Uganda: Naro, Industrialists to Improve Crop Varieties

The National Development Plan III Objective Two targets sustainable industrialisation for inclusive growth.

Thus, given that about 70 per cent of Uganda's population is engaged in farming, agriculture would play a critical role in driving such industrialisation.

However, the country must first overcome the huge hurdle of subsistence agriculture which is characterised by low production, low-nutrient and poor-quality crops often infested with diseases and pests.

Thus farmers must be empowered with skills in modern crop husbandry and be availed improved crop varieties to advance productivity to enable them sustain supply of quality raw materials for the agro-processing industries.

In pursuit of this, the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), with USAID support, has started a five-year project to partner with the private sector to improve various local crop varieties through tissue culture technology and advance productivity for rural farmers.

The US$10 million project facilitates and brings together NARO and industrialists for joint research to breed local or existing crops into high-quality varieties that meet the needs of industries.

On May 3, 2021, NARO signed a partnership with Uganda Breweries Limited (UBL) for collaboration in research to transform local varieties especially barley, sorghum and cassava into high-yielding and aflatoxin-resistant varieties to feed its beer industry in the country.

"We are happy to enter this partnership with Uganda Breweries and pledge to work together to achieve mutual benefits that will go a long away in improving livelihoods of farming communities," NARO director general Dr Ambrose Agona said at the signing of the partnership at Serena Kampala Hotel.

He said the private sector partners will benefit from NARO's technical expertise in agro-technology research and crop science to get quality raw materials. It will also help farmers increase their agricultural productivity to earn better incomes to fight poverty.

Dr Agona lamented that whereas Uganda has 40 million acres of arable land, only 16 million acres are under cultivation, leaving the agricultural potential of 24 million acres remain idle or untapped. He added that this is a clear indicator that Uganda has huge potential to increase her agricultural productivity for both income and food security to support the local agro-industrial needs and feed other countries.

Underlining the importance of the partnership on May 3, UBL managing director Mr Alvin Mbugua said it will bolster the company's Local Raw Materials programme, which seeks reliance on local crops to feed their beer processing. He said reliance on local materials helped the beer company to remain afloat during the hard times of the Covid-19 lockdown.

"Sourcing quality raw materials locally for our products connects us to the communities where we work, allowing us to strengthen local farming and change lives. It makes our supply chain more resilient and creates a healthy economic loop in the national economy," Mr Mbugua continued.

"We were able to survive during the Covid-19 because we were able to source all our raw materials locally. If we were to import them from Europe and elsewhere, it would have been very hard for us," he explained.

Mbugua said UBL works with more than 40, 000 farmers in various parts of the country and spends Shs 45 billion in providing planting materials and other needs. He said this funding will double in the next five years, targeting to have all their brewing ingredients sourced locally.

Dr Simon Byabagambi of USAID told The Observer later in an interview that their five-year initiative is intended to commercialise NARO's biotechnologies in crops and livestock through partnerships with interested industrialists.

"USAID's role is to bring NARO and the private sector together to work out a partnership to commercialise agricultural technologies that address their industrial needs," Dr Byabagambi said.

For example, currently the barley that UBL uses in beer manufacturing is a high-altitude variety which grows well in highland areas such as Kigezi, Bugisu and Kapchorwa.

They want NARO to breed a low-altitude barley variety that can also grow in lowland areas in other parts of the country. Sorghum is also used in beer processing but there are many local varieties in communities, which cannot be used for beer brewing in their current form.

Uganda Breweries officials said the local sorghum varieties cannot be used because they are too tall for combine harvesters to pick them during harvest. Besides they take long to mature. Under their research collaboration, UBL is seeking NARO to improve these local varieties and breed shorter and quick maturing sorghum varieties that take a short time in the garden and can also be harvested by combine harvesters.

The NARO biotechnology will also seek to increase the nutrient composition of the improved varieties to meet nutritional requirements of the processing industries.

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