About 25km from Kampala is the National Crop Resource Research Institute (NaCRRI), Namulonge, that has been in the news over part of its land being leased to an investor.
Namulonge is described as “Uganda’s food crop nucleus,” in the agricultural scientists’ circles.
The centre, according to the NaCRRI principal research officer, Dr Titus Alicai is “a place where most of the seeds that Ugandan farmers plant in their gardens come from.”
Dr Alicai observes that for every government agricultural programme designed to benefit farmers nationally, all the seed varieties delivered to farmers are developed and multiplied at NaCRRI.
“Sixty per cent of farmers in Uganda grow seeds generated and improved at NaCRRI,” says Dr Alicai. “Entities like Operation Wealth Creation and the defunct Naads scheme, all get the seeds that they distribute from here. It is why we call it the country’s food crop nucleus,” he elaborates.
History of the research institute
Established in 1947 under the British Protectorate government, the institute was until 1972 conducting research on cotton for the colonial master’s empire, benefitting countries in Africa and India.
However, Dr Alicai says when President Idi Amin’s regime took over the institute, the principal role of cotton research shifted to include research in and production of animal pasture.
Sitting on 2,200 acres of land, NaCRRI was among the best pasture producing centres between 1973 and 1980. However, when the National Agricultural Research (NAR) Act was passed in 2005, the centre’s research tasks completely changed.
Better Quality crops
According to Dr Gadi Gumisiriza, the chairman of NaCRRI’s advisory committee, Uganda being a predominantly agricultural country, the institute had to shift focus to what he calls “food crops of strategic importance” because of their key roles for food, employment and household incomes in Uganda.
“Currently, the institute has centred on research in crops that are predominantly grown by the majority of Ugandan farmers. We modify such seeds to ensure there is value addition for higher yields and better quality,” observes Dr Gumisiriza.
Dr Alicai explains that these “crops of strategic importance” including root tubers such as cassava and sweet potatoes, adding that they are soon introducing a yam research programme due to its value and richness in vitamins.
After developing the seeds, Dr Alicai says crops are grown within the centre to test their viabilities before being distributed to farmers. He notes that with the climate change worldwide, the centre has already started developing drought and disease resistant food crops.
“As a result, many people, and especially seed companies, come and buy these improved seeds, take them for multiplication and the chain expands to the end farmer in the villages.”
Among other research programmes being housed at NaCRRI is legumes research that entails improving beans and soya qualities plus cereal research that caters for maize and rice.
Citing an example, Dr Alicai observed that Nerica rice, which was promoted countrywide by former vice president Gilbert Bukenya, is one of the improved rice varieties that have been developed at Namulonge.
NacRRI has in the recent years started a programme in horticulture that includes exotic vegetables and fruits such as mangoes and palm oil research.
“This research basically aims at adding value to local seeds by marrying local with exotic seed varieties to get the best for our local farmers,” he says.
When we visited, workers were engrossed in their duties, with some picking soya beans and others carrying out tests in the laboratories.
A drive within the research centre, shows large stretches of research trial farmlands of mangoes, sweet potatoes, hay, cassava and bananas, among other food crops.
Whereas one could think that part of the centre’s vast expanse of land is not utilised, Robert Kiggundu, the NaCRRI farm manager, explains otherwise.
“All the green covers that look idle actually are animal grasses, some of which have been imported from as far as US and Canada so that we improve them to meet Uganda’s climate conditions,” he says.
“We have over 500 acres of land being used for trials of the improved nutrimental pasture research,” Mr Kiggundu explains.
According to Capt Kigozi Kaweesa, a regular client at NaCRRI where he buys animal feeds, when the centre started investing in exotic pastures that they initially imported from Kenya and other countries, it was a relief to their business.
“The benefits we get are obvious. We now directly buy some of the previously expensive nutritious pastures such as Lablab purpureus, Chloris gayana and Zea Mays (corn silage) from NaCRRI, which has saved us the burden of importation,” Capt Kaweesa says.
Dr Gumisiriza observes that the centre also generates at least Shs5.9b annually from forage production fields. In addition, there is a proposed hub that will provide superior dairy heifers to farmers at a competitive price.
Making Uganda a food basket in the region
With the 2012 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) statistics putting Uganda’s agricultural land at 71.2 per cent and the arable land (actively under use) at only 34.3 per cent, this is an image that scientists at NaCRRI are fighting to erase. Uganda National Bureau of Statistics blames this low utilisation of agricultural land on farmers who attach low importance to agriculture because of the poor harvests.
Farouk Mulindwa, a commercial farmer in Wakiso District, says improved crops varieties are helping in yielding better harvests, thanks to NaCRRI.
“Now with climate change hitting hard all over the world, we are aiming at developing drought and disease resistant seeds to benefit our farmers who suffer the end results of changes in climate,” notes Dr Alicai.
With improvement of crop varieties like maize that were enhanced at NaCRRI, Uganda has been able to post surplus maize harvests, leading to 60 per cent maize exports to neighbouring countries and earning Uganda $50m in 2013, according to the 2014 Bank of Uganda report.
Earlier in 2012, a Uganda Revenue Authority report indicated that development and promotion of new adapted rice varieties (released by the NaCRRI), has increased rice production. This significantly reduced rice imports saving the country approximately $30m.
Other tangible benefits of NaCRRI include the battle scientists launched against cassava mosaic disease that almost wiped out cassava in the 1990s, yet this root tuber is an important food security crop in Uganda.
The Namulonge institute is one of the six National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARIs) that are managed by the National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro).
Dr Ambrose Agona, the director general Naro, says that several international organisations such as European Union, USAID, JICA, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have set up projects worth several billions in NaCRRI to aid research.
For instance, he notes, that JICA, a Japanese based non-profit organisation has established several research projects in rice for both upland and lowland areas.
“When Tororo research centre was given away to investors, its work was transferred here. It is the reason you see that we are now constructing (thanks to donor funds) as one way of putting in more investments in livestock nutrition research programmes,” he observes.
Mr Kiggundu, revealed that the Turkish Corporation and Coordination Agency had already approved funding worth $400,000 (about Shs1.4b) for the above purpose. The project is being hosted as a “Turn Key” that will see the area installed with an irrigation facility with a capacity to irrigate 500 acres of land under forage production.
He adds that a laboratory worth $100,000 (about Shs360m) is being constructed to host state-of-the-art equipment for livestock health and breeding analysis operations, which will carry out semen evaluation and analysis to develop high quality semen for farmers.
According to Dr Godfrey Asea, the NaCRRI director, the institute hosts at least 100 students doing research for their PhD and Master’s programmes from both international and local universities annually.
Dr Gumisiriza hints that whereas in 1909 Sir Winston Churchill called Uganda “the Pearl of Africa” in decades to come, Uganda will also become Africa’s agricultural research hub if only the current research developments are not subverted.
Why Namulonge is in the news
Recently, Daily Monitor broke the story that President Museveni had given property mogul Sudhir Ruparelia a large chunk of land at the National Crop Resource Research Institute (NaCRRI), Namulonge, for flower growing.
In a March 12 letter to Lands minister Daudi Migereko, the President said he was giving away part of the institute’s land because the investor had expressed willingness to work with the local community, which would benefit through the backward and forward linkages.
Mr Sudhir leased 900 acres of the land from government at a cost of Shs440m. The lease that runs for 99 years contrary to 45 years directed by the President, also permits the investor to use the land to erect commercial buildings.
In his December 16, 2013, letter to Mr Gabriel Ajedra, the State Minister for Investment, Mr Sudhir said he would establish a multi-billion project at Namulonge. It will include a Victoria University branch that will teach degrees in horticulture and floriculture, in addition to creating 7000 new jobs.
Mr Sudhir says he intends to establish 10 diversified projects that will include a commercial greenhouse flower and vegetable plantations that will be open to NaCRRI staff.
He indicated that in addition to flower growing, he would also venture into fruit growing and processing.
He observes that his projects will fit in with Naro objectives.”
The investor’s proposal also indicates that a research data bank will be set up in addition to an international standard primary school for both NaCRRI and his plantation staff.