Sad Tales from Rubindi

By on May 11, 2020

Surviving during the lockdown has been an absolute nightmare for almost everyone everywhere around the world. Having to change your way of life after getting used to years of a specific routine can be a daunting task especially when you’re not sure when the forced change will end. 

For many people, the lockdown has presented an opportunity to rethink their way of life and how they put food on the table. If you were previously stuck to a 9-5 routine, you’ve probably been thinking long and hard about career choices. You’ve most likely had moments of reflection where you imagine that if the worst comes to the worst, maybe that career as a musician, painter, writer, poet or dancer isn’t a very wild card after all. Your family can ridicule you all they want but you’re going to venture into a career change so you can cope with the times.  

The fact is that we’ve all been doing quite a bit of thinking about what our priorities in this life truly are. 

The sad reality however, is that some people have been restricted to simply sitting tight and hoping for this lockdown to end because they have just one way to survive – it is all they have ever known.  

Somewhere in the Ankole subregion, in Mbarara District is a town called Rubindi. It’s really more of a ‘trading center’ than a ‘town’ but for purposes of geographical placement, it is defined as a town and we shall refer to it as such. A visit to this town before the lockdown would be quite something. The scenery is gorgeous, the people are warm and welcoming and the weather is friendly – most times anyway. Rubindi is generally a wonderful place to be if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the loud and noisy cities.

Lately however, the entire town has become something of a Ghost town. This has been the norm for most towns around the world because of Covid-19 but Rubindi presents a very strange and unique scenario mostly because of the nature of the inhabitants. 

You see, a good number of the inhabitants of Rubindi are cattle keepers. Many of them have grown up knowing no other trade except looking after and surviving off of cows. 

David Mwiine is a livestock farmer and Chairperson of Rukaka SACCO, a small gathering of livestock farmers who survive on cattle keeping. This lockdown has driven David and his colleagues to extremes in terms of survival. Of course there is the obvious reason that movement and trade are somewhat restricted but that is not the real issue. The actual gist of the problem is Milk Production. 

David and many people in the area are big on Milk Production. There are several hude dairies that have been buying milk from the area but lately, everyone seems to have abandoned the local folks. For the past several weeks, David and the folks in Rukaka SACCO have had to pour thousands of liters of milk because the market has completely dried up. The companies that bought milk from David and his colleagues have since closed shop and left the farmers hanging. According to David, an attempt to sell milk at even the lowest of prices has hit a snag because many people are now just giving out the milk for free so there is really no one willing to pay for milk anymore.

It is that bad.

David is one of several Dairy farmers who’ve been benefiting from Pearl Dairy Extension Program – a program that aims at improving milk production while also offering an opportunity for the farmers to get decent prices for their products. The program is a brainchild of Pearl Dairy Farms Limited, famous for its Lato Milk brand. 

For years now, Pearl Dairy has been purchasing milk from people like David and helping to create value addition as well as a ready market. For the most part, the greatest volume of the market has been Kenya with nearly 90% of the milk being exported to our neighbours in the East and 10% being sold locally. (The Kenyan market consumes nearly 120 Million liters of milk annually while the Ugandan market consumes 54 million liters annually). With an employee base of over 2500 people collecting milk from over 10,000 farmers, Pearl Dairy Limited has been at the forefront of creating a bit of a change for thousands of people around the country. Right now, David and thousands of other farmers in the Ankole Sub Region are going through absolute uncertainty regarding how they will survive tomorrow, let alone today.

While it might be easy to assume that the Corona Virus was the cause of this problem, we need to look a little further back to understand why these folks have been hit harder than most.

The Genesis of the Problem 

Sometime towards the end of last year, way before the world unanimously agreed that Coronavirus was something to contend with, the Kenyan market that provided a market for milk from David and his folks became inaccessible. At the end of 2019, for reasons that are still unclear, Kenya decided to halt the importation of Milk from Uganda, essentially putting aside their obligation under the treaty establishing the East African Community (EAC) Customs Union Protocol, Common Market Protocol and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Trade facilitation agreement. 

The Government of Uganda went ahead to attempt an intercession on behalf of the Ugandan dairy industry; this they did through a diplomatic protest. To this day, no results have emerged from the intercession. In addition, the Minister of Trade had promised to send a delegation to Kenya to attempt to understand what the problem was and how it could be fixed. Nothing has come of this either. 

As a result, the ability to export milk to Kenya was greatly affected and this meant that people like David and his friends in Rubindi were the ultimate losers. By February 2020, Pearl Dairy which supplied Kenya with Milk had no option but to shut down and therefore stop buying milk from the thousands of farmers and co-operatives. At the time when this happened, nearly 600,000 liters of milk were being bought from over 10,000 farmers through farming organizations and Dairy unions. 

The results were ridiculously disastrous as farmers struggled to keep hope alive. The lucky ones were able to sell some of their milk for as low as UGX 200 while many had to pour theirs. 

Seeing this trend of events, Pearl Dairy decided to bite the bullet and re-open their factory, with the hope that at least some reprieve could be arrived at for the poor farmers deep in the villages. Sadly, they could not handle operating at anything more than 30% of the capacity – which is what they are operating at right now. 

From December 2019 to-date, milk farmers have struggled to stay afloat and many have had to resort to desperate measures like selling milk at ridiculously low prices just so they can be able to survive. Worse still, a good number of these farmers have gotten in trouble with financial institutions because they are unable to pay back loans that were acquired when times were better. 

The situation was so hostile that at the end of February, one of the Dairies in Mbarara, Lakeside Dairies, had ten trucks of milk returned to Uganda. By early March, another diary, Amos Diaries had stopped purchasing milk from farmers because of a boiler problem. Basically everything has been going South since the end of last year. 

It is likely that Pearl Dairy will consider exporting to other markets in the region but as is expected with such ventures, it will take a bit of time before any normalcy returns. Rwanda’s borders are closed, Tanzania has a levy of TZS 2,000 for every liter of milk imported and now the situation with Kenya has somewhat gone South. Milk Farmers in Masindi, Mbarara, Isingiro, Lyantonde, Mubende, Ssembabule, Ntungamo, Kabale, Rakai and other districts in the region will hope that Pearl Dairy finds some solace for them regarding the market for their Milk. In the meantime, they continue to grapple with a problem that was caused by the situation in Kenya and then made worse by Covid-19. 

While the local Dairies struggle to find solutions for the farmers, it would be of great help if the Government of Uganda and the Government of Kenya sat down and discussed whatever they need to discuss so that the farmers in the Ankole Subregion can have their lives back. The Ghost town of Rubindi is one of hundreds of towns that have been torn down to their skeletons because of the situation with Kenya. It is a hope that the sad tales from Rubindi and other towns end soon before the good folks lose all hope.

“Sooner or later every war of trade becomes a war of blood.” ― Eugene V. Debs

Bernard Ewalu Olupot
a.k.a Beewol
The Talkative Rocker
Follow @beewol on Twitter, @beewol on Instagram and Beewol on Facebook 

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