Uganda using WA to grow better

Countryman

Northam might be a long way from his home, but researcher Innocent Muhereza has chosen it as his base to help tackle farming constraints in Uganda.

A grant recipient from the prestigious Ford Foundation, Innocent is based at Curtin’s Muresk Institute where he is investigating how manure is best applied to maximise yield.

Uganda is 16 times smaller than WA but has a population of 30 million.

However, in an economy where 80 per cent of the population are farmers, Innocent said the vast majority were impoverished.

The problem is, Innocent said, Ugandan growers have not yet begun to see their operations as businesses, but instead were subsistence farming.

The uptake of new technology is slow in a country where avenues for the sale of farm produce are limited and war has stunted infrastructure development.

“Technology is rudimentary, it’s not mechanised — it’s using a hand hoe, ” Innocent said.

“On average, the family farmer has got two hectares of land and mostly that’s for home consumption. The surplus goes to the market.

“So when one is producing, the aim isn’t the market because even those who try to produce, even after borrowing money and applying fertilisers, there is no regular market.

“In rural areas, there are roads where during rain you can’t pass.

“But even where there is an improvement in road infrastructure in some sections of the country, the storage facilities are not there.

“After you solve the road, marketing and storage problems, still no-one thinks of buying good quality seeds because after all, even if they produce enough, nobody is going to buy it.”

If those issues can be ironed out, Uganda has the potential to be a food bowl of Africa.

In the 1960s it was generally considered to have some of the best soils in Africa, but nutrient mining over the last few decades has seen yields decline.

With a mild climate, generally ranging between 18C and 30C, and an average rainfall of 1200mm, the potential for high value crops is unlimited.

Ugandan coffee, tea and cotton all have markets in Europe and have been the traditional mainstay of the agricultural economy, but horticulture is quickly taking over.

Cabbages, fruit, tomatoes, avocados, mangoes and pineapples all grow plentifully, but only 5 per cent of farmers use inorganic fertilisers.

And according to Innocent, they are applying those fertilisers without knowing which constraints are limiting yield.

“That 5 per cent we’re applying NPK because the assumption is that inorganic fertiliser is NPK, ” he said.

“When we tested the soil, it had a lot of phosphorus.

“It was 3000 parts per million compared to the soils here where I conducted field trials where it was around 20.”

But by far the majority of Ugandan growers are using organic fertilisers, particularly cow manure, because of the high cost of manufactured products.

And it is there that Innocent’s work will hopefully yield results for the nation’s agriculture sector.

Using canola as a substitute for cabbage, Innocent found that under WA conditions, organic fertilisers could supply the nutrient needs of brassicas if they were applied at a rate about five times higher than inorganic fertiliser.

The next step will be to test whether the results hold up under Ugandan conditions.

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