Ugandan scientists reach out to farmers to promote agricultural innovations

By Christopher Bendana

October 5, 2018

Ugandan agricultural scientists have begun engaging directly with farmers in a bid to encourage greater adoption of innovative farming practices.

Scientists are now a common sight at national farmers’ exhibitions and have begun training farmers through workshops at various national research institutes. Other scientists have enlisted children as agents of change through such approaches as an annual agricultural essay competition in the schools.

Dr. Barbara Mugwanya Zawedde, coordinator of Uganda Biosciences Information Center, an information hub for the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), said they have trained over 30 scientists in basic communications and media skills to help them become better spokespersons for their research.

Mugwanya Zawedde is herself a regular personality on Uganda radio and television talk shows, commenting on agricultural advances. She said communication is now more important now than ever because of the need for farmers to appreciate technology and know how to use it in order to build the country’s agricultural sector.

Events like the annual National Farmers’ Agricultural Show, held in the eastern region of Jinja, are important meeting points for agriculturalists. The show is intended to bring together agricultural innovators and scientists, farmers, international ag organizations and government officials.

Organizations like the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the Association of Volunteers in International Service (AVSI) also host agricultural exhibitions, where NARO scientists usually showcase the latest farming innovations, from new hybrid seeds to tractors.

The event also features a master class on agronomy, offering instruction in improved cultivation practices, such as proper seed spacing, fertilizer application and irrigation use.

Mugwanya Zawedde has been organizing the national biotechnology essay competition since 2013.The contest, which has categories for pre-primary, primary, secondary and tertiary students, has helped raise awareness about biotechnology among Ugandans, as the awards ceremony is covered by the national press. It has also increased students’ interest in science, because the winners are well-rewarded with laptops and cash.

Innovations like agricultural biotechnology need an educational outreach component, she said, because words like gene and cell need to be translated by scientists into the local language and simple terminology that farmers and other lay persons can grasp.

Non-scientists in some of Uganda’s NGOs also have spread a lot of misinformation about biotechnology that needs to be corrected, she noted.

Mugwanya Zawedde explained that she was motivated to improve communication skills among scientists after discovering a low adoption rate of NARO’s innovations among farmers while conducting her doctoral research from 2009-2012.

That motivation was amplified when she joined the public policy sector. “I was able to appreciate the gap between scientists and end users,” she told the Alliance for Science.

It seems the outreach and educational efforts are paying off, closing the void between scientists and farmers.

Isaac Kiwalabye, a tomato farmer from Kijunde, in the Wakiso district near Kampala, is an enthusiastic adopter of agricultural innovation. He changed from a pessimist to an optimist after visiting a NaCRRI stall at an IITA exhibition in his district this past August. The stall, managed by Dr. Ida Ramathan, proved quite popular with its exhibit of improved tomato varieties.

Kiwalabye said Ramathan warmed the once frosty relationship between elite scientists and local farmers.

“Ida is the man of the day,” Kiwalabye said. “He is humble. He has told us to always visit Namulonge and get to learn about these technologies. Since he has given me his number I will visit him.”

Kiwalabye said he learned how to improve his tomato harvest by increasing the calcium level in his soil, which is done by crushing egg shells and mixing them with vinegar and water.

Trainings on the latest innovations, organized by the national research institutes, have also helped boost the adoption rate among farmers.

Ramatham said scientists began disseminating information about agricultural technologies themselves because the extension workers who are meant to do it were not. Like his colleague Mugwanya Zawedde, he said he had learned of this lapse during his interactions with farmers.

He said the extension workers were absent and there was no forum for bringing them together. “The linkage between research and extension is weak,“ he said. The problem is exacerbated by inadequate funding for extension agents.

Ramatham revealed that five farmers had been to his department inquiring about the latest technologies since the Gayaza seed exhibition in August. He said such motivated farmers teach their fellow farmers, creating an important multiplier effect for technology adoption.

Dr. Jolly Kabirizi, a scientist at the National Livestock Resources Research Institute, is also a regular columnist for Harvest Money, an agricultural pullout in New Vision, Uganda’s premier newspaper. She said the commentaries are an effective way of disseminating livestock information to farmers. “Many people, including some I don’t know, thank me for my articles in Harvest Money,” she said.