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FarmingA cross section of Ugandan farmers and national legislators are aggressively lobbying the outgoing Parliament to quickly pass the Biosafety and Biotechnology Bill 2012 before their term ends this month. There is general agreement that a Biosafety law needs to be enacted to provide a regulatory framework for several biotech research projects currently taking place in confinement in the country.

There are several traits Ugandan scientists have utilized over the years through genetic engineering that could help improve local varieties of major staples like banana, cassava, sweet potato and maize:

  • resistance to cotton boll worm
  • herbicides tolerance
  • resistance to cassava brown streak virus
  • resistance to banana bacterial wilt
  • resistance to black sigatoka disease in bananas
  • Provitamin A enhancer
  • resistance to sweet potato virus
  • resistance to Potato blight disease
  • tolerance to to low soil nitrogen and tolerance to drought

Anti GM Activist at a recent press conference to demonise GE research

Youths leaders, students, and farmers came calling for the Biosafety law

Students from Makerere University threatened to drop the biotechnology courses they are pursuing claiming it would be a waste of time if the government does not plan on using their expertise. Many Ugandan farmers agree with scientists that biotechnology is key in addressing many of their persistent farming needs like drought, pests and disease.  They say the failure by the legislators to pass the bill has denied them chances to access modern technologies being developed by the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) centers spread across the country. They pledged their support for science, attesting that it has been scientists who have always provided them with solutions. The youth leaders representing the ruling party and other parties came in solidarity.

“Cassava production in the region has gone down because of cassava diseases. This has affected farmers economically because revenue from the crop has gone down,” said Dominic Ettellu, a farmer from Teso region in eastern Uganda and Chairperson of Uganda National Biotechnology Farmers’ Forum to East African Business Week. “The only way to help farmers is to allow them adopt the technologies which our local scientists have developed to support farmer to mitigate the challenges of cassava mosaic. But that cannot be done when parliament has not okayed the application of biotechnology in the country,”

Anti GMO Activists awakened call the press

The anti-GMO groups led by Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (Pelum), Uganda, The Eastern and Southern Africa small scale Farmers’ Forum (ESAFF), Uganda, and The South and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATING), Uganda, convened a press conference in an attempt to deflect the students’ and farmers’ message. The NGOs are used presenting their position before reporters with almost no background on these issues. This time they faced a professional media who were well versed in the controversy, and were clearly skeptical of the NGO belief that they are “saviors of our indigenous foods”.

The activists usually push familiar themes, such as citing Google features on the retracted Seralini GMO and glyphosate study, and showing pictures found online of rats with grotesque tumors. They often also claim genetically engineered seeds do not germinate, that GMOs are causing a loss of indigenous plants and other misrepresentations. In this instance, the activists in their usual style went accused the minister who is in charge of the legislation for having “connived with Monsanto to pass the Biosafety bill.” Their criticisms were endorsed by a host of protest groups including, Action Aid Uganda (AAIU), Caritas Uganda, Join Energy and Environment Projects (JEEP), Community Integrated Development Initiatives (CIDI), Agency for Integrated Rural Development (AFIRD), Caritas Kampala,and Food Rights Alliance (FRA).

The Biosafety and Biotechnology Bill 2012 has been on the floor of Parliament for about three years. The Uganda Biosafety and Biotechnology consortium told East African Business Week if the Bill is not passed, the Ugandan market will be flooded with GMO products from Tanzania and Kenya.

Isaac Ongu is an agriculturist, science writer and an advocate for science based interventions in solving agricultural challenges in developing countries. Follow Isaac on twitter @onguisaac.

Uganda's cabinet has approved its first National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy, after eight years of deliberation.

The policy was approved last week (2 April), and provides objectives and guidelines for the promotion and regulation of biotechnology use in the country.

"The policy bears the guidelines on the legal, institutional and regulatory framework," Peter Ndemere, executive secretary of the state-run Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST), told SciDev.Net.

But for the policy to be implemented, a bill must be presented to parliament and passed into a law — a process that could take many months.

"We've drafted a biotech bill for parliament to discuss and pass into law," says Ndemere. "In order to implement a law, you need a policy instrument, that's why the policy comes first."

He adds that the commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops requires this law. The guidelines in the policy also cover tissue and cell culture, medical diagnostics, industrial microbiology and biochemical engineering.

The policy was drafted by the state-run Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) with extensive consultation with farmers and consumer groups, university dons, policymakers and legislators leading to considerable re-shaping of the regulations.

Research into genetically modified crops is already underway in the country (see Uganda approves Bt cotton trials), overseen by the National Biosafety Committee, and researchers are hopeful that the approval of the policy will translate into law.

"Cabinet has made my day. They have provided this country with the necessary policy guidelines that shall give our research a proper way forward. Roles — which institution does what — have been well spelt out," says Andrew Kiggundu from the National Agricultural Biotechnology Centre in Kawanda, which is researching high-yield GM cotton and cassava.

Robert Anguzu of the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), which was consulted on the bill, says the legislation allows Uganda to cope with rapid biotechnology developments in neighbouring Kenya.

"Kenya's genetically modified organisms would easily find their way into Uganda. If they found us unprepared, without regulations, it would be a big challenge to manage them when they're already with farmers and consumers," says Arthur Makara, Senior Science/Biosafety Officer and Secretary to the National Biosafety Committee.

Scientists are challenging politicians over the planned give-away of a natural forest east of Kampala, Uganda, for a sugar plantation.

The Ugandan state-owned newspaper The New Vision last month (20 March) reported that Uganda was in the process of leasing 7,100 hectares ― around a quarter ― of the Mabira Central Forest Reserve to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda, part of the international Mehta group.

The Mabira forest, located between the cities of Kampala and Jinja in Uganda, has been a protected forest reserve since 1932.

News of the proposed giveaway has sparked a national outcry. Scientists and environmental groups have teamed up to campaign against the move, saying the forest is important for its rich biodiversity, as well as its value as a resource for carbon-trading and timber.

The international organisation Environmental Alert (EA) — the leading private sector forestry agency — has joined experts from NatureUganda, Greenwatch Uganda and the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment.

They say Mabira is home to many plant and animal species, including 312 tree and shrub species — some of which are used for traditional medicine — 199 species of butterfly, 287 species of birds and 16 small mammals.

Mabira also represents a significant carbon sink, and potential carbon-trading resource for Uganda. The EA says cutting away part of Mabira could cost US$316 million in lost carbon credit.

The forest is also seen as an economic resource for its timber. "The value of the wood is US$568 million and the land value is estimated at about US$5 million," Dorothy Kaggwa, a senior officer at EA, told The New Vision.

This means the Ugandan public stands to lose almost US$890 million in total if the forest is destroyed.

The state-run National Forestry Authority has warned that converting the forest to sugarcane plantations is contrary to Uganda's Forestry Policy Statement Number One: that the government undertakes to "actively protect, maintain and sustainably manage the current permanent forest estate".

"Converting Mabira into sugarcane will spell an environmental disaster for the central region in particular and this country in general," it said.

On 29 March Ugandan prime minister Apolo Nsibambi said his cabinet had not yet discussed or taken a decision about Mehta's request for the land.

"Should we decide to degazette [remove protection from] Mabira, it will come to parliament to legally effect degazettement," he said.

Fostering a research culture has put Uganda's Makerere University back on its feet and is inspiring others, says Peter Wamboga-Mugirya.

Patrick Okori, a crop scientist at Makerere University in Uganda, is breaking a departmental habit of 40 years. He is employing a postdoctoral fellow.

"Today," beams the triumphant scientist from behind his spectacles, "I have been able to employ the very first postdoctoral fellow in the department. And I have also trained 17 postgraduates, 14 MScs and three PhDs over the last four and a half years."

Across the university other scientists tell similar stories as Uganda's highest seat of education gradually regains its prestigious reputation of 40 years ago.

Makerere was founded in 1922, under the British colonial administration, as Makerere Technical School. After independence in the 1960s it developed an international reputation, nurturing many East African leaders. It became an independent university in 1970.

But after 15 years of political turmoil, beginning in 1971, Makerere was almost bankrupt. It was losing its underpaid teachers. Those that remained supplemented their incomes through other work, leaving little time for tutoring their students. Research was at the bottom of the agenda, as was exposure to the international academic scene.

As a result, the general attitude was "a lack of appreciation for the relevance of research, a lack in experience and skills for doing research and an emphasis on financial gain as the key motive for undertaking research," according to an analysis of Makarere commissioned by Canada's International Development Research Centre.

Back from the brink

But Makerere is turning itself around. Change began in the early 1990s. Makerere devised a series of university-wide strategic plans. In 1992 it went semi-private, a pivotal move that generated much-needed revenue from students (although science benefited less than other subjects).

It is the changes of the last decade, however, that are attracting international interest. As a result of them the university has started producing healthy numbers of PhD students and has created a vibrant research culture.

The Faculty of Computing and Information Technology brings Internet access to all

Flickr/ibeatty

Makerere's buildings reflect its chequered story. The main building, with its 1920s British colonial architecture and its sporadically chiming clock, dominates the campus, but the tallest and newest building houses the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology.

Donors who have helped Makerere's transition include Norad, the Pfizer Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. But the key player today is the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), with its Bilateral Collaborative Research Support programme worth 238 million Swedish Kroners (US$27 million). In 1999 Sida started working with Makerere to help it reach a position where it could set about finding its own solutions to Uganda's problems.

Initially, the agency worked with individual researchers and faculties. But a bigger idea emerged: that the changes they were helping to bring about would endure only if the background context — the management, the money, the procurement, the infrastructure — were also transformed.

Support at all levels

Sida decided to engage at all levels of the university as well as with influential outsiders such as the government. That way it might regenerate research and improve analytical thinking — and thus evidence-based decision-making — for the whole of Uganda.

"The aim of the programme is to support an environment that is conducive for research and research training," says George William Nasinyama, deputy director in charge of research at the School of Graduate Studies — the coordinating office for research at Makerere and a nucleus for its transformation.

Hannah Akuffo, Sida's officer in charge of the bilateral support programme, agrees, saying, "It is important for the researcher to have an environment conducive to research, otherwise it leads to frustration".

The aim is to instill a research culture, producing qualified lecturers who build research groups around themselves.

The reformers selected some research themes that would encourage cross-disciplinarity. One, for example, was Lake Victoria and other water resources. Pursuing this drove faculties to pool their information, says Nasinyama.

Okori certainly feels this first goal has been successful. After training abroad he might have returned to a harried researcher's existence with few tools, little money and inadequately trained staff. Instead, he has a new laboratory and settling-in funds.

He and his collaborators plan to train up to 17 more graduate students in the next four years.

International winners

Makerere's vice chancellor, Livingstone Luboobi, notes that units that have been supported under the programme are now able to search for funding themselves. "We now write competitive research proposals that win funding. About 15 years ago, this wasn't the case, " he says. Okori, for example, has already won several research grants.

Another central objective — to increase the number of staff with PhDs — is also well underway, with 156 PhD students trained since 2000.

Akuffo says this "provides a bottom-up approach to improvement," adding, "It has sometimes been frustrating for the PhD candidates, but it has led to many positive changes."

Developing information communication technology (ICT) and library support was a third key goal. Akuffo believes this is the single most important outcome of Sida's intervention.

The university developed an ICT master plan and then solicited several funding sources.

Now it is surging ahead, with more than 8,000 open-access electronic journals available. Having widespread internet access has also revolutionised collaboration and supervision. It has put Makerere on the global research radar.

Makerere's ability to coordinate and administrate research programmes has also been enhanced under the programme through the development of its school of graduate studies.

Today, nearly half of Makerere University's students are female

Flickr/ibeatty

Today, nearly 32,000 students, young and old — and nearly half of them female — frequent the campus. Over 2,000 — just over six per cent — are international. There are 22 academic units and the university's annual budget is about US$56million. Close to 5,000 students graduate each year.

Still a way to go

But all is not yet perfect and some successes have heightened the challenges. The recent report for IDRC, which it commissioned to assess its own support to the university, highlighted the strain caused by the enormous number of students, up from just 7,000 in the 1990s.

Problems include large classes, increased teaching and marking loads and poor salaries, said the IDRC, noting that "at the same time, [staff] are facing an increasing pressure to conduct research and publish".

Meanwhile there is competition for students — whose revenue is vital — from the rising number of private universities in Uganda. Others say that donors are in general unwilling to fund desperately-needed new buildings. The halls of residence, for example, suffer from water shortages and the occasional burst sewer.

Akuffo agrees there are many challenges ahead, singling out "the inability of Makarere to work out a more efficient way to procure materials needed for doing research" as one that endangers a lynchpin of the 'enabling culture'.

"This needs to be sorted out otherwise it will continue to frustrate researchers," she says.

Makerere has experienced strain from its enormous number of students, including large classes

Flickr/treesftf

Success is contagious

But despite the challenges, the future looks promising — and not just for Makerere.

Nasinyama says Makerere's successes are catching the attention of other public universities in Uganda who are coming to it for help — for example with staff training. "We now have the potential to develop world class centres of excellence in regional development issues such as health, agriculture, engineering, technology and social sciences," he adds.

Eli Katunguka Rwakishaya, director of Makerere's School of Graduate Studies, has attributed the progress to Sida supporting both university and national priorities; promising long-lasting commitment involving considerable investment, and the "deep, interactive partnership" the agency has fostered between Ugandan and Swedish researchers.

And Luboobi says there has been a major shift in thinking and new ways of working. "I recall when we used to sit and just wait for interested partners or donors' sympathy," he says.

"The programme has instilled a new culture of working for ourselves and no longer waiting for manna to fall from heaven."

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