How Onions Turned Orphaned Journalist into Millionaire

Independent Presidential Candidate Amama Mbabazi has promised to fix the poor road infrastructure in some areas of Northern Uganda, ailment saying corruption has made road construction extremely expensive.

A recent inquiry by the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) probe committee unearthed deeply entrenched corruption in the road sector with inflated construction bills.

The compensation of people in road reserves and swamps also pushed up the road construction costs.

Addressing a rally in Apac on Thursday, visit web Mbabazi said “Your roads compete favourably with the worst in the country.”

Mbabazi rubbished the idea of not fixing the road infrastructure on account of lack of money, saying neighbouring countries use less money.

He gave the example of Uganda whereby government uses a staggering $1m to construct one kilometre of a tarmac road while Kenya uses $300,000 and the mountainous Rwanda, $330,000.

“Uganda has become so expensive because of corruption. It is our responsibility to fight it,” said Mbabazi.

At a recent breakfast meeting with news editors, UNRA boss Allen Kagina promised to get rid of corrupt elements from UNRA, review procurement systems and put in place an internal investigations unit to combat impunity.

The former Prime Minister, who served in top government positions for almost 30 years, said his government would work on the roads in northern Uganda which has the potential of being the country’s food basket.

He told the people of Apac that achieving a change in government is possible “because it is within your power.”

Mbabazi said he yesterday intended to travel to Kitgum but could hardly move due to poor roads.
Rwahi, search a small town situated along the Mbarara – Kabale road may not be your fancy town with developed structures and luxurious amenities but it has made its name as one of Uganda’s leading onion producers.

On disembarking from the car, pharmacy it’s the smell of onions that meets the nose coupled with the sight of buzzing activity along the road.

Women, view men and kids occupied with cutting and sorting the freshly harvested onions while others are vending bundled onions to passengers in the town; you can’t help but notice that onion growing is the business upon which everyone thrives in this quiet village located in Rukiga County, Kabale district.

Mbangyira Joseph is a diploma holder in Journalism but after completing university he abandoned the media career and settled for the onion business.

He told Chimpreports that as a S3 student, he had spotted potential to make a living from growing onions and he now counts 7 years in this business which has paid his school fees ever since.

Chimpreports interviewed Mbangyira on his experience in this business and what all there’s to know about growing onions.

What makes Rwahi so popular for onions?

Onions are the only cash crops here and people produce them on a large scale. Onions need a hilly place and where the soil is sandy which is available here in Rwahi. Much as people also grow beans here, it is mainly on a subsistence level and on small scale.

Women and children sorting onions by the roadside in Rwahi town

Women and children sorting onions by the roadside in Rwahi town

How many seasons do people grow onions annually?

Onions are harvested twice in a year but those in swampy areas can harvest four times. The first season runs from May to July and then the other season starts in September and ends in February.

So what is process like?

First, you prepare your nursery bed, then sow seeds where they spend a 2 months period and then they are transplanted to the main garden. There they take 2 – 3 months to the time they are harvested. You must plant one by one and space them an inch apart.

The weeding starts after 1 – 2 weeks from planting. You weed thrice before harvesting at an interval of 2 weeks.

I am told onions require too much labor and it’s very costly.

Yes, but fortunately labor is readily available in Rwahi during the planting period. Rwahi employs about 1,000people. A laborer is paid Ugshs11,000 per day during the planting season and during the time for weeding, we pay them Ugshs 8,000 and it goes down to Ugshs 7,000 in the harvesting period.

In my garden which is approximately 3 hectares, labor costs me about 2 to 3 million shillings per season.

How much land did you begin with and how has the progress been?

When I started the business I was only planting on 1 hectare of land and I kept on growing. And like I told you, this business has been able to pay my school fees up to university. I have also managed to start up a shop.

Tell us what prompted a senior 3 student to take such a decision?

I lost my dad while I was in S2 and this made me to realize that I had to drive myself through this life by adopting a plan B. More still, I had many siblings and they also needed to study and get somewhere; so all these factors led me to consider growing onions.

The ready bulbs await packing and transportation to the market

The ready bulbs await packing and transportation to the market

Do you do this business entirely on your own?

I have a business partner who’s in Kampala (Owino market). During the harvest period, I send him the onions and he sends me the money, I buy more seeds and the cycle goes on.

Where do you get seedlings and how much do they cost?

I buy them from Kampala but they are now available here. The seedlings are branded according to their different quality; Ready Curio, Bombay Red and Holland. A kilogram of Holland is at Ugshs. 180,000, a kilogram of Bombay Red is at 100,000 while that of Ready Curio is at Ugshs 100,000 as well. So it depends on which of the 3 brands the farmer wants.

How much is a sack of onions?

You know prices for agricultural produce are never standard. They keep fluctuating. Last season, a sack was sold at Ugshs 400,000 but currently it’s at Ugshs180,000. Prices fluctuate based on demand and supply. Last season, in the whole of East Africa it’s only Rwahi that had onions but now there are onions in Mbale and Kasese. The supply is higher than demand thus the fall in prices. From May to July, the onions are highly demanded since they are only available in Rwahi.

From the garden, what happens to the onions?

We bring them to Rwahi, get the laborers to clean and sort them up by cutting off the roots. Afterwards they are transported to the market.

How much profit do you earn from a season’s harvest?

I plant 3 kilograms of onions on my 3 hectares and harvest 35 sacks. Profits depend on the size of one’s land, the season and weather. On a good season I make profits of 2M and in a bad season, things may change and you incur losses.

Which conditions favor onions?

Onions need moderate rain and sun. For the first month, it should rain throughout, then the second month requires minimum rain second and less rain in the third month.

Do you feel that onion growing has changed Rwahi?

A truck with freshly harvested onions before being offloaded for sorting

A truck with freshly harvested onions before being offloaded for sorting

Yes. Absolutely. From growing onions, people have bought cars and got money to educate their children. But most importantly, people have earned a living through providing labor.

Are there ways onion growers would love to be supported by government?

We buy manure very expensively from the neighboring sub county, Rubare. Pesticides and seedlings are also very costly and some people give up on the business of growing onions as a result of these expenses. So government should intervene and give us assistance on these challenges. Sometimes, onions are here but there’s no market and as a result, people buy them very cheaply and we incur losses. Government should help us and open up more markets. In addition, we at times buy fake seedlings which fail to germinate.

What is your plan in 5 years to come?

I plan to stick to growing onions, even though I might venture in other side businesses. In 5 years I will be loading a full lorry of onions and stretch my market further than Kampala. I want to export to Juba because I hear that the market there is growing.


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