Skeptics of Makerere University's innovation drive are in for a new shock. Last Friday's formal launch of MV Mulimif the multi-purpose vehicle, already has many wondering when the first one will be available for purchase. MOSES TALEMWA met the team behind MV Mulimi.
Last week, a group of farmers from Nakaseke arrived at Makerere University's Agricultural Research Institute Kabanyoro (Muarik) with a lot of anxiety. Some like Steven Mukasa were wondering if the scientists from the university's college of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) had made a crop discovery that would solve some of their concerns about crop varieties.
Instead, they were met with a three-wheeled vehicle, which they were told would resolve most of their problems.
"Not necessarily the problems we were thinking about, but some of those we have gotten used to," Mukasa said.
On a hot sunny morning December 31, 2015, they met technicians making their last preparations before unveiling MV Mulimi, the latest addition to efforts to improve agriculture in Uganda.
According to Dr Nicholas Kiggundu of CAES, the vehicle design is the ultimate in value addition, as it attempts to solve the farmer's problems at source, following a demonstrated need for low-cost technologies in farm field operations and post-harvest handling operations.
"It will resolve the kind of problems that made farming a preserve of the resilient and those with no options, yet it is doing this at a low cost," he said.
The MV Mulimi was developed by a team from CAES, consisting of Prof Noble Banadda (as principal investigator), Prof John Lumkes (Purdue University), Dr Ahamada Zziwa, and Dr Nicholas Kiggundu of Makerere as well as Tyler Anselm (Purdue University), and technicians Ernest Tibaku-Zira, Samuel Mutesasira and Denis Nsubuga.
Apart from Prof Lumkes and Anselm, the rest of the team are from Makerere. The idea of a low-cost multipurpose vehicle suitable to African conditions, came out of a trip Prof Banadda took to three US universities in 2013. Prof Banadda, who was looking for research collaborations with US institutions, visited Purdue University, University of Georgia and Iowa State University.
On his return, Prof Banadda considered his options. Then, in June 2015, the dean of the department of Food Science and Bio Engineering Systems, Prof John Muyonga, challenged his team to come up with such a vehicle.
The design and development of MV Mulimi took place at Muarik under the sponsorship of the Presidential Initiative on Science and Technology from September 1, 2015, for six weeks. As Dr Kiggundu explains, the process was fast-moving, but filled with numerous challenges.
"We started work on September 1, 2015 and worked fast for six weeks, eventually developing the vehicle," he recalls.
Dr Kiggundu was in charge of procuring the parts and had strict instructions to use only spares that were easily available on the local market.
"I quickly realised how difficult it was ... some of our technicians and spare parts dealers are so good but not well-schooled in the craft," he adds.
"Many times you would ask for something clear like a crankshaft, complete with specifications and they would bring you something else, because sometimes they had a different name for what you wanted."
Kiggundu learned to go to the spares shops and point to what he wanted, rather than insisting on the correct technical names. The mathematical models and computer designs for the vehicle were initially developed at Muarik and later completed at Purdue University.
"They helped us design the ground clearance, lengths and widths of most parts, since we lack a proper proving ground and the equipment to make it work," he reveals.
Dr Kiggundu revealed that he coined the name MV Mulimi together with Prof Banadda and Dr Zziwa. However, what Dr Kiggundu is unable to get around his mind is the scepticism that Ugandans have of their own innovations.
"Even some of our students were not convinced that the vehicle would work ... during tests [at Muarik], we had to make them use the vehicle to show them that it would work."
While some are satisfied with its efficiency, Dr Kiggundu is expecting a continuous shower of criticism.
"It seems people feel better if they hear that this product was made from abroad."
Commenting on the vehicle's abilities, Prof Banadda explains that MV Mulimi is able to thresh maize, pump water from a depth of seven metres to a height of 33 metres, plough gardens, transport 20 adults and their goods over a distance, as well as charge a mobile phone, all on a 13-horsepower five-speed engine. The vehicle's tank is a measly five and a half litres of diesel.
"We have been using it for the last month, but it seems to be very economical on fuel. We have only ever filled up the tank once!" Dr Kiggundu offered.
Dr Kiggundu is convinced that from their studies, farmers will find the MV Mulimi irresistible.
"The MV Mulimi cost Shs 30m to develop and its optimal cost, including all the elements required to carry out the various tasks, would cost about Shs 19m if the vehicle were available on the open market," he added.
ORDERS FOR 20 UNITS
It is these numbers that excited the head of Operation Wealth Creation, Gen Salim Saleh, when he turned up at Muarik to officially launch MV Mulimi. He was pleased Makerere had proved that it could find solutions to farmers' problems.
"I would like to hold talks with the university to see how money can be availed so that we can order for 20 new units for use by farmers," he said, much to the delight of the team behind MV Mulimi.
Earlier, Prof Banadda had indicated that the team was hoping to find the funds to fabricate a few more units to avail to selected farmers for experimental testing.
"We will only be able to improve this vehicle on getting feedback from farmers," he said.
The team is also looking to remain focused on research and innovation and obtain a private firm to develop the vehicle further for the market. But the news keeps getting better for the team. Gen Saleh also indicated that there were other opportunities to be derived from this innovation.
"The president has pledged to increase the agriculture budget for next year to over Shs 1 trillion, but there is a concern about the absorption capacity of that money at the grassroots. I hope that research centres like Makerere and others will be able to join in and help us absorb this new capacity," he said.
The Chinese ambassador to Uganda, Zhao Yali, was also on hand at the launch and urged Makerere to consider working with China to improve the product further.
"I encourage Makerere to cooperate with some of the Chinese firms, which are already here in Uganda and are involved in developing and marketing agricultural implements and vehicles. I think the vice chancellor has a big role to play here," he said.
He later provided two tractors to Muarik as a New Year token.
COMPARISONS WITH KIIRA EV
The MV Mulimi comes weeks after another innovation, this time by a team drawn from the university's college of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, had indicated that it was moving towards vehicle production with a 2018 deadline.
Despite state support, this team, like those at MV Mulimi, continues to face varied scepticism, with some of the most vocal insisting Uganda has no business producing a car. To this, Prof Sande Stevens Tickodri-Togboa, who was lead investigator on the Kiira EV project, laughs.
"When we first revealed that we were making a car in 2009, some thought I had lost my head, but now I'm used to it and it doesn't stop us working to prove them wrong," he says.
Dr Kiggundu is of the same view. "We are going ahead regardless; this vehicle will come along and with increased support, we shall improve it," he says.
Even Kaddu Kiberu, the immediate former chairman of the Uganda Manufacturers' Association, tried his hardest to hide his scepticism.
"I'm happy to see what is happening at Makerere ... Let us hope that this innovation will not be allowed to fail. Please be prepared for the criticism so that you can improve the product even further," he said.
"Government should first avail the department with funds, at least Shs 1bn, to develop about 20 units for testing before you can get a private partner interested to develop MV Mulimi further."
OPTIMISM AT MAKERERE
However, despite the sceptics, researchers at Makerere remain unfazed. The deputy principal of CAES, Prof Goretti Nabanoga, was pleased with the development in general.
"I'm happy Makerere is participating as the lead researcher in addressing the challenges faced by farmers at the grassroots. I think no one here will doubt what Makerere can produce," she said.
She was optimistic that MV Mulimi would evolve further in 2016. In his remarks, the vice chancellor, Prof John Ddumba-Ssentamu, said the MV Mulimi had arrived at the right time.
"As Makerere University, we have demonstrated that with seed financing, we can come up with practical innovations that solve real-world challenges."
Prof Ddumba-Ssentamu said more innovations would come in 2016.