Death of research in Uganda


Sunday Monitor (Uganda)
Business & Technology Section
By Kikonyogo Ngatya
May 17, 2009

A crop seed planted by an average Ugandan farmer today yields less than a third of its full potential. A study by the Food Rights Alliance, a consortium of stakeholders monitoring in-country food security and availability, notes that Ugandan seeds, despite availability of some improved varieties, can no longer produce food sustainably to feed a rapidly growing population.

The study published in the Journal of Agricultural Sciences highlights the undeveloped seeds research, distribution of improved seeds and the need to develop the informal seeds sector. Farmers are still carrying on planting seeds harvested from one season to the next even though some can hardly germinate.
The implications are that many small holder households are no longer able to meet even their basic own food needs.

But according to a World Bank study, Uganda has a high return of Shs7 for every shilling invested in the agricultural sector. So, with the multi-donor funding and relatively favourable weather as compared to many sub-Saharan African countries things should be looking up.

They are not. What is going wrong? Prof. Mateete Bekunda, a soils expert at Makerere University says Ugandan soils are too exhausted to produce food sustainably. He says government is not doing enough to develop soil fertility recommendations to encourage and sensitise farmers on what specific fertiliser types to use in order to rejuvenate the soils.

“The existing soils recommendations, for example, are over 40 years old. This can’t apply now, especially with new challenges from global warming,” Prof. Bekunda said.

Many institutions under the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) are developing solutions to the problems, according to Aggrey Bagiire, the state minister for agriculture.

However, while the researchers may be churning out good material, the technologies they have developed are not being disseminated down to the farmers to enhance productivity.

Many researchers also say there aren’t enough resources to address all the issues, even when they need urgent attention. Dr Robert Kajobe, a tropical bees expert in Tororo notes that the entire research infrastructure needs to be modernised first.

He says he was only able to undertake the first internationally recognised local bees’ research and testing in London because most of the Ugandan laboratories are not properly equipped. Whether it is a question of resource limitations or collapsing research infrastructure, it is clear that most of available new technologies, especially in the crop, livestock, fisheries and forestry sector are facing immense challenges. In the first quarter of this year alone, three new crop diseases have struck the country. The Cassava Streak Virus, Banana Bunchy Top virus and a mutation of the Banana Bacterial Wilt have attacked and devastated farms around the country exacerbating the prevailing food crisis. What is worrying is that that all the 12 cassava varieties developed in the 1990s at the height of the cassava mosaic attack are susceptible to the new virus.

Numerous other already existing pests and diseases have also gained more strength to cause more havoc to Uganda’s agricultural sector. It cuts across the crop, livestock, fisheries and forestry sectors — all whose potential is being held back.

But do Uganda’s agricultural scientists have the potential to confront the numerous challenges? To understand the challenge, one needs to visit the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL) in Kawanda, and other research institutes — supposedly centres of excellence for research, to appreciate the gloomy future to Uganda’s agricultural research. Most of the infrastructure is crumbling. At Kawanda, big chunk of the land on which crop testing was done has been turned into an open market by bush war veterans. Meanwhile some unnamed senior politicians are plotting dump earth in the nearby wetland with the intention of reclaiming it.

Once a shinning jewel with well tended crops, today bushes and thickets have overgrown most of the research gardens at Kawanda. is Intriguingly, at the main gate a warning has been pasted warning visitors/farmers to beware of conmen selling fake seeds inside the institute. It should be troubling that fake seeds are being sold inside the home of Uganda Seed Certification Centre that is housed inside the Kawanda complex.

Poorly attended research gardens and silent laboratories are now the norm at this place. It’s only the biotechnology lab that shows some signs of activity going on inside.

Today, abandoned machines and tractors lie about the grounds. The same sad story is repeated in Tororo, Serere, Kituuza and Namulonge research stations.

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