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Seeds of hope transforming lives in northern Uganda

Dorine Akoth a demo plot farmer in northern Uganda admires the maize on her farm. Image Joshua Masinde. 2

Dorine Akoth, a demo plot farmer in northern Uganda, admires the maize on her farm. Photo courtesy.

For two decades, most of the population in northern Uganda lived in internally displaced people’s camps and depended on food aid and other relief emergencies for their livelihoods due to the insurgency by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Over the past few years, Gulu, one of the affected districts, has been on a path to recovery. With the prevailing peace, Geoffrey Ochieng’ and his wife can now safely till their 4.5 acres of land to grow maize and other staples to feed their family and sell the produce to meet other household needs.

However, farmers in this northern Uganda region, bordering South Sudan, are facing more erratic rains and uncertain onset of rainfall. Thanks to new drought tolerant and disease resistant maize varieties, the Ochieng’ family can adapt to this variable climate and secure a good maize harvest even in unreliable seasons.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has been working with Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and local seed companies under the Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) project, to develop and disseminate seed of improved stress-tolerant varieties such as  the UH5051 hybrid also locally called Gagawala, meaning “get rich”, Ochieng’ has been planting since 2015.

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Tolerance to drought and diseases

“The popularity of this drought tolerant variety among farmers has been growing thanks to its good yield and reliability even with poor rains and its resistance to common foliar diseases like the northern corn leaf blight (NCLB) and gray leaf spot (GLS). It also has good resistance to the maize streak virus (MSV). Maturing in slightly over four months, it can produce two to three maize cobs, which appeals to farmers here,” explained Daniel Bomet, a maize breeder at NARO.

Before adopting the new hybrid, Ochieng’ was growing Longe 5, an open pollinated variety (OPV) that is less productive and not very resistant to some of the diseases.

“What I like about UH5051 is that even with low moisture stress, it will grow, and I will harvest something,” Ochieng’ remarked. Under optimal conditions, he harvests about 1.2 metric tons of maize grain on one acre of UH5051 hybrid. With the old OPV Longe 5, he would only harvest 700 kg. “If the rains delayed, or it didn’t rain a lot, I would be lucky to get 400 kg per acre with the Longe 5, while I get twice as much with the hybrid,” Ochieng’ added.

Thanks to this tolerant maize variety, he can pay his children’s school fees and provide some surplus grain to his relatives.

“One key strategy to improve farmers’ livelihoods in northern Uganda is to gradually replace old varieties with new varieties that can cope better with the changing climate and problematic pests and diseases,” said Godfrey Asea, the director of the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) at NARO. “Longe 5 for instance, has been marketed for over 14 years. It has done its part and it needs to give way to new improved varieties like UH5051.”

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A local seed venture transforming livelihoods in northern Uganda

Gulu-based Equator Seeds company has been at the core of the agricultural transformation in northern Uganda. From 70 metrics tons of seeds produced when it started operations in 2012, the company reached an annual capacity of about 7,000 to 10,000 metric tons of certified seeds of different crops in 2018. Working with dedicated out-growers such as Anthony Okello, who has a 40-acre piece of land, and 51 farmer cooperatives comprising smallholder farmers, Equator Seeds produces seeds of OPVs, hybrid maize and other crops. It distributes the seeds to farmers through a network of 380 agro-dealers.

“Eighty percent of farmers in northern Uganda still use farm-saved or recycled seeds, which we consider to be our biggest competitor,” Tonny Okello, CEO of Equator Seeds remarked. “Currently, about 60 percent of our sales are maize seeds. This share should increase to 70 percent by 2021. We plan to recruit more agro-dealers, establish more demonstration farms, mostly for the hybrids, to encourage more farmers to adopt our high yielding resilient varieties.”

The two-decade unrest discouraged seed companies from venturing into northern Uganda but now they see the region’s huge potential. “We have received tremendous support from the government, non-governmental organizations, UN and humanitarian agencies who buy seeds from us and distribute them to farmers in northern Uganda and South Sudan to aid their recovery,” Okello said.

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New seed partnerships with great social impact

The Ugandan seed sector is very dynamic thanks to efficient public-private partnerships. While NARO develops and tests new parental lines and hybrids in their research facilities, they have now ventured into seed production and processing at their 2,000-acre Kigumba Farm in western Uganda through NARO Holdings, their commercial arm.

“Because the demand for improved seeds is not always met, NARO Holdings started producing certified seeds, but the major focus is on production of early generation seeds, which is often a bottleneck for the seed sector,” Asea said.

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Another innovative collaboration has been to work with the Uganda Prisons Service (UPS) establishments to produce maize seeds. “When we started this collaboration with UPS, we knew they had some comparative advantages such as vast farmland, ready labor, mechanization equipment and good isolation, which are important for high quality hybrid maize seed production,” Asea explained. The UPS facility in Lugore, Gulu, which has 978 hectares of land, produces foundation seeds for UH5051.

“Prisons has a big potential to support the growing seed industry. Together with CIMMYT, we should continue building the capacity of UPS to produce foundation and certified seeds. It provides much needed income for the institutions. The inmates, in addition to being remunerated for farm labor, are engaged in positive outdoor impactful activities. This skill is helpful for their future reintegration in the society,” concluded Asea.

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