Bridging the socio-economic divide with mangoes

It’s a long way from Makerere University in Uganda’s capital Kampala to the rural district of Yumbe, in the north west of the country, bordering South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Approximately 600 KM. The two places are also separated by climate, topography and, significantly, socio-economic status. It’s fitting then, that they are drawn together by an exciting new enterprise started by Makerere academics, which they hope will bring income and employment to their northern compatriots.

Makerere University is the oldest institution of higher learning in East Africa and has a prestigious reputation. It sits on top of one of Kampala’s hills, overlooking the city and is home to about 38,000 students including post-graduates. Standing tall over the campus is the School of Food Technology, Nutrition and Bio-engineering, which is responsible for the new project.

It all started with the Food Technology and Business Incubation Centre (FTBIC), an arm of the School of Food Technology, Nutrition and Bio-engineering, which nurtures business start-ups. The FTBIC is funded by the government and is an attempt to link the academic subject with the real world. At the same time, the School of Food Technology, Nutrition and Bio-engineering also houses FONUS (Food and Nutrition Solutions Ltd), a business providing consultancy from academic experts in the agriculture, nutrition and health sectors to local communities.

In 2013, FONUS experts were in Yumbe District when they noticed the proliferation of mango trees growing wild. The trees were laden with growing fruit and the academics discovered that once ripe, many of the mangoes would go to waste because they could not be transported to markets. In addition, the fruit was fibrous, probably better suited for juice than eaten raw.

At the same time, FTBIC had just acquired a brand new, specially commissioned, mobile fruit processing truck, equipped with a generator, water treatment cylinder and a fruit processing unit. The machine, worth one billion Uganda shillings (UGX), can be moved around the country and is particularly useful in rural areas. Although it can only process five metric tonnes (MTs) of fruit per day, it can be used to assess whether there is commercial potential. Once the mangoes in Yumbe were ripe, FONUS staff took the mobile processor to Yumbe to assess the commercial viability of processing the mangoes to produce pulp suitable for making juice.

Making an investment

Prof. William Kyamuhangire is leading the mango project for FONUS. He says that when they took the mobile processor to Yumbe it could not process fast enough. While the processor can go through five MTs a day the farmers were bringing in four times that amount. It was clear to the professor and his team that to process so much raw material would require an investment in a fixed factory in the area. Thus, FONUS became the investor.

The project makes economic sense. Currently unprocessed mangoes in Yumbe are worth about UGX 100 (US$0.3) per kilo at the market. The FONUS team has promised to pay farmers between UGX 200 and UGX 300 for each kilo they bring. The factory would have an initial capacity of 50 MTs per day, or 50,000 kilos. It is envisaged that when the factory is in full swing it will operate three shifts over 24 hours and will thus have a processing capacity of 150 MTs per day. As for added value in the value chain, 2 kgs of mangoes (worth about UGX 500) yield one kg of pulp, valued at UGX 2,000 per kg – 10 times the value of the raw product used to produce it.

To fund the factory FONUS partnered with the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) and applied to the TradeMark East Africa Research and Advocacy Challenge (TRAC) Fund for a further grant. TRAC promotes innovation through investment in projects that will boost trade in the East African Community. It also looks to fund projects that are commercially viable and which incentivise the private sector to increase access to markets for the poor; to deliver social welfare gains; to increase competitiveness & enhance value chains; and to promote cross border trade.

TRAC considered the proposal and granted funding based on the achievement of four milestones: procurement of land; completion of the factory building and installation of equipment capable of processing 50 MTs per day; establishment of a fully operational plant reaching out to 10,000 households & at least one farmer group in each of 13 districts; and increased income for at least 21,000 mango farmers by US$40 per year, supported by local mango collection services, export product samples distributed and at least 45 full time jobs at the processing facility.

Angela Njeri Machua of TRAC commented that the successful mobile mango processing pilot that FONUS had run before applying for TRAC funding “gave us confidence that the project will be fruitful and will achieve their milestones.”

Ms. Machua said that, “The potential we saw with FONUS was the social impact. Through the project, they would be able to impact smallholder farmers’ lives through increased incomes, by giving them a sure market for their mangoes, which would otherwise be wasted. By buying the farmers’ produce and knowing the farmers do not have high costs of inputs, the impact that will be felt by the farmer’s will be significant and this will translate to improving their socio-economic status.”

Benefits to the community

Amana Vicky Maneno lives in Yumbe with her four children, her husband (a subsistence farmer) and her husband’s elderly mother. Amana is about 30 years old but is not sure of her exact age. Her traditional thatched home is a short walk from the site of the processing plant, but 2 KM from the market. In 2014, she sold her mangoes to FONUS to be pulped in the mobile processor, for which she received UGX 100,000. When the plant opens, she will receive at least double that and will not have to carry them far.

Amana is looking forward to the opening of the processing plant, not only because she will be able to take them the fruits of her 10 mango trees twice a year (estimated at 200 kgs per tree per year) but because they will be offering jobs to the local community. She has school fees to pay for four children, not to mention the uniforms and books she cannot afford to buy.

According to Professor Kyamuhangire the mango project will bring other benefits. Apart from ensuring that no mango goes to waste, it will also safeguard the mango trees, many of which are being cut down to make charcoal. This in turn will have a positive impact against deforestation and mitigate the effects of climate change. The project will also be a catalyst for related activity such as distribution.

“Once we have established the factory we should have five trucks leaving West Nile every day”, says Professor Kyamuhangire.

Farmers, many of whom are women and young adults, will also be more organised, establishing groups that will speak with one voice. They will receive technical assistance from NAADS, including training in good harvesting and post-harvesting crop handling techniques. The potential for, and value of knowledge transfer is immense.

Yet it hasn’t been easy getting the mango project off the ground. Challenges include acquiring land, with the first potential deal aborted due to unresolved land issues. This resulted in extra costs for land purchase leading to the requirement for additional funding for equipment. The fact that FONUS managed to clear these hurdles, made them stronger, says Professor Kyamuhangire.

“The fear of failure is the driver”, he states. “It is driven by the positive and the negative, such as withholding funds until milestones are met. This is the greater driving force for the project.”

Professor Kyamuhangire and the local community have great hopes for the mango project. Already they have received enquiries about exporting the pulp to Rwanda and the DRC, and in time they expect to export beyond the East African region. Eventually the project is expected to benefit 300,000 people in Yumbe district, while a centrally located distribution centre in Kampala will serve the East Africa region. Given the abundance of mangoes in the area it is unlikely that one processing plant, even operating at full capacity, will be sufficient to utlilise the whole crop. Thus, the project has great potential for replication.

“The moment you set up a factory like this then the crop becomes a cash crop”, states Professor Kyamuhangire. In addition, he says, the farmers will become shareholders in the processing plant, giving them a sense of ownership. For people like Amana, with seven mouths to feed, currently four children to educate, and with no other source of income, the future looks positive.