Building a Biotechnology Network to Fight Malnutrition and Food Insecurity in Uganda

Biotechnology: An answer to food insecurity and malnutrition?

Selling bananas in Kampala, Uganda. Photo: GKI

In Uganda, food insecurity and malnutrition pose enormous challenges.  Large proportions of rural Ugandans face food insecurity, and nearly half of Uganda’s population suffers from malnourishment.  Compounding this challenge, up to 80% of Uganda’s main staple crop of bananas have been destroyed by disease over the past decade.  Sweet potato, which in its orange fleshed variety can fight malnutrition due to its high concentration of iron and vitamin A, suffers from a number of diseases, and has also failed to reach many Ugandans.

BioCrops Uganda Ltd., a small firm led by Dr. Geofrey Arinaitwe and winner of the Global Knowledge Initiative’s LINK (Learning and Innovation Network for Knowledge and Solutions) program, uses biotechnology to take on these challenges by expanding access to clean banana and orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) tissue culture planting materials.  Tissue Culture (TC) planting material, which is free of disease and used to propagate banana and OFSP—can not only slow or even halt the spread of banana diseases, but can also encourage the uptake of OFSP through healthier, more productive plants.

GKI Co-Founder Dr. Nina Fedoroff and Chief Operating Officer Sara Farley discuss tissue culture technology with the BioCrops team. Photo: GKI

In April 2015, building off of a year of work with BioCrops to clarify the specific challenges that need to be addressed to scale TC across Uganda, GKI returned to Uganda with two international experts to launch a LINK problem solving network.

Developing networks and innovations for food security and nutrition

For two weeks in April, GKI worked with the BioCrops team to develop strategies to improve distribution of planting materials, increase capacity along the value chain, improve productivity in the lab, and boost farmer

uptake of TC planting materials. Based on these goals, GKI had identified two key experts to begin building the BioCrops LINK network.  Dr. Nina Fedoroff, former Science and Technology advisor to the US Secretary of State, is a biotechnologist with great experience in lab techniques and Mr. Rami Alsouqi, an agri-business expert based in the Netherlands, has extensive experience in propagating and distributing planting material.  Both joined GKI’s team in Uganda.

Dr. Geofrey Arinaitwe (left) and Dr. David Talengera (right) of BioCrops Uganda Ltd. guide international experts through their screen houses. Photo: GKI

GKI designed and executed a week-long training aimed at identifying specific TC solutions and determining how the team could effectively work together to solve problems.  Fedoroff and Alsouqi joined this facilitated training, providing both practical and strategic advice and resources.  For example, over the course of two days at the BioCrops lab, Alsouqi identified over 20 opportunities for process improvements.  Together, the group charted those interventions that the BioCrops team could take on in the short- and long-term, and began identifying how they might bring new resources and partners into their nascent network.  A first step to activating this network: bringing together high-level actors from the Ugandan agricultural sector to share BioCrops’ work and plans, and work to better understand other actors’ needs.

During a day-long workshop on April 28 hosted at the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) in Kampala, Uganda, GKI convened stakeholders including USAID, the World Bank, HarvestPlus, and others to (1) share BioCrops’ work in developing and refining potential solutions to TC planting material challenges, (2) begin a dialogue on specific challenge areas identified as ripe for partnership, and (3) identify new ways to collaborate within Uganda’s innovation system.  In a facilitated working session, participants developed 76 possible innovations to address these challenges, selecting eight top innovations to further explore.  By the end of the workshop, the participants had offered 86 resources and partners needed for these innovations to deliver impact.  Find an after action report detailing the outputs and outcomes of that convening here.

GKI team members, international experts, and the BioCrops team outside of the BioCrops labs in Uganda. Photo: GKI

Since these meetings, the BioCrops team has moved forward on a number of initiatives such as identifying partners to test LED lights for growing tissue culture plantlets, optimizing growing in screen houses, and communicating with partners identified at the UNCST meeting. Moving forward, GKI and BioCrops will work together with international partners to spur action among new collaborations developed at the April workshop, identify new partners to support BioCrops’ work in Uganda, and monitor the network’s growth and optimization. GKI is thrilled to continue working with BioCrops and the expanding network of partners to address challenges across the banana and sweet potato value chains and to improve food / nutritional security across Uganda.

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