Our mission is empowering farmers get more for their yields

Wednesday October 29 2014

Dr Bigirwa

Dr Bigirwa on a study visit to a plantation that belongs to a seed company. Above, researchers at a field trial site for Wema maize variety, which is being tested for drought tolerance. PHOTOS BY LOMINDA AFEDRARU 

By Lominda Afedraru

My name is Dr George Bigirwa, a plant pathologist by training. Currently I am Associate Director, Programme for Africa Seed Systems, which is being implemented by the Alliance Green Revolution for Africa (Agra).

I started practicing agricultural science in 1986 at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NaRL) in Kawanda. I did that for two years under the maize programme but when US Agency for International Development (Usaid) began to support the programme, they wanted it under the National Crop Resources Research Institute in Namulonge.

Better returns
I shifted to Namulonge under the maize research team comprising of agronomists and entomologists. Their objective was to come up with quality maize varieties because the one we bred in Kawanda comprised of composites.

The team worked hard and in 1990, we developed the Longe1 open-pollinated variety. However, there was need for hybrid varieties, which are high yielding, so as to enable farmers get better returns on their crops.
Our efforts resulted in the release of two varieties, Longe2H and Long3H. Later, the scope of our research widened to include improved rice varieties and it evolved into the Cereals Research Programme. With this new mandate, we released Longe6H, Longe7H and Longe8H maize varieties as well as Neriac 6H and Nerica1 rice varieties.

Around that time, the seed industry had been liberalised and we were able to work with the then emerging seed companies like FICA, Naseco and Farm Harvest (the latter is no longer in existence). These multiplied the seed that is to be supplied to farmers.

Addressing challenges
By the time I left Namulonge, there were eight seed companies. Some of them began importing seed into the country because the quantity that was being produced in Namulonge was not enough to meet the demand by farmers. But this imported maize seed did not meet preference of the farmers and at that time there was break out of diseases like maize streak virus, maize leaf blight and grey leaf spot.

I became the head of the Cereal Research Programme in 1999 and by the time I left, my team had developed varieties with resistance to the aforementioned viruses. These included Longe9H, Longe10H and Longe11H. For rice, there was Nerica1 and Nerica10.

Over time, the cereal research programme has grown with scientists releasing a number of maize varieties, including the Wema maize varieties which are resistant to stem borers as well as drought tolerant and rice varieties that are capable of growing in different conditions.

The scientists have even gone ahead to breed varieties using biotechnology, not only cereals but root crops as well as, to address pests and diseases and other challenges that farmers are faced with.
In 2008, I left to work with Agra, which I joined as a programme officer in charge of supporting and mentoring seed entrepreneurs in Eastern and Southern Africa.

In addition to Uganda, the countries covered are Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Zambia. My task was to identify seed companies, give them grants to increase their seed production as well as technical support.

Access to quality seed
I have since risen to the position of senior programme officer and now to Associate Director with additional responsibilities of conducting activities like training of students to work with research institutes, supporting seed breeding programmes and agro-inputs dealer development.

I still feel proud that we set up the foundation for quality seed breeding. What I am doing in Agra is even better because in the Programme for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS), we are trying to ensure that farmers in Africa access quality seed for improved production.

We administer the PASS in four different areas one is identifying universities to enroll students for Master’s and PhD courses. For students in East and Central Africa, we have chosen University of Kwa Zulu Natal, in South Africa, and University of Ghana, in Ghana, for those in West Africa, for PhD programmes. The set target is training 80 breeders.

At Master’s degree level, there are 180 students are to be trained. We have identified Makerere University in Uganda, Aramaya University in Ethiopia, Sokoine University in Tanzania, Bunda College in Malawi, University of Zambia in Zambia, Mondolena University in Mozambique, Ibadan University in Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah University in Ghana and University of Burkina Faso in Burkina Faso.

Farmers’ output
We also support research activities. For the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro), we are supporting research in maize, rice, sweet potato and bean in NaCRRI, banana breeding at NaRL while at the National Semi Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI) in Serere, it is cow pea, groundnut and sorghum breeding. By funding the research institutes, we are trying to make sure that quality crop varieties are bred for the farmers to realise good output.

Now to tell you about the Green Revolution, it all started with looking for a change in the agriculture sector using good farming practices for better output. The first green revolution took place in China led by the American agronomist, Norman Borlaug, where farmers were encouraged to use fertiliser on their farms to increase productivity.

The next Green Revolution took place in Asia with wheat varieties transferred from Latin America to farmer fields in Asia as well as use of fertiliser and irrigation for rice varieties developed in Asia. There were early attempts to introduce these varieties in Africa, which did not succeed because these crops could not grow easily on African soils with the different weather patterns.

A different revolution
This, therefore, called for Green Revolution in Africa, the reason why Agra was formed in 2006. The mission is to bring about this Green Revolution in a unique way focusing on crops such as maize, sorghum, millet, rice, beans, groundnuts, pigeon pea, cowpea, cassava, banana and sweet potato, among others.

The African green revolution is all about the African farmers producing enough food and selling the surplus to earn income. As such, part of PASS’ role is to search for markets for farmers who have produced surplus.
The other element is sensitising farmers to consider good soil usage since the soils in Africa have been cultivated over and over. We are trying to encourage use of fertiliser and organic manure plus crop rotation especially with legume crops.

Using the integrated soil fertility management approach, we are using extension service workers to teach farmers through demonstration plots how to apply fertiliser on their soils.

Policy matters
We are also engaged in policy matters regarding agriculture. In Uganda, this is why we are now trying to engage the government to waive VAT imposed on agricultural inputs. Last year, in Tanzania, farmers produced a lot of food which the government barred them from selling to other countries but we had to come in to negotiate.
Our team is also working with farmer organisations and we train them to sell their produce as group and be organised in cooperative unions for collective bargaining.

Working with Agra, I feel I have made a commendable contribution in the agricultural sector in different African countries. For instance, there are countries that did not have seed companies like Rwanda, Mozambique, and Ethiopia but we managed to set up seed companies. Now, farmers are getting quality seed.

We have created public-private partnership linkages. This is why Naro can now work with seed companies. Another achievement is setting up a seed training institute at University of Nairobi, where seed dealers send their personnel for short courses on production of quality seed and management of agro-seed business. This is a great achievement because people used to go to universities overseas, which was costly.

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