Uganda’s Smart Protectionism

For too long, African governments have listened to the siren song of free trade – and have suffered from too much openness, not too little. But, with the US and the European Union unwilling to slash their farm subsidies, Uganda has re-imposed stiff duties on imported rice – an experiment that deserves wider attention and that could help other agricultural producers.

KAMPALA – On a balmy afternoon, I met Dr. Gilbert Bukenya at his home on the shores of Lake Victoria, where we talked about the future of farming in Uganda. “By farming smarter,” he said, “Ugandans not only can grow more, they can earn more money.”

Working smarter is no empty slogan; it is the key to modernizing African agriculture. An advocate of food self-sufficiency for Uganda, Bukenya wants Ugandans to eat more homegrown rice, thereby boosting local farmers and rice millers while freeing hard cash for higher uses. Bukenya has long promoted a new strain of African rice that grows in uplands (as opposed to wetland paddies) and requires less water.

Embracing the new rice is part of the working-smarter formula. Once rice output began to expand, Bukenya and other Ugandan politicians played another smart card: they lobbied successfully for a 75% duty on foreign rice, which stimulated rice production further. Rice output has risen by two and a half times since 2004, according to the Ministry of Trade, to 180,000 metric tons, while consumption of imported rice fell by half from 2004 to 2005 alone.

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