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November 20, 2008

Progress in Uganda in search for wilt-resistant strains of coffee

by Jude Lugya

The war against coffee wilt disease in Uganda may not be over yet, but research into the development of resistant crops shows that there is a significant breakthrough.

Scientists at the National Crop Resources Institute (NaCRI), at Kituuza, Mukono District have developed eight lines (coffee varieties) that are resistant to the wilt.

Mr Erastus Nsubuga, the Chairman of the institute said over time plants get diseased but eight new coffee wilt resistant lines have been developed after long years of research.

“The future of Uganda’s coffee lies in these new lines,” he said. Mr Nsubuga who runs a private, plant multiplication firm, Agro-Genetic Technologies Ltd (AGT) said it will be an uphill task to popularise the new varieties because Uganda lacks the capacity to multiply the required millions of coffee trees.

“For Uganda to restore its coffee production levels of 15 years ago, we need to multiply these lines in amounts of 200 million plants in the next five years which is 40 million plants every year,” he said. He said this is an enormous figure which is impossible to produce using conventional methods of planting coffee cuttings of mature coffee trees. “It could take us up to 10 years of just producing planting materials conventionally,” he said. Uganda is one of the biggest coffee producers in Africa.

However, the stern threat by the CWD has affected that production capacity.

Statistics from the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), a statutory body that oversees the coffee industry through research, research and marketing affecting the wilt and mainly the native robusta variety.

CWD that is caused by Fusarium xylarioides fungus, appeared in 1993 in Uganda and has become a serious problem for coffee production by destroying over 12 million plants. The disease cannot be chemically controlled and methods to limit its spread are expensive. The disease only occurred sporadically in Africa but in the last decade or so it has become virulent, sweeping across Cameroon, the Congo and into Uganda.

The 65 per cent export earnings from coffee have been cut down by 20 per cent. The problem has also affected the five million Ugandans who depend on the coffee sector directly or indirectly.

Dry processed Ugandan robusta is renowned for its mild taste and is generally considered to be of superior quality.

With the impact of coffee wilt, it is not going to be easy for smallholders to maintain production but if they can be supported to retain the quality, and with a focus on improved processing and marketing, the Ugandan smallholder coffee sector may be sustained.

Located on a private firm at Buloba, off Mityana Road, Mr Erastus Nsubuga’s AGT laboratory has an enormous chance of resurrecting Uganda’s potential as a coffee growing country in particular and an agricultural nation in general. On October 21, President Yoweri Museveni officially opened the laboratory.

The laboratory’s technology involves the production of multiple plants from a single plant in the absence of seeds or polinants to produce seeds.

Although the technology has been around at the government run Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute, it has been used for research, production and supply of planting materials to a few farmers yet the demand for such improved crop varieties is increasing.

Mr Nsubuga said the laboratory also produces banana plants affected by the wilt), but also produces planting material for other crops like, pineapples.

The company’s activity also involves the transfer of modern agricultural techniques and practices through organised training for farmers. AGT has set up 15 banana nurseries and gardens for demonstration purposes across the country.

“This has prevented farmers from sourcing planting materials from distant areas and by so doing, reduced the spread of different crop diseases and pests,” he said.

He said tissue agriculture provided plantlets which are disease free, fast-growing, more vigorous and high yielding.

“With disease and pest planting material, farmers will reduce the use of different chemicals like pesticides,” Mr Nsubuga said.

“The advantage of this tissue culture is the mass-production of planting materials whose natural rate of propagation is relatively low,” he said.He, however, said although the products of tissue culture are disease free, they are not disease resistant. “That is why we train our clients on how to plant and care for them before and after planting,” Mr Nsubuga said.

AGT Laboratory exports plantlets to Rwanda and Southern Sudan. Locally, it has partnered with several non-governmental organisations and government bodies that are engaged in the promotion of agricultural production.

The Monitor

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