Reflections on Uganda’s seed systems: building opportunities and addressing constraints

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A blog by the RTB seed system research cluster to reflect on lessons from field visits to Uganda’s RTB crop seed sector during the annual cluster meeting in Uganda.

The RTB seed system research cluster is a cross-cutting, interdisciplinary group of researchers working together under the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. Every year, approximately 30 scientists working on improving seed systems for five crops (banana, yam, cassava, potato, and sweetpotato) meet to review progress on set objectives and plan for the year. The 2020 annual meeting was held this February in Entebbe, Uganda under the theme ‘Capitalizing on our efforts and conserving our Golden Eggs’. A major component of the meeting was a field trip experience where participants visited public or private seed producers in the country to better understand what they do, the challenges producers face, and how scientists can help solve those challenges.

Seed is the cornerstone input of agriculture. In RTB crop farming systems, seeds have been replaced by other tissues such as a small offshoot (banana), a piece of the stem (cassava), a vine (sweetpotato), or a tuber piece from the mother plant (potato). Using non-sexual tissues presents one major advantage in that all descendants are genetic copies of the mother plant and faithfully maintain the traits of the parent variety. The downside is that RTB crop planting materials are heavier, costlier, and more prone to transmitting disease than true seed. True seed is an ideal little capsule, improved by millions of years of evolution to safely preserve dormant plant genetics, awakening them at their destination.

This year, participants visited two key players in Uganda’s national RTB crop seed sector to understand their experiences and the challenges they face in reaching farmers with their products.

First, they visited Biocrops Uganda Limited, a private company specializing in preparing early generation RTB crop planting materials. Based in Kawanda, this company is one of only three in the country specializing in tissue culture production for RTB crops. Biocrops produces clean and varietally pure planting materials of banana, sweetpotato, and cassava. Tissue culture technology involves taking tiny pieces of a mother plant, testing and assuring purity, and then multiplying them many thousand times under controlled laboratory conditions.

Although orders vary widely by season, figures from 2019 show 50,000 banana plantlets and 600 sacks of sweetpotato vines (1000 vines per sack) sold. Banana is a very significant crop in Uganda where a typical everyday meal revolves around a serving of banana (locally known as matooke, made by boiling and mashing green banana). For this reason, banana plantlets remain Biocrops’ fastest-moving product.

Biocrops faces challenges common to many African tissue culture labs: a client base with high demand for materials but low ability to pay, difficulties in obtaining lab equipment, and shortages of qualified persons to staff the technically skilled laboratory jobs.

Caroline Asasira discusses plant survival and the cost of production in the Biocrops screenhouse. Photo credit: Erik Delaquis

The second challenge comes from the issue of varieties. Order composition depends on client demand, reflecting a combination of the preferences of farmers and purchase decisions by project management and government bodies. This range of preferences means the laboratory must maintain materials for a very large number of varieties, which results in increased operational costs. To access these varieties, Biocrops does not have the capacity to conduct virus screening/indexing on-site, making them dependent on NARO’s Banana programme (based at NARL-Kawanda) for ‘foundation seed’, with a strict process of certification and registration with national authorities.

Biocrops grapples with the challenges of developing a stable business model for early generation seed. Informal distribution networks make it difficult to connect to many customers while maintaining quality. In practice, this means that most of Biocrops’ impact comes through partnerships with intermediaries with the scope and scale to reach thousands of smallholder farmers, such as NAADS, the International Potato Center (CIP), HarvestPlus, Bioversity International, and Makerere University. This subjects them to the fluctuations and uncertainty in order volumes coming with reliance on project and government funding. Attendance at events like the Annual Source of the Nile National Agricultural and Trade show and World Food Day celebrations have been helpful in advertising their services, but individual farmers still account for only 1-2% of Biocrops’ client profile.

Planting material in preparation of sweetpotato, cassava, and banana (left to right) at Biocrop. Photo credit: Erik Delaquis

So, where does Biocrops obtain starter materials for their banana tissue culture labs? To find out, the participants visited the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL-Kawanda), a short distance away from the Biorops’ headquarters. They were welcomed by Kenneth Akankwasa, who leads on-farm research at NARL.

NARL’s banana field collection includes a combination of local varieties, improved varieties, and selections from NARL’s own breeding program. Wilson Okurut, a seasoned extensionist with a long history of training farmers on banana production, conducted a short tour of the facility. Ugandan farmers plant a variety of mixtures guided by complex preferences and local knowledge. For example, the Nakyetengu variety is short and should be planted where there is plenty of sunlight, for example, by the road or a field edge. The Nakitembe variety is appreciated for its quick maturity and taste but is less commercially appealing than other matooke bananas due to its smaller bunch size. These bananas should never be planted next to the dessert banana FHIA 17, a very tall type that may overshadow the others. Kibuzi (named from a Bantu word for goat) is a good export variety with a longer shelf-life, but matures slowly, so mixed planting will result in a staggered harvest. NARL shares this knowledge with farmers through an array of projects, demonstration plots, and extension training campaigns, all undertaken with the goal of increasing Ugandan food security through improved banana production.

Comparison between early-maturing banana varieties and others. NARL Kawanda demo farm. Photo credit: Rosemary Kihiu

An example in action is the USAID Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP). Through collaboration with NARL and Biocrops, 40,000 banana plants from tissue culture were distributed to lead farmers in 23 districts. They, in turn, redistributed planting material to their neighbors, leading to a cascading impact with 41,000,000 new plants established in farmers’ fields over 4 years. Despite this huge effort, challenges remained on quality control and assuring that varietal purity was maintained through to the final round of farmers.

Even with the success of large projects, NARL remains dependent on NGOs, extensionists, and district government actors to meet their goals. The establishment of zonal agricultural research centers has helped to expand their reach, but the scale of banana farming in Uganda requires more time and attention than the NARL staff can provide.

The group concluded their visit to both partners with thanks for their efforts and openness in sharing experiences. These kinds of inputs are valuable experiential participation in the central work of the RTB seed systems cluster: to develop reliable tools and methods for understanding and improving local RTB crop seed systems. The experiences of Uganda’s multiplication system echo those of many other countries, both inside and outside of continental Africa.

This blog is written by Erik Delaquis and Israel Navarette (edits from Graham Thiele, Rosemary Kihiu and Enoch Kikulwe)

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