Partner Feature: Makerere University, Professor Phineas Tukamuhabwa

When Phineas Tukamuhabwa looks at the food systems in his home country of Uganda, he sees a lot of hope and a bright future ahead. But he also sees that there is a great deal of work to be done. The work doesn’t deter him. As one of the leading Professors of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Uganda’s largest university, Makerere University, Prof. Tukamuhabwa intends to be on the front lines of it all.

“For me, this has always been my passion – plant breeding and developing new varieties of plants. From the time I was a student myself, I have been interested in this subject, and concerned with it, because plant breeding can help create food security,” he said. “In Africa, we have a lot of hunger and food insecurity, and in doing this work I know that I am contributing to better food security in Africa and beyond.”

Recently, the World Food Bank entered a partnership with Prof. Tukamuhabwa and Makerere University in Kampala, where he teaches. The partnership involves the research and study of ways to accelerate and commercialize the Ugandan soya bean industry – both in helping farmers to produce higher yields of nutritious crops and to find reliable pathways to domestic and export markets. While Prof. Tukamuhabwa says many crops in Uganda can benefit from these efforts, he believes the soya bean holds the most promise.

“Soya beans are a very, very wonderful crop, because the potential is so great, and it has not yet been realized in Africa,” he said. “The soya crop has many uses. It is food for human consumption and food for animal consumption. Animals who eat soya, like poultry and fish, then become food for humans. Planting soya can help us improve soil fertility, and the crop also has many other uses, such as being used for oil and industrial products. It’s a major commodity for international trade, and it is a crop that can help improve the economic standing of any country.”

Despite all of this promise, Ugandan farmers have not grown soya commercially in the past. Prof. Tukamuhabwa believes that the work that the World Food Bank and Makerere University are doing together can change that.

“I wanted to work with the World Food Bank, because the World Food Bank is thinking about how to commercialize food systems. That is very important for Uganda, because here farmers are still more or less at the peasant level. It’s important for us all to start thinking about agriculture from a commercial level and larger economic point of view.”

Currently, Prof. Tukamuhabwa is studying ways to breed different varieties of soya seeds to help farmers achieve greater yields. While the varietals used currently in Uganda on all farms (including the World Food Bank’s farm) are conventional seeds, Prof. Tukamuhabwa says one of his projects is to research the applicability of genetically-modified varietals, or GMOs.

“For GMOs, you really want to take it on a case by case level. It depends on the country where you are farming and on the type of crop you are dealing with,” he said. “GMOs may be needed or they may not.”

For example, Prof. Tukamuhabwa points out that in countries experiencing extended droughts, GMO seeds that have been bred to withstand drought could be very useful to ensuring that country can still produce food to feed its people. He says the main issues he sees come up around using these types of seeds is in community buy-in, particularly as GMO crops can cross-pollinate neighboring, conventional crops.

“You cannot stop the wind from blowing pollen from GMO plants to non-GMO plants, so you do want to think about how it affects your neighbor,” he said.

Prof. Tukamuhabwa believes that Uganda’s topography makes the country uniquely poised to enter the global food markets and that really what is needed now to drive that goal forward is more focus on investment in the country’s agricultural systems, from both the government and the private sector. He says this lack of investment in farmers and better farming inputs is what keeps Uganda lagging behind other countries in terms of production.

“We are producing below capacity, and, although we are able to feed ourselves, Uganda is an agricultural country and we should be producing much, much more – so that we can continue to feed ourselves and process food for export,” he said. “Farmers here are still at the peasant level, and there is low input into the agriculture systems. It’s very serious, because, farmers, they don’t use fertilizer and they don’t provide the extra water needed [through irrigation]. Where there are low inputs you have low production. Most African countries are not putting enough investment into the agriculture sector, which keeps it stagnating.”

To learn more about Makerere University, visit their website.