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Posted by Wes von Papinešu on October 05, 2000 at 16:26:01:
NEW VISION (Kampala, Uganda) 28 September 00 Crocodile Farming Regains Lost Ground (Charlotte Kukunda)
Uganda Crocs Limited (UCL), the only crocodile farm in Uganda last month resumed crocodile skin exports to Europe after suffering a five-year set back. Its the skinning season at the farm and an extra sh1500 wage per crocodile slaughtered, means extra money for the workers.
"This is the first time we are resuming exports since 1995 and by the end of this month, 300 high quality skins will be in Italy. We are actually skinning 1993 and 1994's stock which we considered as rejects in 1995," a smiling UCL farm manager Duncan Majere told the Business Vision over the weekend.. When a skin gets any kind of scratch, cut or bruise it is considered faulty and given some time to heel.
Majere added,"The first batch of 100 skins left for Italy on August 9. It was followed by an order for 200 more skins which we are currently working on." He has not been paid for the consignments but is not daunted by the delay. The Italians usually pay after thirty days, he adds.
UCL is spread on a 20-acre land, belonging to the Uganda Railways Corporation at the shores of Lake Victoria in Katebo village, six miles from Buwama trading center on the Kampala-Masaka highway.
The sh300m investment was started in 1991 by Dr. Alex Babitunga who suddenly died in 1992. At the moment, any exporter, no matter the scale, would be happy at the thought of earning some greenback, not with the current slide against the local currency.
The skin is not all that the farm sells. He has a lucrative clientele in Kampala. UCL delivers crocodile meat to Quality Cuts and Half London in Kansanga, an up-market suburb. The crocodile meat, is considered a delicacy in some circles. A kilo of crocodile meat here goes for sh12,000 but prices fluctuate whenever supply supersedes demand. "Like no peasant can afford buying crocodile skin shoes, likewise not every body can afford its meat," Grace, a skinner at the farm, says proudly. Majere says a pair of men's crocodile shoes at Wina Classic does not go for less than sh900000, a ladies pair sh600,000 while a belt with mere patches of the crocodile material, costs sh 90,000. Although UCL first exported to Singapore in 1993 and 1994 using their partners, a Zimbabwe based couple as middlemen through the Zimbabwe crocodile farmers association; they had to independently seek for new markets this time. Tony and Susan left Uganda for Harare with the farm's 1995 proceeds of over 3000 pounds on the pretext that they were shipping in better equipment for the farm. They never surfaced again. "I was shocked when I called the Singapore buyers and they thought the farm had long closed down but, were anyhow willing to resume trade with us. Their price quotations proved exploitative. So I contacted Italians who by the way, seem thrilled by the high quality of our skins, since I haven't got any complaints from them so far!" Majere beams.
After a three-hour telltale on the crocodile farm's background it becomes easy to appreciate what a rough path its been through especially for the proprietor who took over responsibility of living his dead brother's vision. There are 21 species worldwide and Uganda like other African countries has the best specie 'Nile Crocodiles'. Their most highly prized part is the belly skin.
The belly when carefully extracted, thoroughly cleaned, salted for preservation, rolled for storage and packed for exportation, hauls in the money.
The skins being marketed now have a width ranging between 25cm to 34cm but could have reached 40cm if the crocodiles are well fed. Due to financial upheavals the company went through between 1995 to 1999, sustaining the reptiles was hassle. This explains why the oldest crocodiles which are five-year-olds, are underweight and have not been slaughtered.
"Those were very hard times and most people thought I had to leave but because I had grown to share my brother's vision I sold off most of my property and fed them occasionally to keep them alive with hope that one day the farm would revive," he says. "Of course some would die and the others fed on them. All the workers left because I had no money to pay them, our generator was no longer functioning and life was not easy generally but I think we are now back on track," he adds.
But Majere was not set back. He was joined by former permanent secretaries Paul Bakashabaruhanga and Chris Katsigazi in 1997 with whom they pooled resources to keep the farm going.
The senior bachelor, in his thirties, says the future is bright thanks to the gold in the skins of of his reptiles. The skins are made into expensive classy handbags, purses, wallets, shoes, belts and even in designer clothing. Crocodiles feed on meat and fish but meat is more expensive than fish. When Business Vision visited the farm, over 6000 crocodiles were having mukene, a local fish specie from nearby Lake Victoria. The crocodiles are fed three times a week.
The orders from Europe are coming in fast. Majere fears he may not meet demand quickly. However, Majere insists on quality and establishing a reputation on the world market.
UCL collects 2500 eggs from Murchison Falls under an agreement with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).
Although half tanned skins are preferable and would fetch more returns, UCL is exporting them raw, wet and salted, because they lack the facilities to tan them to the required standards. Like other precious products on the world market the cost varies according to quality, size and market where it's demanded for and the prevailing supply. Majere said price ranges are now between US $3 to $10 per square centimetre. He did not reveal how much he will earn in his next consignment. Majere is a visionary. He has already diversified into tourism and is in the process of building cottages at the farm.
He has kept two crocodiles in the pond on which a wire mesh is to be built to start breeding layers at the farm.
"I am looking at buying this land and applying to UWA to permit me turn this into a breeding farm, because CITIES restriction no longer applies," Majere says.
CITIES is convention of international trade of endangered species fauna and flora that restricts breeding farms but permits collection of eggs from the wild as long as 5% of the crocodiles that hatch afterwards, are returned to avoid extinction.