How to Spread it: Harvesting a prosperous future together

2014-10-19 15:00

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One man is single-handedly resurrecting the once-lucrative Ugandan cotton trade and broadening the ‘Africa rising’ narrative, writes Ferial Haffajee

In 1995, Bruce Robertson, the founder and CEO of Gulu Agricultural Development Company (GADC), bought his first cotton gin from the Ugandan government. He became the first foreign investor in the industry since Idi Amin’s regime crushed it and reduced cotton – a crop Uganda was built on – output from 470?000 bales in 1971 to 10?000 bales in 1978.

In 2009, after the end of the murderous reign of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Robertson began working with farmers in northern Uganda and has trained 60?000 farmers across the region.

Robertson is also the chairman of the Uganda Ginners and Cotton Exporters’ Association and has worked extensively in sub-Saharan Africa in various roles, seeking investment opportunities and opening dialogue between business and political leaders in economic policy, development and conflict resolution.

He is a fellow of the inaugural class of the Africa Leadership Initiative SA and a moderator for the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

Along with the farmers he partners with, he has also branched out into growing sesame seeds to supply producers of organic oil, which is sought after in Europe.

‘Africa rising’ is often a key phrase in the narrative of oil and gas mining. But cotton? Sesame? Why?

I invested in the Ugandan cotton industry in 1995, the first foreign investor in the cotton sector. I wanted to invest in new areas, where business was an adventure.

Uganda was built on cotton and coffee. From 1903 (when the Mombasa railway reached Lake Victoria), it became viable to export Ugandan cotton. By the 1920s, cotton production reached 200?000 bales of 185kg each. By the late 1960s, this had reached 450?000 bales. But in 1972, Amin expelled 82?000 Asians (only 100 die-hards remained) and cotton production plummeted.

In 1994, President Yoweri Museveni liberalised the cotton sector and offered the defunct cotton gins to private investors. I bought a cotton gin in 1995.

As for sesame, when we invested in northern Uganda after the expulsion of Joseph Kony and his LRA in 2009, we found the farmers growing sesame as a food crop. Buyers in Europe were asking us what organic food crops we could supply from Uganda. We suggested sesame. It turned out that our quality was excellent.

How big is organic farming in Uganda?

Organic farming is widespread, as farmers don’t use fertilisers or pesticides for most of their crops. Soils are fertile and inputs are expensive, so farmers make do with the earth’s riches. But to become certified organic is a complicated and expensive process. Each farmer has to be registered with the certifier (we have 29?400 registered farmers at present).

The certifier from the Netherlands inspects twice a year and takes samples from about 500 of our farmers to test for noxious chemicals in the plants or soils. We spend about €50?000 [R711?510] each year to achieve organic certification.

This enables us to pay the farmers a premium price, and build a premium market in Europe and Japan, where consumers pay higher prices for certified organic cotton and sesame.

How many farmers have you registered? Do you own a farm?

Last year, we registered 29?400 farmers. This year, it will be 45?000. Each of those owns a small amount of land and practises subsistence farming, with sesame and cotton as cash crops.

We own a 500-hectare farm on which we have planted trees – 200 hectares of eucalyptus for transmission poles for east Africa, 300 hectares of pine for saw logs and 5?hectares of Burmese teak, as an experiment. If they grow well, we will plant more, in order to have wealthy great-grandchildren.

What is your export market?

We sell the sesame to a distributor in the Netherlands. We also sell directly to an oil miller in Germany, who presses the sesame into certified organic, cold-pressed sesame seed oil – which he sells in small bottles for small fortunes.

We sell the cotton to mills in Japan and Germany. In Japan, they make high-quality shirts, sheets and superfine towels.

In Germany, they make golf shirts – our customer aims to produce the quality of the lacrosse shirts of the 1970s, apparently a gold standard for golf shirts.

Can you tell me a story of a single farmer?

Here’s the story of George William, who farms in Nwoya district, near Gulu. Born in 1962, his parents had no formal education, and a Christian upbringing was all William had to fall back on. The family farmed the land to eat until 1997 when Kony’s LRA forced them into a camp, along with nine out of 10 other families.

William returned to his home 11 years later after helping to negotiate the end of the insurgency. He joined the farming programme in 2010 and has since built his family a house.

He has paid for his children’s education and paid all his medical bills.

William’s proudest moment was when his son completed a medical degree at Gulu University.

Are there female farmers too? What is the gender ratio?

As in most rural areas in Africa, the women do most of the work and the men take the cash. Many of our registered farmers are women, but we also aim for 50% female field officers within three years.

Another major training focus is on how to spend the cotton and sesame cash.

It might seem paternalistic, but we see a real need to educate the farm households on how to spend their cash. We are encouraging them to allocate more to investment in seeds, mosquito nets and school fees, for example.

How big will your project to sign up and train farmers be by this time next year?

We will register 60?000 farmers, each representing a household, on average, of 10 people and provide nine training sessions to each farmer, including agronomic practices, harvesting techniques, organisational development, and financial planning and budgeting. We have started 10 voluntary saving and loan associations, and we have a deal in place to get cheap finance for 50 motorcycles, one for each field officer so that they can visit their farmers and train them effectively.

This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust and the African Grantmakers Network. To support a cause, visit

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