By Omagor Dickson
Hon. Wolimbwa says, his father was among the founders of Bumwambu Primary Society in the 50’s. His father among others realized that Indians who were buying their coffee using tins were actually ripping them off by offering lower prices.
Then about 1958, Mzee Samson Kitutu and other elders from Bugisu region travelled to the Kilimanjaro area in Tanzania where Arabica coffee was also grown for a benchmarking visit.
The Kitutu delegation discovered that the Tanzanian Arabica Coffee farmers were organized into some sort of Unions and had collection centers for their coffee (Primary Societies) from where they sold to the Indians. Obviously this delegation noticed that their counterparts were earning much more than they were.
Upon their return, they organized three coffee collection centers at Bubulo, Nampanga and Buyaga. This was the genesis of Bugisu Cooperative Union as the three collection centers came together to form an Umbrella Union.
BCU then started the Bugisu Coffee Scheme where every parish had coffee stores from where the collection centers (Primary Societies) picked it from before conveying it to BCU.
At the time, BCU like other Cooperative Unions in Uganda were acting independent of government interference. They bought the coffee independently, ensured its quality and sold it directly to the International market. They used these proceeds to pay farmers, provide crop finance, buy agricultural inputs for farmers and when there was a surplus, they paid farmers bonuses.
According to Mzee Wolimbwa, the Cooperative Union Movement was at that time structured as follows; the Uganda National Co-Operative Union was a composition of 33 regional unions that included North Bukedi, South Bukedi, Soroti Cotton Co-op Union, Wamala, Masaka, Kakumiro, Banyankole Kweterane, West Nile Tobacco Co-op Union, Kasese-Nyakigezi Cotton Co-op Union, Kabarole, Mengo Coffee Co-op Union and Bugisu Coffee Co-op Union among others.
He says Mengo and BCU were the biggest by the time Uganda attained its Independence in 1962 to the extent that they had reserves in London and stood surety for Uganda’s Independence because they had foreign exchange reserves.
Then there were Uganda National Co-Operative Union Development Arms. These were; The Cooperative Bank whose sole purpose was to finance the various unions, the Central Cooperative Union whose role was to procure and make available all the necessary agricultural in-puts to farmers at subsidized rates. The Central Cooperative Union bought these agricultural in-puts from abroad and in bulk which not only ensured high quality but lower costs.
Others were; Uganda Cooperative Transport Union formed to provide transport for farmers’ products from the stores to the point of sale and also transport agricultural in-puts that were usually bought in bulk, The Uganda Co-operative Insurance to insure agricultural products against risks, The Uganda Co-operative Transport and Clearing Union to help in clearing and forwarding their goods and import of their agricultural in-puts, Uganda National Export (UNEX) was later formed in early 1990’ s by Coffee producing Unions to manage exportation of their coffee where Hon, Wolimbwa became the pioneer Chairman.
Then there was the Uganda Co-operative Alliance (UCA) which was an advocacy arm for all the Unions in the country. It was also responsible for dissemination of co-operative information through Co-operative Education Publicity Officers. It was also tasked with sensitizing members on how to run co-operatives down to Primary Societies and eventually to individual farmers. For this purpose, they had a printing press.
Hon. Wolimbwa was a Board member of Uganda Co-operative Alliance (UCA) from 1982 – 1986 when he was elected Chairman. As a Board member of UCA, Hon. Wolimbwa was able to appreciate how bad the 1964 Adoko Nekyon Law of Co-operatives.
He says the law removed the Independence of Co-operatives to sell their produce and to manage their finances. As a result the following happened that impacted negatively on the Unions; it became increasingly difficult for them to get Crop finance since they had to seek approval from Co-op officers who were civil servants. At times, they were even forced to bribe them in order to have monies released!
The law made it difficult for Unions to be able to get paid for their produce on time and it attracted middlemen since the Unions were no longer able to pay farmers on time and yet these middlemen were offering lower prices.
In 1986, Hon. Wolimbwa was elected Chairman of UCA at the time the Co-operative Union Movement was facing numerous challenges.
For instance, Hon. Wolimbwa says, the Adoko Nekyon law crippled the Unions, the 1981 – 86 wars also affected Unions with many of them either having their infrastructure destroyed, property such as vehicles looted for war purposes and that when the NRM government came into power in 1986, it also dipped its fingers into the Cooperative Unions’ finances.
“Unions that were strictly surviving on marketing produce literally collapsed,” Wolimbwa says before adding that BCU managed to weather the storm because it had buildings and therefore survived on rent.
He notes however, that in late 1986, the NRM government took interest in re-organizing the Unions, a move that found him at the helm of UCA and Co-operative Bank.
Because of the near collapse of the Co-operative Union Movement in Uganda, by 1986, Uganda Co-operative Alliance had become invincible in the Global world.
He says his first task was to revive all contacts UCA had with International Co-op Organizations and these included organizations from the NORDIC countries like Swedish Co-operative Center and NORAD.
The revival of these contacts became the beginning of the revival of UCA because the Swedish Co-operative Center was later to fund most of their activities leading to the rise of UCA after he presented a proposal to them.
With the funding from Swedish Co-operative Center, they recruited a new General Secretary, Charles Kabuga who was had international exposure in the Union world. Eventually Mr. Kabuga managed to quickly attract the attention of the International organizations who were formerly working with the Ugandan Unions.
With a competent and saleable General Secretary, Hon. Wolimbwa was able to convince their International partners to recruit highly competent staff for UCA and Swedish Co-operative Center accepted to fund the exercise.
“With the money available, we raided Makerere University and managed to scoop two professors; Opio Odongo and Babingamba,” Wolimbwa says blissfully.
He says, he also convinced their funders to pay competitive salaries, offer accommodation and transport to senior staff. Within a short time, Hon. Wolimbwa had managed to transform an invincible UCA into a reputable organization by simply rebranding its image.
Apart from rebranding UCA, Hon. Wolimbwa brags of spearheading the formation of Uganda Co-operative Transport Union where many trucks were bought and state of the art workshop built in Kawempe.
He says they also embarked on assisting regional Unions that had had their infrastructure destroyed for instance they mobilized iron sheets for BCU, built stores for some, and organized workshops for farmers.
Hon. Wolimbwa praises himself for popularizing the Co-operative Union Day, which is the 1st Saturday of July.
He says they were once again able to provide agricultural in-puts to farmers either at subsidized rates or in form of loans since they had attracted many partners.
With his influence, Hon. Wolimbwa convinced the Swedish Co-operative Center to start a Computer School at UCA where young men and women were trained and sent to the Unions to update their accounts. This move made operations of those Unions who absorbed the computer literate employees improve on their operations.
Most importantly, Wolimbwa was at the heart of the campaign to have the Adoko Nekyon Co-operatives Statute of 1964 changed. This statute was stifling the independence of Co-operative Unions.
With listening ears in people like late, James Wapakabhulo who was then Minister for Co-operatives and Permanent Secretary Crops, Mr. Rutega Simon, they were able to get the new statute in 1991.
The new Statute of 1991 was passed giving Co-operatives autonomy that brought about liberalization of Co-operatives. For the first time again, BCU bought coffee from farmers and sold it abroad.
“Not surprisingly, BCU made a surplus which it intended to invest and pay some to farmers as bonus, but government could not allow Co-operatives to own a lot of money, a Stabilization Fund was created where the surplus money was taken,” Hon. Wolimbwa says.
He says this was particularly frustrating because for all his life in the Co-operative Union Movement, his dream was to see Co-operatives get back the Pre-1964 independence. Now just when he had started chest thumping that the dream had been realized, government came with the Stabilization Fund which essentially removed the profits Co-operatives had made and took to the Consolidated Fund.
“You see, they called it Stabilization Fund, but even when we went back after that now you can give us our money, they could not!” Hon. Wolimbwa reminisces.
As Vice Chairman at Co-operative Bank in charge of Administration, Hon. Wolimbwa met a huge problem with the Human Resource. He says most staff members were not qualified, computer illiterate and just not the right people for the job.
He started by chairing a committee of Inquiry into the operations of the Bank with a view of identifying the problems and then rectify them.
Consequently between 1988 and 1999, they embarked on a recruitment drive targeting better qualified and computer literate employees and it worked.
He left the Co-operative Bank in 1991 because of the new statute that did not permit a Director to hold more than two positions.
Hon. Wolimbwa also got elected as President of the East, Central and South African Co-operative Union in 1994 during an Annual General Meeting where he was Uganda’s Delegate representing UCA.
As President of the East, Central and South African Co-operative Union, Wolimbwa automatically became one of the three Vice Presidents of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA).
He was confirmed President of the East, Central and South African Co-operative Union and Vice President of ICA in Manchester City, UK, the same year. He held these two positions for six years elapsing in 2000 having been re-elected for two three year terms.
Hon. Wolimbwa also represented Uganda at the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP) as a Board Member since Uganda didn’t have a national agricultural federation at the time. He only stopped representing Uganda, when during Hon. Ssekitoleko’s reign as Minister for Agriculture, Uganda Farmers Federation was created.
Wolimbwa remembers vividly how he spearheaded a fundraising for funds to rehabilitate the Kenyan Co-operative Bank that was ruined by the US Embassy terrorist attack in 1998.
“I spearheaded that fundraising at Paris, France and we raised funds that we gave to the C0-OP Bank of Kenya that was used for purchase of destroyed equipment,” Wolimbwa says with satisfaction.
One of Wolimbwa’s most vivid recollections is when in 1990, he hosted the first Co-op Day in Uganda where President Museveni, Nelson Mandela and wife, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Mozambique’s Chissano also attended.
He says after the celebrations, Mandela and team escorted President Museveni to Addis- Ababa, Ethiopia for the OAU summit where Museveni was elected Chairman.
Speaking about the Co-op Movement today, Wolimbwa says, liberalization of the coffee sector has brought in many players with each buying coffee independently thereby undermining the role of the Co-operatives.
He says many young coffee producers have deserted Co-operatives preferring to deal with other coffee buyers who pay instant cash unlike Co-operatives that first collect the coffee in bulk, store it for some time as they await better world prices before paying the farmers.
This however, has affected the quality of coffee because everyone now buys it.
Wolimbwa also says the inability by most farmers today to add value to their coffee by for instance procuring pulping machines, drying nets etc makes the work of Co-operatives difficult especially in ensuring high quality.
The growing number of young coffee farmers also discourages the disbursement of Farmer Loans since most of them have no permanent places of aboard. And yet this was one of the cardinal roles of Co-operatives at their time.
He points out lack of Co-op information dissemination as one of the things affecting the progress of Co-operatives in the current setting since most young farmers do not appreciate the benefits of selling their produce through Co-operatives.
Wolimbwa is also pointing fingers at government saying it has no good will to have booming Co-operative Unions because it fears an approach that unifies citizens and yet this is the modus operandi of Unions.
He hastens to add that instead of stifling the growth of Co-operative Unions, government should instead borrow a leaf from the Scandinavian Countries whom he says have developed through Co-operative Unions.
He quotes Kibuz in Israel saying it has played a fundamental role in the development of that country.
“I therefore advocate for a deliberate effort to revive the Co-operative Movement in Uganda because with it, there’s no exploitation. Every member is equal,” he says.
Hon. Wolimbwa strongly believes that any serious country that wants development should use Co-operative Unions arguing that it is one of the surest ways of getting the common man into the money economy.
The accomplished Co-op Movement crusader now says Unions can only cope with the challenges of the Liberalization of the Economy by reviving Farm Shops, Ensuring they cash at hand and offer competitive farm gate prices.
He advises that in future, government poverty alleviation programs such as PDM, Emyooga, YLP should be channeled through Co-operative Unions such that the peasants/farmers can get the capacity to add value to their crops.
For instance he argues, money should be sent to Primary Societies who in turn will give it to their members to grow crops, add value and then pay back.
As he concluded the interview, Hon Wolimbwa said he believes in everyone benefiting equitably.
“I have adopted the Co-op way of life, so I want everyone to benefit. Whoever can work should get paid for his labour. Social exploitation should not be our way of life because we are all human beings,” he says.
He also remembered to take a swipe at the Mushrooming Money Lenders whom he blamed for confiscating borrowers’ National IDs as collateral and asking for servicing of the loans immediately they are disbursed.