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From high-flying executive to farmer

Successful Ugandan farmer Robert Kabushenga, a former top business executive, has spoken of his journey from a jacket and a tie routine to sweaty overalls and gumboots at his farm. Kabushenga (RK), a coffee and banana farmer and former media executive in Kampala, told Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) chairman Trevor Ncube (TN) on the platform […]

Successful Ugandan farmer Robert Kabushenga, a former top business executive, has spoken of his journey from a jacket and a tie routine to sweaty overalls and gumboots at his farm.

Kabushenga (RK), a coffee and banana farmer and former media executive in Kampala, told Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) chairman Trevor Ncube (TN) on the platform In Conversation with Trevor that he found the switch liberating.

He spoke extensively about his farming venture and why it is important for Africans to take food production seriously. Below are excerpts from the interview.

RK: It gives me so much pleasure to hear you pronounce Rugyeyo, because it took me many years to practice how to pronounce Ncube, hahaha.

TN: You do it so well my brother, hahaha. Robert the transition for you as I have seen you walking around the banana farm and the coffee farm, and I am so envious of you. How has that transition been Robert?

RK: It has been very liberating because there is a sense in which the corporate life imposes itself on you, and certain standards.

It took me six years, once I realised that I was not going to be a full-time executive throughout my life.

So I decided to do something radically different, which is farming.

Now to do so would have involved climbing down.

Now there could have been two approaches.

I could have found money, a lot of money, which I did not have and set up a farm and get in the manager and get people to do that.

Or for me to be personally involved in it, and that was part of the motivation.

So for six years every single Saturday I removed the suit and put on my overall and spent the day at the farm even if there was nothing I was doing in particular, just walking around and being in an overall has a psychological effect on you.

You start to accept that you are not the executive that sits down and is looking at Excel spreadsheets, and looking at projections and talking all this nice language and then coming to a media conference and meeting big guys that you know.

You are dealing with farm hands, people who have no training but their experience in farming is so vast they have such knowledge, and you have to bring yourself down and be dependent on their leadership and on their teaching.

So it was such a liberating thing for me. It was a journey into humility, a journey in patience.

So by the time I was ready to leave my office I had practiced for six years on how to climb down.

So it was not as dramatic or as PTSD as it might appear, no I had practiced this for a while and I was now ready and prepared to climb down from the corporate high horse and come into the farming world.

TN: Why farming Robert? That is very interesting. Why in particular farming Robert?

RK: Two reasons. The first one I would say is political, open Africanist. put it that way that our generation of Africans, especially black Africans, we have an obligation to those who come after us, for us to get involved in actual productive work ourselves.

Not delegating, not paying other people to do it for us, but we ourselves modelling the kind of economic activity that we would like for the younger generations.

Participating in this kind of productive economic work is really, ultimately what is going to liberate the African.

So it is at that level, so there was that element.

I know my position in society, especially in Uganda, and it was important that someone like me models that kind of activity so that we can bring up farming as we know it, away from the subsistence hard-scrubber life that we saw our parents and grandparents engage in, one where we can persuade the young people that it is productive for them to get involved in it.

The second one is personal. Apart from my skills and the job I was doing I really had no business investments to talk about.

I had some assets, real estate, so I was dangerously reliant on my labour.

I began to worry that if anything happened to me and my labour was no longer economically productive, I would be finished.

So I needed to set up an activity, which on its own produces something of value that somebody is willing to buy.

Farming was really great because it produces food and someone told me that no person in the world has ever won an argument with their stomach, and so you have a permanent market and the demand for farming products.

TN: Right.

RK: It made sense and I decided that farming was the thing to do.

There are other benefits, I mean lessons of life like patience.

Getting to spend life in nature and yet still make money from it.

Not to have to be in town and screaming at the guy, who is driving like mad next to you.

It is even much more peaceful and more rewarding.

I mean you walk through a banana plantation and there is nothing, there is no noise.

It is just the rustling of the banana leaves, or in the coffee the smell of the coffee.

There is a certain renewal about it after you have spent 30 years or 15 years as I was at the helm of an organisation.

You need to move away from that and do something radically different for you to renew.

TN: Why coffee and why bananas, Robert?

RK: Let me answer it this way and I will explain why.

Coffee is my fixed deposit and bananas are my eight-year machine.

In Uganda the staple crop for economic activities is coffee.

We are the largest exporter of coffee in Africa, we are the second largest producers after Ethiopia. So it is an activity.

There are eight  million Ugandans, who are dependent for their livelihood on coffee, so it is a big economic thing.

So it just made sense to invest in coffee as a high value item in terms of crops so that if I produce it well that is what we are known for, a market exists and so I will sell it.

That was one. For the bananas, Trevor and this is an important statistic, we produce three million tonnes of bananas every year in Uganda and consume all of them.

TN: Wow.

RK: Yes. The staple food in a large part of Uganda is bananas and the local word for it is matooke.

We also have the largest variety of bananas, so we have everything from plantain, from sweet bananas to that.

So I am mainly specialised in the banana we cook for meals.

Basically, we steam the bananas and then we mash them into like your sadza so it becomes like that and then we eat it with groundnuts.

TN: Is this the same as plantain?

RK: No. Plantain is deep fried or steamed and eaten as such. This one is totally different.

TN: Okay.

RK: That means that there is a huge demand for bananas. Now the way it is structured from an economic point of view or from a business model point of view is that coffee will give you money and you will get a revenue from coffee twice a year because we have two seasons.

So you grow it all year round, it’s perennial, but you only get to sell twice a year.

So for about five or six months you have no income and then you go and sell and then you get an income, but the farming activity continues.

So the advice is that you grow bananas with coffee. Why?

Because bananas will give you money twice a month. You sell bananas, you go to the market twice a month because that is the maturity cycle.

TN: Twice a month?

RK: Yes twice a month. As opposed to twice a year with coffee.

Now the value of that is that the way the market is structured for bananas in Uganda is that it is a purely cash advanced payment model.

Somebody comes, they harvest a certain quantity of bananas, they pay you cash and they go away.

So that leaves you with sufficient cash to run the farm.

Coffee you sell on credit because you have to make sure it is delivered and then they check the quality then after that they pay you later.

A bit like in Zimbabwe the way you used to trade in tobacco. Same story.

So that is the model. It is advisable that if you have a farm you have an economic activity that gives you regular income for your cash-flow management.

The third reason really is a sentimental one.

Both my grandparents on both maternal and paternal side were to a very large extent farmers.

They both grew coffee and bananas, although they were from completely opposite sides of the country.

So I feel like I am maintaining a family tradition that had been broken by my parents, but now we are going back to the roots.