Naro makes apple farming possible in Uganda

What you need to know:

  • Apples are traditionally grown in temperate countries but experts say that farmers in tropics can still tap the benefits of apple growing.
  • Experts at Kachwekano Zardi in Kabale District under the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro), have been testing varieties that can grow under less chilly conditions since 1999 when the first trials were held in Kigezi highlands.

Four apple varieties were planted under three adaptation trials including Anna, Dorset Golden, Rome Beauty and Winter Banana. On-field trials proved that Anna and Golden Dorset can be easily adapted to the conditions in Uganda. These varieties, as well as Fuji, can withstand the heat in the tropics.

The two varieties have been distributed among farmers since 2010. Twenty four  other varieties are being screened.

Denis Ashaba, a scientist at Kachwekano explains that it has been proved that apples can grow in various ecological zones including the highlands of Kigezi, Rwenzori and Elgon while successful growing is practiced in lowland areas of Ankole and central Uganda.

“Yes, apples can grow in Uganda and can yield to the maximum if good agronomic practices are taken up,” Ashaba says.

Key facts 
Ashaba says that the difference is minimal stating that apples grown in warmer areas grow faster but they are smaller in size. He says that in the tropics, a plant starts fruiting after 30 months.
Ashaba adds that commercial apple growing can make a good investment as one well-managed plant can yield more than 300 fruits twice a year. At the farm gate price of Shs1,000, one can reap Shs100,000 from just one plant.

With seed distribution efforts of Naro and the National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads), more than 100,000 farmers are involved in apple growing in Uganda.

Dr Rolland Agaba, a plant breeder at Kachwekano explains that the starting point is obtaining clean seed. The seedlings are obtained at Naro stations at Shs1,000. To establish an acre of apple trees, one needs about 450 plants.

To establish an orchard, Naro scientists recommend well-drained soils that are not prone to water-logging.
Plant your apple trees at least 20 feet apart, in an area that receives abundant sunshine.

Soil testing 
Agaba explains that soil testing becomes important before establishing an orchard to determine fertiliser requirements in the soil. He explains that farmers need to remember that the best site for your future orchard may not be the land you presently own.

“Soils need to be replenished time and again. Knowing what the soil lacks right from the beginning is therefore important,” he says.

Dr Rolland Agaba explains the science of getting the best out of apple growing to the farmers that attended the Seeds of Gold Farm Clinic in Kabale. PHOTO/GEORGE KATONGOLE

Since an orchard is a long-term venture as it may be productive for 30 to 75 years, it is necessary to make educated and well informed decisions in selecting the location and site of your future orchard.
Additionally, he explains that apples require to be planted in a spot where the sun shines directly on the tree for at least eight hours.

After choosing the desired site, the land should be cleared of any vegetation and ploughed. This is an important stage in managing diseases and vectors while improving soil aeration and drainage.
The land should be given at least two weeks of rest before planting with the seedlings.

Agaba explains that when the time is right for planting, extension workers can provide the desired tree spacing. About 450 plants can be planted in an acre with proper spacing of either 3x3 metres or 4x4 metres. But he says that a good rule of thumb is to provide as much horizontal space as the anticipated height of the tree. So, if your tree will grow up to eight feet high, make sure there are eight feet between it and the next tree.

From planting to thinning, caring for your apple trees throughout the growing time will help your plants produce plenty of apples to harvest. A well-managed apple tree can be able to produce more than 300 fruits a year.

Planting is best done at the onset of the rain season. The first step is to harden off seedlings and the soils in the hole complimented with manure.

During planting, one should ensure that the grafting points are not covered with soil or mulch.
Throughout the life of the tree, you should water its root zone thoroughly during the growing season whenever there is a dry spell.

For the first years of the tree’s life, it is important to protect the trunk of your fruit tree.
Once established, an apple tree should thrive with minimal fertilisation. Nitrogen is normally the only mineral nutrient that needs to be added on an annual basis and can be added using compost.
For the first three to five years, grass and weeds should be removed from about a three-foot radius around the tree by round digging.

Thinning is important in an orchard. Although some fruits will normally drop off the tree, the plant may be left with more fruits than it can support. Ashaba says the best practice is to leave one or two fruits per cluster when thinning.

For apples to get better fruit colour, farmers should carry out defoliation. Since apples are deciduous plants that require leaf drop to blossom and put on fruits, farmers manually remove the leaves to induce blossoming. This should be done mid to end of February or early March and until September in the second season.

Apart from defoliation, apple trees should be pruned to remove excess branches and the diseased or dead branches. Pruning is important because it allows more light penetration.

Management of diseases
Anything that affects apple trees, leaves, flowers and fruits can be dangerous. Apple trees are affected by diseases which can cause significant economic losses.
In Uganda, the main diseases are powdery mildew disease, a fungal disease that attacks young shoots covering them with a white powdery substance. The disease makes apple trees lose leaves and become stunted.

According to Ashaba, powdery mildew is managed by pruning and burning all affected twigs and application of fungicides.

The other major disease is apple scab. The signs to look for on leaves are velvety, brownish, small circles.
The scientist explains that planting varieties that are resistant to scab is an important way to minimise infection.

Apples growing on a demonstration farm at Kachwekano in Kabale District. PHOTO/GEORGE KATONGOLE 

Fire blight, a disease caused by a bacterial infection that can kill blossoms, shoots, and eventually entire trees, is another key disease. You might see this disease on the trunk or limbs of a tree as a sunken area with discoloured bark. As the lesion gets bigger, it begins to crack around the edges and the tree will look like it has been burned.

Other losses can be caused by small mammals that can chew apple tree barks. This calls for proper fencing of the orchard. 

Case study
Milton Kwesiga is one of the lead apple farmers in the Kigezi region. He has orchards with more than 4,000 apple trees.

He has not spent any money buying seedlings as he has benefitted from government distribution programmes. He was first given 300 seedlings in 2016 and now has 4,000 plants on various plots.
His plants have started fruiting and he is now in the second season of harvesting.

Following the identification of apple production and marketing as a priority issue in the south western highlands of Uganda by Naro, Kwesiga took the opportunity with both hands.

Western Uganda lacks a reliable perennial cash crop which can provide cash income after the failure of tobacco, coffee and pyrethrum. Apple development is a new initiative for increasing farm income under the Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA).

Kwesiga explains that from his experience, replenishing the soils is the main challenge in managing an orchard.

But the market remains his key concern saying consumers prefer superior apples obtained from other countries, which have a longer shelf life.

“I think if we are going to benefit from apple growing, we need to organise the farmers in groups and improve on the quality of our apples,” Kwesiga says.

To manage the market demands, Kwesiga has started making wine out of the apples.
This is an area Naro scientists believe must be scrutinised. Dr Barbara Mugwanya Zawedde, the director of Mukono Zardi, explains that farmers must be encouraged to effectively utilise apple pomace for the development of edible, fermented and industrial products.

She says several value-added products such as jam, jelly, sauce, cookies and the like can be prepared from apple pomace for human consumption. Locally, producers are targeting juice makers and markets.

But Dr Zawedde explains that in order to make more profits and minimise post-harvest losses, farmers should consider value addition. “There is a lot that can be got out of apples. For a start, we need farmers to embrace the crop and then encourage them to process the various products in order to increase their earnings,” Dr Zawedde said.

Apart from fresh consumption, apples are used to make juices, cookies, biscuits and bread, jellies, jams and soft drinks, among others. Besides, they can be used to make vinegar, cider, animal feeds, and are essential ingredients in fruit salad and desserts.

Soil testing 
Dr Rolland Agaba says soil testing becomes important before establishing an orchard to determine fertiliser requirements in the soil. He explains that farmers need to remember that the best site for your future orchard may not be the land you presently own.

“Soils need to be replenished time and again. Knowing what the soil lacks right from the beginning is therefore important,”  he says.



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