“That cross-bred cow over there is from improved bananas,” Lawrence Mukiibi remarks. This is one of the benefits from using improved crop varieties that Mukiibi, a small holder farmer in Nakaseke District, is proud of. He bought the cow from the proceeds he has been getting from selling bananas that he grows using tissue-cultured plantlets.
Until 2003, Mukiibi was using the common method of suckers to grow traditional varieties such as Nakitembe, Musakala and Muyovu.
These traditionally grown varieties were tolerant to extreme climatic conditions such as drought but had long maturity periods of one to one-and-a-half years.
Just like any other farmer in central Uganda, matooke is Mukibi’s favourite food and cannot imagine a day without it. However, prolonged maturity periods of traditionally grown bananas had made it hard for him to have it on a daily basis.
In 2003, he attended a training organised by World Vision in his community, where he learnt about a “new” variety of bananas that was planted differently and could mature in eight months.
These “new” varieties were tissue-cultured plantlets, which they locally named obutooke bwa malanga because of the resemblance to a weed known as malanga in Luganda, the local language.
The form in which the plantlets appeared scared Mukiibi at first, as he could not believe a small leaf-sized plantlet can grow into a huge plant. His worries were further compounded by the apprehension he had for new crops, which he thought were responsible for the new pests and diseases that were rampant in crops then.
In addition, he always believed that there’s a conspiracy by scientists and researchers to wipe out traditional crop varieties by introducing new crops.
However, he had always wished for a variety of bananas that would mature earlier than the traditional ones. He chose to experiment with 200 stocks of plantlets that were given during the training, on a part of his farm.
Making it easier
He followed all the agronomic practices that he had been trained in such as adding manure to the pits, mulching, as well as removing of male bud to combat the spread of Banana B acterial Wilt. To his surprise, the 200 stocks matured in a record eight months, with huge bunches of bananas.
From then, three-quarters of his farm comprises of bananas grown using tissue-cultured plantlets. He has also included improved varieties in other crops such as maize, coffee, cassava and sweet potatoes.
Mukibi’s confession is supported by other farmers involved in growing improved crop varieties in Nakaseke District, who agree that improved crops have faster maturity periods and better yields, making it easier to earn income from their harvests earlier.
These results are part of a study that was supported by Bio-Sciences for Farming in Africa, and carried out by Makerere University together with scientists from University of Reading UK in Nakaseke and Iganga districts.
In this study, farmers’ sources of information and attitudes towards crop genetic innovations in Uganda were sought.
In their key findings, improved varieties are increasingly becoming important in farmers’ livelihoods, with all respondents (185) in Nakaseke growing at least one improved crop variety, with an average of four per farm. Improved crops grown are mostly beans, bananas, cassava, and coffee.
However, despite the increasing popularity of improved crops, among these farmers, their access to timely, accurate, and quality information is still poor. The most important sources of information are fellow farmers, the radio, and Naads programme.
As highlighted above, the dominant narrative on improved crop varieties has always been on benefits relating to high yields and maturity, leaving out a crucial aspect of information sources regarding improved varieties and the methods in which they are produced.
The kind of information farmers’ receive, is key in determining their farm decisions on what kind of crops to grow. With fellow farmers being their most convenient option to get information from, it raises a question of competence, on whether they can also deliver highly technical information.
It is high time that public and private institutions working with farmers, specifically targeted and supported informal information sources such as model farmers, local leaders, and input suppliers to access credible information.
In addition, information on current crop improvement methods and their products should be made available in a fair and balanced manner, to assist farmers in making informed decisions about which crop varieties are best suited to their needs.