AGONA: We can come up with new tools if farmers learn to invest in agriculture

Your colleagues are increasingly talking about patenting their research. Dr Anton Bua, for instance, is believed to have been the first to discover that cassava can be used in brewing beer but he didn’t get any recognition, because he had no patents. Can government-sponsored research be commercialised?

I believe that the patenting discussion has emerged because Naro is encouraged to carry out demand-driven research that is easy to commercialise. The decision to patent technologies from a public institution like Naro is, however, a difficult one to make, because we receive government funds.

You are talking about public financing be, it for seed or animal variety research. Now the question comes, if you receive public funds to deliver a public good, what controls do you put in place? Do you sell it to the public, or do you follow the traditional processes in which technologies are generated and the private sector, farmers and any other interested party has free of access?

Funding agriculture research globally is becoming difficult because there is no commitment for sustained and predictable funding. We rely on the government. But in other countries — not in sub-Saharan Africa— the private sector is involved in funding agriculture research.

They enter into public private partnerships (PPP) so that when the product comes out it technically belongs to both private and public sector. Considering patenting, copyright, breeders rights and sharing benefits would be a good idea under such circumstances to protect the interests of the private sector that provide financing.

Does Naro get paid by private players that sell seed varieties developed by organisation?

Naro has a core mandate of producing the breeder seed with pest resistance, early maturity, and right palatability. We have two types, the conventional one that includes crossing the parents, and another that is the product of biotechnology or genetic engineering, although we are not releasing those ones, yet.

But the most common conventional breeding is where we cross the parental lines. What comes out is what we call the breeder seed.  So foundation seed is given to the private sector, to go and do the multiplication, to sell to the public.

We are doing that free of charge. But of late, we charging some percentages for the hybrid parental line, we require at least $300 in payment. Depending on the seed you are talking about, the private sector also pays monies ranging from Ush10,000 ($3) to Ush50,000 ($15).

There is a call for zonal research institutes to generate income. How can they achieve that, when you just said it’s difficult to sell agriculture research generated using public funds?

The call to raise incomes goes beyond zonal research institutes all Naro departments are required do to that. We are required to generate non-tax revenue. As director of Kawanda (National Agricultural Research Laboratories), one of our major sources of income was compensation from the Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Ltd for using our land.

In Mbarara, the road network passes through the Zonal Research Institute land. But we are looking at going into seed production and multiplication, so that farmers don’t purchase counterfeit planting materials from private sector.

How much does government allocate to Naro?

We are operating with a budget of about Ush147 billion ($43.5 million), but we have a shortage of over Ush58 billion ($17 million), because the Agricultural Technological and Agribusiness Aisory Services (Ataas) was suspended. Suspension of Ataas denied Naro and the National Agricultural and Agribusiness Aisory Services (Naads) a total of $120 million.

Your critics say scientists on the continent have not invested in solving the real challenges of Africans, like designing a tool to replace hoes that have been used since the 1800s that you consistently focus on new seed varieties that play a role in degrading the environment and are rarely used by farmers. Is there any truth in these allegations?

I wouldn’t buy the debate against investing in drought resistant varieties. Maintaining soil fertility is of course important, but in modern agriculture, you are supposed to replenish, either using organic or inorganic fertilisers like nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium.

Very few people are using these fertilisers. In Uganda, we use about a kilogramme of fertiliser per hectare per year. Therefore, soils are deteriorating for lack of replenishment, which has nothing to do with the plant seed varieties.

Climate change is real, which is why we go for early maturing varieties, so that even, if there is drought, you can harvest something. We are researching genetically modified varieties and water efficient maize for Africa using conventional means.

As for regionalising crops based on environment, I definitely agree. I participated in the zoning of agriculture production, processing and marketing in Uganda. I was one of the architects: We looked at an area’s geographical situation, climate, comparative aantages, historical perspectives and culture, to decide on products for agricultural production. But this only works when the distribution system is good, with proper road networks, storage facilities and cooling systems.

How about African farmers still using hoes?

People should understand that farming is a business and commercialisation requires investment. There are tractors in Uganda and ploughing costs about Ush80,000 ($24) an acre. Why wouldn’t farmers invest part of their earnings into opening up their land? We also have seeding prototypes, weeders, fertiliser applicators, pest applicators and technologies that can be used. Farmers should start using these technologies.

The linkage between us and the private sector is weak. But we can only be motivated to come up with more tools, once farmers learn to invest in agriculture.

There are complaints of poor quality and taste of new varieties released by Naro. How are you reconciling the competing demands for palatability and high yields?

We are trying to solve this problem by customising our research to market demands. We shall, for example, come up with new potato varieties that farmers can grow to supply the potato processing factory in Kisoro, western Uganda. Currently, there is only one variety available for use in this factory. As for the bananas, Naro introduced the fiya, a common variety on the world market.

But because we have a culture of eating our traditional varieties, people say it’s tasteless. The old varieties succumb to disease and the banana requires fortification to eliminate the need for food supplements.