however, according to McKim, only 6% of farmers use improved seeds, something that ensures farmers get limited output.

A year ago, when I started writing about Seed Counterfeiting in Uganda, it was a fringe-of-the-fringe topic. Now, high ranking USAID officials are putting it at the center of their message to the Ugandan government. This is enormously encouraging from my point of view. His little rant made me happier than anything about seed ought to!

Is this the most evil company in Africa?

Think Africa Press’s James Wan has a stunning bit of reporting on TIENS – a Chinese company making a killing (literally, alas) by peddling transparent medical quackery to desperate, sick Ugandans.

TIENS gets props for the brazenness of the scam: I mean, this is a quack version of something that was already quack science to begin with:

“Whatever this is, it is not Chinese medicine,” says the Chinese-trained doctor with a combination of amusement and incredulity. He chuckles as he reads how TIENS medicines are supposed to treat about a dozen different conditions each, from preventing cancer to reversing impotence to promoting “the growth of children’s reproductive organs.”

The doctor’s amusement soon turns to horror as he reaches the section of the booklet advising distributors on what steps to take when patients are suffering from different diseases. TIENS customers are typically encouraged to undergo diagnostic tests in store, but most who go to TIENS have previously been to hospital and know some of the conditions from which they are suffering. The company guide offers clear and easy instructions on what they should be prescribed.

Of the few hundred conditions listed − which span from AIDS to Yellow Fever − a handful include the recommendation to ‘see a doctor’. But the rest just list a few products to be taken.

“This is a death sentence,” mutters the doctor, falling silent.

And if you thought the patient interface is bad, never fear: the way the company treats the people it recruits to run the scam on the ground manages to be even worse somehow.

Sitting behind his desk at the TIENS-Uganda headquarters, located at the top of King Fahd Plaza on a busy street in Kampala, Kibuuka Mazinga Ambrose is delighted to explain how the business model works in more detail.

“Anyone can join,” says the company chairperson, wearing a bright yellow TIENS-branded cap. “All you need to do is pay a small initial fee of $20.” Once you have done this, you can buy products at wholesale prices and sell them on at a profit. However, this is just the start, he says. You don’t get rich by selling a few bottles of herbal supplements. Under TIENS’ model, there are eight ranks and you need to move up the levels to really start enjoying the benefits.

The first few levels can be reached simply by buying more products, which essentially brings with it a small discount on goods. However, to get to the bigger rewards, you need to start recruiting others. This way, you receive a commission whenever they make purchases and also get rewarded if they recruit their own followers.

TIENS is, in other words, a giant pyramid scheme. How literally? This literally:

tiens-guide enhanced
The Great Business Plan of Giza

So why doesn’t anybody do anything to shut down this evidently exploitative, patently predatory company? Have a guess. Go on.

Not only does TIENS advertise on the Health Ministry’s calendar, but according to Wasswa, around ten MPs are members of the company and at the Iganga seminar, Stephen Wante, the mayor of Bugembe, made a guest appearance. In 2011 meanwhile, Vice-President Edward Ssekandi officiated a ceremony in which a distributor was awarded a car and organised for TIENS to donate some of its products to a government health centre. A photograph of the Ssekandi shaking hands with TIENS’ president also has pride of place on the company website.

Ah, Limited Access Order, thine homes are many…

Rwanda is to Uganda what Uruguay is to Argentina

Rwanda and Uganda can seem a lot alike, and not just because their names rhyme: both are landlocked, both agrarian, both have a recent past of extreme violence that gave way to stability and economic growth. Even the tribes are pretty much the same on either side of their shared border.

Sure, Uganda is a lot bigger, but for the rest: both are competitive authoritarianisms run by powerful presidents who have roots in 70s radicalism but turned pro-business in tandem – which is maybe not a surprise, seeing how, back in the Bush Wars years of the 1980s, Rwanda’s (now) president Kagame was a founding member of Uganda’s (now) president Museveni’s guerrilla movement. 

And yet, for all the similarities, there’s a central, glaring, unmissable difference: Rwanda works; Uganda doesn’t.

The closest parallel I can think of is Uruguay and Argentina, South America’s peas-in-a-pod republics, which are similarly indistinguishable in every way but two: first, size and, second, the fact that Argentina is an ungovernable mess while Uruguay has its act fundamentally together.

Like Rwanda, Uganda has elaborate formal mechanisms to prevent the abuse of state power for personal enrichment. Like Rwanda, Uganda has a very powerful president who takes his own developmentalist discourse seriously. Like Rwanda, Uganda has an ambitious long-term strategy for economic diversification and growth. But in Uganda, none of these things seem to manage the messy transition from good intention into on-the-ground-reality. In Rwanda, for the most part, they all do.

That ODI Report I’ve been raving about includes lots of compelling detail about what this may be, but doesn’t go into the question directly. It points to the existential threat Rwanda’s ruling party, the RPF, has spent most of its existence under as a powerful incentive to get serious about governance, but Uganda under Museveni has faced military threats that seem on something near the same order, without anything like the same salutory effect.

The report suggests, without ever quite saying so, that it comes down to the difference in style between Rwanda’s President Kagame and Uganda’s Museveni. Actually it’s hard to read it without thinking that, to be blunt, Kagame is just much better at his job than Museveni.

Kagame has managed to create institutional structures for the administration of state power in ways Museveni has resisted, and these structures are merit based in ways their counterparts in Uganda just aren’t.

Strangely in view of Rwanda’s reputation, among critics and apologists alike, for being a one-man show, the dependence of policy on President Kagame’s personal initiative does not appear particularly striking in the EAC context. The cabinet appears to function reasonably well as an instrument of collective leadership and responsibility, with the president exercising a powerful demand for performance from individual ministers and their permanent secretaries. This contrasts with the perverse combination of lack of interest and micro-management that tends to characterise President Museveni’s approach to his cabinet. The underlying difference is that Ugandan cabinet members are there to provide balanced access to power and resources for the regional power-blocs that Museveni needs to placate. Rwandan cabinets have to reflect the power-sharing principle in the constitution (no more than 50 percent of ministers from the RPF), but they are otherwise merit-based and typically include a significant number of independents, among them several younger women.

One outcome of this is a Rwandan state that comes across as almost freakishly orderly considering the country’s level of development.

A bit of an extended quote from that ODI paper seems called for here, because I don’t think many people have quite grasped how far out of the East African mainstream Rwanda is in terms of transparency:

A clear difference between Rwanda and its closest regional ally Uganda, and also other neighbours, is that occupying political office does not open the way to the acquisition and accumulation of wealth. There are politicians who are wealthy. However, they are few and far in between, and none of them is known publicly to have acquired their wealth by way of taking advantage of the office they occupy or have occupied. For members of the business community who join politics, and again there are very few, it is a requirement under the law to give up active participation in managing any business once becoming a member of parliament or a cabinet minister. This law applies to others occupying public office. Enterprises belonging to people barred from doing business are managed through trusts or by spouses or children. The same applies to civil servants.

Influence peddling, and any attempt to use public office for personal gain, is a strictly prohibited, prosecutable offence and has landed public figures in jail. Others have been removed from office for failure to declare their assets or for failure to explain the source of wealth that could not be justified on the basis of their known legitimate incomes.3 Also, businesses owned by public officials are eligible to offer services to the government, but only following very strict observance of rules pertaining to conflict of interest and disclosure. In practice, so strict are the rules that it is safer to ensure that a company with which a particular officer is associated does not supply goods or services to the government entity in which they work… These rules are strictly enforced.

In Uganda, by contrast, it’s been a long time since anybody described any rule as “strictly enforced”. In ODI’s telling, Museveni is a leader sincerely devoted to developmental outcomes but prevented from achieving reforms by the toxic dynamics of rent-seeking politics in the elite that has grown up around him, dynamics that have arisen because he just has no idea how to delegate successfully.

Of course, when no major decisions can be made without the top leader’s personal involvement, whole swathes of policy-space can just stagnate indefinitely simply because they don’t happen to catch the leader’s interest. It’s easy for tiny cliques of self-interested officials to colonize those policy-spaces, turning bits of the state into effective fiefdoms purely because the one person in a position to rein them in is off chasing some other shiny thing.

At the height of the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, President Museveni frequently used the excuse of his preoccupation with defeating the insurgency to explain why the government had not done certain things. That preoccupation often involved his spending time camping in the theatre of war, presumably doing what field commanders were supposed to be doing and possibly distracting them in the process. It is a classic example of how he manages government business and why managing state matters in that way can produce stasis in areas he may not be paying attention to at any one moment. One of the outcomes of centralised or one-man decision-making is that there is a fire-fighting quality to the way the government is run, with things receiving limited attention before the president is off tending to something else. It explains why one of the biggest failures in Uganda is policy implementation across the board.

(This line interests me because it’s an excellent lead on the question that brought me to Ugandan political economy in the first place: how can it be that so much counterfeit seed stays in the market and nobody does anything about it? Maybe Museveni’s just not into seed.)

The overall picture that emerges is of a tragic Museveni, constantly undermining his own vision through his inability to create mechanisms able to deliver the policy goals he sincerely wants without his constant personal supervision. Or, alternatively, of a heroic Kagame, who’s managed to overcome the pull of personalized authority that’s proven irresistible in the whole rest of Africa to build a system in which he’s more law-giver than tyrant.

The social scientist in me wants to resist this Great Men-based version of history. We’re trained to think in terms of structures, not personalities. But in countries where the imperial presidency has such deep roots, is it really wrong to suspect one uncommonly gifted autocrat can shift a whole country into a different developmental path?

I don’t know, I’m asking…

East Africa, Minus the BS

How often do you come across an Think Tank report that doubles up as a genuine page-turner? Doubt such a thing even exists? Well, I’m here to tell you East African Prospects by ODI’s David Booth, Brian Cooksey, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi and Karuti Kanyinga is that report.

Shockingly readable, unendingly quotable, and deeply entertaining, it’s a kind of weary Hobbesian counterpart to the standard, pollyannaish hogwash that dominates so much think tank writing about aid.

Starting from Douglass North’s analysis of Limited Access Orders, David Booth and his collaborators pick apart the political economy of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda with rare clarity and insight.

There’s a frankness to the writing that’s like a balm. Take this bit of straight talk from the introduction:

Comparative history suggests that, as a group, the EAC countries will retain for some time yet most of the features of what North et al. (2009; 2013) call a limited access order (LAO). That is to say, the political and economic power of elite groups will remain closely entwined. Markets will not be highly competitive or inclusive. Capitalism will begin to take hold but in the form of ‘crony capitalism’ in which non-market relationships play a crucial role. The generation and allocation of economic rents will play an important role in limiting political violence and maintaining the fundamental agreements underlying the rules of a patronage-based political game. This will limit the use of rents to finance the learning processes and provide the market coordination required to turn fast economic growth into real economic transformation. It will also prevent politics and policy-making from becoming primarily a battle of ideas based on contending programmes or ideologies.

The feeling you’re left with is that a grizzled old East Africa hand, somebody who’s been around the block two dozen times and knows exactly how things go down, has decided to take you under his wing and is giving you the straight dope over beers.

What Booth and his colleagues have done is turn the Gates Foundation’s formulation on its head: rather than Impatient Optimists, what we have here is the Patient Pessimists’ view.

Booth et al. are pessimists, but not fatalists. It’s an important distinction to grasp. The work of dispelling the facile fantasies of the Gates/Sachs set is the first step in their journey, not the final word. If they lay some unpleasant realities squarely on the table it’s so you’ll have a clearer grasp of what is achievable, how, and on what time-scale. The realities are somewhat sobering, but sobriety seems like a much needed corrective to the cycle of over-promising and under-delivering that so much of the aid world seems stuck in.

For now, I’ll make it easy on you: if you’re even a little bit interested in the region, you have to read it. The good news is, it’s great fun to read.

Factoid of the Day

Posting is slow as I read and digest as much about Uganda’s recent history as I’m able to.

For now, one factoid that left me absolutely gobsmacked. I’m sure it’s something everybody who follows these things already knows, but it stopped me in my tracks.


During the Luwero Bush War of the 1980s – the one that brought Yoweri Museveni to power – Museveni’s counter-intelligence chief was…Paul Kagame.

How has nobody made a movie about this yet?!

Here’s more from the sensational 2009 article reporting this: Continue reading Factoid of the Day