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Erostus Nsubuga, the biotech innovator behind tissue culture in banana farming

EROSTUS NJUKI NSUBUGA is the chairman of the Uganda biotechnology consortium but is best known as the brains behind the groundbreaking of tissue culture of breeding bananas.

Baker Batte Lule visited his model farm in Buloba, Wakiso district to learn more about this  unconventional technology that has taken banana farming by storm. 

Erostus Njuki Nsubuga with former Agriculture minister Trace Bucyanayandi 

Nsubuga holds a master’s degree in agriculture but it means little other than being just part of his long curriculum vitae detailing. He always had a hobby for agriculture, particularly plant breeding, but his work in the telecom and marketing world always found a way of obstructing his passion.

In 2001 he thought to himself; “why had I even done the master’s in agriculture if I was never going to try out anything I learnt?”

“I didn’t set out to go in agriculture; it just started as a hobby to try out something I had studied,” Nsubuga says in an interview at his office located at Buloba off Mityana road.

Nsubuga started his tissue culture laboratory which he was to later name, Agro-Genetic Technologies [AGT] in a kitchen at his Muyenga-based home. Before he knew it, other rooms in his house had been taken over.

He says while he crisscrossed the world working for telecom companies, he was impressed with what he saw in countries like India and Pakistan, where biotechnology was being used to get planting material.

He stormed Katwe, a Kampala suburb known for its manufacture of all sorts of electric appliances, especially those locally made, to get the first machines he used on the onset on top of his kitchen microwave to sterilize his tissues.

“I didn’t realize that the demand for pre-planting materials was huge, not only in Uganda, but in the region,” he says.

Nsubuga was ‘lucky’ because at the time of his innovations, there were a lot of banana and coffee diseases to the extent that the two plants were under a serious threat of the wilt.

Nsubuga says his bananas are not disease-resistant but they are disease-free.

“If everybody starts planting with a disease-free planting material, then we will drastically reduce the spread of diseases. But if everybody goes to the neighbour to pick planting material, they come with diseases, some of them viruses which they can’t see with their eyes; so, they continue to spread,” Nsubuga says.

As AGT sells its products, it also trains farmers in modern agronomic practices so that they can enhance their resistance to diseases. Currently, AGT has capacity to produce up to 10 million plants depending on the type of crop.

However, their main focus now is on bananas and Irish potatoes and the former constitutes almost 70 per cent of their capacity. Through tissue culture, Nsubuga says they produce three million banana plants a year.

“We are the largest producer of banana planting material in the region.  But the market is still huge; the three million can’t satisfy it,” Nsubuga says.

Inside the tissue culture lab

On how much it costs to buy a banana tissue, Nsubuga says he would rather not say.

“I don’t want to tell you how much a tissue buys because most of you don’t understand when we talk about the money. I’m the first in the country to do this; nobody knows the cost I go through. You won’t believe the electricity bill I pay every month. I don’t want to give you figures because there is no comparison. I’m almost the only one in this business commercially,” Nsubuga says.

AGT currently employs 70 workers on a permanent basis but during rainy seasons like it is now, the figure shoots to 500 workers as there is need for more casual labourers. On top of doing tissue culture, AGT is also into packaging of peeled matoke which they sell outside Uganda.

“Thirty per cent of matoke are peels but our people continue to export it without adding any value to it. Surely why would you export peels to add weight to your exports and then pay more in transportation yet you can peel them and give peelings to our animals and in turn get manure,” Nsubuga wonders.

Rewarding

Nsubuga says he is very distraught about the rate at which Chinese, Indians, South Africans and Arabs, among other foreign nationals, are buying land in Uganda. He says when you go in villages across the country, hundreds of hectares of land have been taken over. 

“If we are not careful, we are again going to become slaves of foreigners; for them, they have seen the advantages we are having; the good climate and the soils,” Nsubuga says.

He adds that although a few Ugandan elites are beginning to ‘wake up,’ the numbers are still small compared to the influx of foreigners. In his assessment, using biotechnology and products such as pesticides and tissue culture for maximum agricultural production will be the next minefield in the coming years. 

“There isn’t any business I know of that has been as successful as the telecom business but believe me or not, in the near future, if not already, it’s going to be biotechnology and agriculture. Ugandans need to jump on it before foreigners takeover,” Nsubuga says.

To do this, Nsubuga wants government to change land laws such that foreigners don’t just come to Uganda and buy land as much as they want. He says when you go to other countries even those in the region like Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, South Sudan; you can’t just buy land anyhow.

“By the time we realize agriculture is important, there will no land and we shall become workers on farms of foreigners,”

GMO debate

After a protracted struggle, parliament finally passed the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, commonly known as the GMO bill, only for the president to decline to sign it into law, citing lack of clarity on patent rights of indigenous farmers and sanctions for scientists who mix GMOs with indigenous crops and animals.

However, Nsubuga, who is the chairman of the Uganda biotechnology consortium, says those arguing against the bill don’t know what they are talking about.

“This debate should be left to professionals to tell us what to do but what has happened with GMOs is that everybody wants to say something even those who know nothing.

They have taken this debate even to villagers who don’t know anything about science. In my view, there is nothing wrong with GMOs if we have a legal framework for checks and balances. Every good technology has a controversial side; say guns, they kill people but don’t we buy them? Look at the budget of Uganda for guns. The government has to stop this nonsense of asking grandmothers and fathers what GMOs are,” Nsubuga says.

He called on government to allow its own institutions to do the work for which they were formed.

“You ask them why they set up Naro [National Agricultural Research Organization] if they don’t want to listen to it. They are instead listening to individuals and foreign NGOs other than their own institutions. If I was to give my president advice, I would just tell him to shut off these people bringing this nonsense,” Nsubuga says. 

Increase agriculture funding

Nsubuga says it’s foolhardy for the government to continue singing the song of agriculture being the backbone of Uganda’s economy yet year in, year out it receives less than five per cent of budgetary allocations.

“It’s ridiculous people are still using hoes; there is no irrigation in this country, no extension workers. Every day we are coming up with new programs but nothing has worked. They have to put more money in agriculture; we need subsidies, working systems, control over seeds and other inputs.

A lot of fake products are on the market, there are seeds that don’t germinate, we are now distributing coffee seedlings which we know are susceptible to wilt yet there are new lines resistant to coffee wilt but nobody is caring to see that we multiply those ones. You mean UCDA [Uganda Coffee Development Authority] doesn’t know that these lines exists; somebody must do something,” Nsubuga says. 

Future plan

Nsubuga says for the more than 15 years of AGT, he has never borrowed any money to run it. Instead, he depends on his savings. “I don’t owe anybody anything; this is a small company that does big things,” Nsubuga says.

The success behind his business has been the ability to use the little resources he had and literally producing everything his company needs. He has been recognized by all and sundry in this country and outside.

President Museveni has visited his laboratory before and was wowed by what he saw. He pledged to extend three-phase electricity to the area and also promised him five acres of land in the Namanve industrial park; the two pledges the president has met. However, Nsubuga believes more should be done to help companies like his.

He says other than Naads and Operation Wealth Creation [OWC] occasionally buying his products, especially bananas, he has not received any form of assistance in form of public–private partnership.

“I have set up the largest tissue-culture-derived Irish potatoes lab at Namawojjolo on Jinja road but nobody has come to say what we can do to improve capacity. The other day I had to bring an Indian consultant and paid her $30,000 to help me optimize Irish potato protocol but these are at Kawanda seated on the shelves.

So, if I go out to source people to do the work, the price of my products is going to be high yet we could have partnerships with government because some of these things we need are already there,” Nsubuga says.

Who is Nsubuga?

Nsubuga was born in Uganda but in the seventies, he relocated to Sweden, where he obtained citizenship and lived up to 1995. The father of four was one of the founders of Celtel Uganda [now Airtel] the first telecom company in Uganda.

He says if it was not to start Celtel, he wouldn’t have come back to Uganda. Before choosing to come back, Nsubuga worked with Ericsson in Sweden. Looking back 25 years later, Nsubuga says the telecom industry has grown in leaps and bounds. From only about 30,000 landlines to more than 10 million mobile users, the industry is one of the fastest and most profitable sectors. 

“When Celtel had just come, the Simcard was sold at $40 (Shs 140,000 at present-day rate) but now you are getting them almost for free. You had to pay security deposits of $700 because initially we didn’t have scratch cards, we had prepaid airtime,” Nsubuga reminisces.

Other positions

Nsubuga is the founder of Agro-Genetic Technologies Limited (AGT) which is into laboratories, foods and real estate of which he is the chairman and chief executive. He says he has vast experience in international marketing in Africa, Asia and Europe.

He worked for 10 years for Ericsson as the sales and marketing manager for Africa and Asia. He was the pioneer managing director of Mobile World International BV, a Dutch company dealing in distribution of mobile cellular telecom products for different network operators in different African countries, where he worked for three years.

He was the chairman of National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) from 2006 to 2009. Between 2007 and 2010, he was chairman of the Presidential Investors Round-Table (PIRT) agribusiness in Uganda, which advises the president on agricultural business investment.

He is also the chairman of Tissue Culture Business Network (TCBN) in East and Central Africa, chairman of Uganda Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (UBBC), chairman of Buganda Cultural and Development Foundation (BUCADEF) and chairman of Swedish-Ugandan Business Association, He sits on the Presidential Technical Advisory Committee on Business Competitiveness in Uganda under the Presidential Investors Round Table (PIRT) 2015-2018.

He is also a board member of the European Business Forum (EBF) in Uganda.

bakerbatte@observer.ug

Comments   

+1 #1 Zungulu Zzungulu 2018-04-18 12:47
......knowledge or none in GMO, what i can confidently say is that our natural seeds beat them all!!!

We only need to improve on our soil contents and the rest is history!
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