Why You Should Care About Sugar in Uganda

“YOU TOOK WITH CATHIE?” Mariam asked me with a serious look.

I nodded. I had learned that “taking” referred to “taking tea” - a phrase and practice I had previously lumped together with doilies, clotted cream, and Downton Abbey. The juxtaposition of “taking tea” in a rural Ugandan village brought a smile to my lips.

“Ach! It is ok. You will take with me, too.” Mariam wagged her finger at me. “You will see. Cathie, she takes two spoonfuls of sugar. Guess how many I take? I take three.” Mariam beamed in pride and I had to grin back. Her tea was delicious.

Below: Mariam makes spiced black tea (chai) with milk and sugar.

Ugandan Chai with Milk and Sugar

The Rising Price of Sugar

That was June 2016. Now, almost a year later, sugar came up again when I asked Ahamed, our Beads Project Coordinator, about the effects of the recent and serious drought in Uganda. Among other shortages, he told me that the women were having a hard time affording sugar. Since the 9 month drought, sugar prices doubled from 3,000 Ugandan shillings to 6,000 or even 7,000 shillings. In my “America-ized” mind, this didn’t mean much. In US dollars, the price of sugar went from $0.83 to $1.67 - pocket change in our understanding. Was I missing something? Also, why even mention the price of sugar, if there were dire shortages of actual food?

Translate, Please?

Because of America’s wealth, the significance of Ugandan sugar prices is difficult to translate. However, this may help: When a Ugandan spends $0.83 on a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sugar and she makes the average salary of $30/month, if we round up that would be close to spending one thirtieth of her monthly income on a kilogram of sugar (CNN). If we say the average monthly income for an American is about $4000/month, that would be like going to our grocery store and spending about $130 on 2.2 pounds of sugar. That’s without the price hike. With the doubled price, 2.2 pounds of sugar would cost $260. Here’s your reality check: in April 2017 US retail sugar prices were $1.24 for 2 pounds (Sugar Alliance).

What it Means

What this shows us is that with at least two spoonfuls of sugar, at these prices, in at least two cups of tea a day, sugar in Uganda is a lifestyle. This is why Ahamed highlighted sugar when his community suffered from dire food shortages. As one government statement explains, “Affordability of sugar is considered a key barometer of an ordinary person’s well-being and its pricing can take on political dimensions when people cannot have sugar with their tea” (256). Thus, when Ahamed told me that the women were having a difficult time buying sugar, what he meant was the drought was so serious that the women could not even afford to buy this household priority. Affordability of sugar shows how well people are doing in Uganda, and with prices doubled since the holidays, this means that Ugandans are struggling. Thankfully, the rains are alleviating the drought... but why are the prices still high?

Hoarders... seriously?

Yep. Upon doing a quick online search, I found that sugar prices are all over the Ugandan news. Why are the sugar prices so high? These are some of the top reasons:

  1. The drought lowered sugar production (CNN, Independent).
  2. More sugar cane is being exported to Kenya and Rwanda and less is available for regional use in Uganda (Independent).
  3. Sugar cane is being harvested for ethanol rather than into retail sugar (CNN).
  4. Hoarding: sugar traders hoard sugar to make supply low and the price rise. Then they sell at the highest price (Independent, 256).

Ugandan Sugarcane

Above Photo: Henry and Rose walk through Rose's garden, which borders a sugar cane field.

Hope for Change

Fortunately, it looks like there is hope for Ugandans. On May 12, 2017, the Ugandan government set a ceiling price of 5,000 shillings for sugar, hoping it would help Ugandans afford the sugar and rebalance supply (Independent). They threatened harsh punishments on hoarders and are addressing the issue of regional sugar being exported elsewhere. The rains are returning and the sugar processing plants are back to producing normal amounts of retail sugar. What is needed? According to Mwine Jim Kabeho, Chairman of Uganda Sugar Manufacturing Association, zoning laws for where to harvest sugar cane and enforcement of those laws would keep Uganda’s sugar production strong (CNN). Together with our Ugandan friends, we hope this is possible.

Why Should You Care?

Why should we, as Americans, care about sugar prices in Uganda? There are many reasons - compassion for global desperation being at the top. This awareness gives us an powerful dose of perspective. Remember, if our standard of living was like that in Uganda, it would be like us spending at least $160 to buy 2 pounds of sugar at the market. The wealth in America is astounding in these terms and stresses just how far our dollars can go in places like Uganda. Without much discomfort in our lives, we can make a giant positive impact in the lives of people like the women we work with at BOH. These women make far less that $30/month. In fact, on average, they reported making as little as $3.50/month when we first started.

This kind of poverty strips a person's ability to afford even basic necessities. However, when you purchase jewelry from or donate to BOH or other organizations with income-earning opportunities, you offer people income to afford dignifying necessities - like sugar. As we just learned, this not only puts sugar in Ugandan's daily tea but signifies that they are doing well. They are not just surviving, they are living. This is a basic human right that we can easily offer to our global neighbors through supporting sustainable empowerment projects. Together, we can make living possible.

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Blog by Mackenzie Lanphear


256 Business News: http://256businessnews.com/government-to-issue-statement-on-sugar/

CNN: http://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2017/01/16/marketplace-africa-uganda-sugar-a.cnn/video/playlists/intl-marketplace-africa/

Independent: https://www.independent.co.ug/sh5000-uganda-sets-maximum-price-sugar/

Sugar Alliance: https://sugaralliance.org/us-sugar-prices

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