Access to right and quality planting materials has been a staggering challenge to Ugandan farmers and is one of the key impediments to the modernisation and transformation of agriculture initiatives.
However, the launch of the biotechnology and plant science research centre at Namawojjolo in Mukono on April 26 this year could prove a huge relief to farmers and a boost to mass production of clean planting materials. The centre, Agro-Genetic Technologies Laboratories (AGT Laboratories) breeds Irish potato plantlets through tissue culture science at its Namawojjolo lab.
Tissue culture is a science of growing a whole plant from a tiny part of the plant without altering its original genetic composition. The tissue culture technology allows scientists and entrepreneurs to multiply the same variety of a crop into millions of disease-free and quality planting materials for farmers who seek a specific variety of crops especially which are propagated through seedlings, suckers and vines, among others.
The AGT Laboratories chief executive officer Erostus Nsubuga told the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga during the launch of the facility last week that the Namawojjolo facility focuses on Irish potato seedlings, although the facility has another research centre in Buloba along Mityana road that produces tissue culture seedlings of banana, pineapple and coffee.
“Honourable Speaker, these new modern facilities you are launching today have state-of- the-art equipment and we are currently focussing on Irish potato seed that is high on demand by farmers across the country. The facilities have potential to conduct any modern biotechnology applications including genetic engineering to address challenges farmers may face,” Nsubuga told the speaker.
He appealed for a supportive legislation to make more advances in agro-genetic technology and science. Nsubuga called for expeditious enactment of the bill on biotechnology which has not yet become law since it was first tabled in parliament in 2012. In her address after the opening of the facility, Kadaga assured AGT Laboratories and the general private sector of parliament support in putting in place an appropriate legislative and regulatory framework.
She said the bill on biotechnology was passed by parliament but it has been twice returned by the president citing concerns about benefit sharing between local Ugandans and the biotechnology developers that were not addressed by the legislation. Kadaga said parliament will sit again and look into the president’s concerns and address them so that the bill is passed into law.
Nsubuga later explained that the absence of the law has hindered scientists from doing extensive research in biotechnology to produce products for the market.
“Government has not given us a law to use biotechnology to produce genetically modified products, which other countries are producing and exporting here. For example, the coronavirus vaccine we are using is genetically modified. Why are we allowing others to use biotechnology to produce GMOs which they export here and we buy them in our markets but we stop our local scientists from doing the same?” Nsubuga queried.
“Without a law, we cannot attract partners to work with us. There are some disease-resistant and high-yielding genetically modified crops that National Agricultural Research Organisation has made but we cannot multiply them for commercial use due to lack of a law,” he added.
The Irish potato tissue culture lab, which started about three years ago, Nsubuga said, also faces a challenge of erratic power supply, which disrupts the laboratory operations.
He said the seed cells undergoing breeding in the lab need at least 16 hours of uninterrupted light supply or else they die. Due to erratic power, he has had to resort to using a generator, which is costly.
He appealed to government to support the private sector, saying it creates jobs and drives the economy. During interviews with the media, Nsubuga underlined the importance of tissue culture technology. He said it allows mass production of uniform plants in a short time. He said the technology also ensures mass production of planting materials whose natural rate of propagation is relatively low.
It also provides pest-free and high-quality planting materials that give higher yields than the conventional or traditional planting materials.
The minister for Science and Technology Dr Elioda Tumwesigye commended AGT Laboratories for the tissue culture facility and said it will go a long way in helping Ugandan farmers to access clean and high-quality plantlets which will boost the country’s agricultural production and exports. He lamented that Uganda, which used to be the world’s second largest producer of bananas (matooke) after India, has now been overtaken by China which currently produces 11.6 million tonnes of bananas annually compared to Uganda’s 11.2 million tonnes.
The AGT Laboratories, which has the parent facility at Buloba on Mityana road breeding tissue culture banana, pineapple and coffee seedlings, has supplied over 50 million plantlets in the East African region over the years, according to Nsubuga.
Uganda produces between 800,000 and 1,000,000 tonnes of Irish potatoes, according to the National Agricultural Advisory Services report 2015/16-2019/20 on projections of potato production. With growing urbanisation and demand for chips in urban areas, the production of Irish potatoes is expected to rise sharply in the coming years.
About 60 percent of the crop is grown in south-western Uganda in the highlands of Kabale and Kisoro districts as well as Bugisu and Sebei in eastern Uganda. However other areas like Ankole, Rwenzori and central region have also started growing the crop.
Irish potato is both a staple food and a source of income. With increasing demand for Irish potato for food especially in urban areas, production has intensified in the growing areas, making the need for bigger supply of planting materials and of high-yielding varieties more critical than ever before.