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Cassava diseases threaten success of proposed ethanol plant

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Reduction in cassava production due to cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) threatens food security. 

As Uganda takes steps to make cassava an eco-friendly feedstock for ethanol production, agricultural experts say the crop still faces disastrous diseases that have perennially caused severe yield losses and threatened food security.

Dr Titus Alitai, a principal scientist at the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) contends that any reduction in cassava production due to cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) threatens not only food security, but would also cause havoc to government plans of supporting a project that seeks to utilize cassava pulp for ethanol production.

At the tail end of last year, President Yoweri Museveni pledged government support for a project in the northern part of the country that produces denatured ethanol stoves and that is intended, in the long term, to establish ethanol derived from cassava a sustainable alternative cooking fuel.

Taking a long view, Museveni noted that if the project obtained a firm footing, Uganda would be able to export fuel made from cassava to other countries in the region.

But that depends on a consistent supply of cassava, which has struggled to overcome disease issues. CMD and CBSD still remain a threat and that status quo has been helped by poor farming practices, such as recycling seed cuttings beyond recommended times.

“On the CMD and CBSD mitigation front, there have been inroads made in recent years, principally with the development and distribution of improved cassava varieties such as NASE14, NASE 19 and NARO CASS 1 to farmers by the National Agricultural Research Organization,” Alitai said.

It is not clear, however, if some of the resistant cassava varieties that will likely be supplied by the National Crops Resources Research Institute, which is one of the six National Agricultural Research Institutes mandated to conduct, carry out research and knowledge generation on how to deal with crop diseases such as CMD, will be genetically modified (GM) cassava.

Research findings from the National Agricultural Research Organization have shown that GM cassava is resistant to CMD and CBSD.

Many scientists across the East African region have advocated for the adoption of GM cassava as a means of sustainably enhancing Uganda’s food security. But the country’s environment policy regarding the adoption of biotechnology has in recent years been erratic, if not checkered.

In 2017, a biotechnology and biosafety bill was passed, but it was referred back by the President for adjustments. It was passed yet again in 2018, but with stern liability sections that analysts say impede biotechnology development in the country.

In Uganda, CMD accounts for an estimated annual yield loss of more than 60 million US dollars and it has, by all accounts, been singled out as the biggest economic constraint to the production of cassava in sub-Saharan Africa.

The impact of CMD on Uganda’s cassava production was not considered grave until the late 1980s when its devastating effect was experienced in the north-west of the country. The outbreak caused the disappearance of a cassava landrace called Ebwanatereka, which was widely distributed in the country in the 1980s.

Cassava brown streak disease, on the other hand, is thought to be the most devastating cassava disease in southern, eastern and central Africa. It reportedly can cause up to 100% yield loss.

As a means of combating CMD, a Ugandan computer scientist Dr Jennifer Rose Aduwo has developed a computer application based on an artificial neural network that can automatically detect the disease.

Dr Jennifer Rose Aduwo

Aduwo, the Dean of the Uganda Management Institute’s School of Distance Learning and Information Technology, revealed that the application has already provided an accurate rate of 97.2% for CMD’s classification and 88% for the disease’s severity grading.

“This model will help reduce the high cassava yield losses Uganda suffers annually due to CMD,” she said.

“What is expected is that timely and fast information provided by the model from farmers or agricultural extension workers, at the click of a button from an internet-connected smartphone which has captured cassava leaf images from gardens for the disease’s detection/classification, will be sent to a team at the National Crops Resources Research Institute at Namulonge who will, in turn, develop effective disease contingencies and supply CMD resistant varieties to affected regions across the country,” she added.

“The process of capturing the cassava leaf image from the cassava garden and sending to a computer server for CMD detection/classification takes less than a minute, provided there is an internet connection.”

Alitai said Aduwo’s app will improve on the efficiency and scale at which the CMD disease’s data is collected.

“With her app, we shall be able to know which areas around the country need speedy interventions. Previously, we did surveys, but the processing of data took months but with this digital platform, data on CMD will be availed within a short time.”

In the past 10 years, several research papers on the CMD by Aduwo have been published and have received golden opinions, for good measures.

Her research publication journey on automating CMD set forth in 2010 when Google gave Aduwo and her two research colleagues a $10,000 grant. At length, they produced the paper entitled “Automated learning-based diagnosis of CMD”.  Several other papers followed in subsequent years.

Original Post: New Vision

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Smallholder Farmers Can Now Access Agricultural Credit Facility Without Collateral

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The Agricultural Credit Facility (ACF) has devised a path-breaking innovation of block allocation to enable farmers access loans based on alternative collateral such as chattel mortgages, cash flow based financing, and character-based loans, among others, Dr. Michael Atingi-Ego, Deputy Governor, Bank of Uganda, has revealed.

“This innovation is unlocking access to credit in areas with communal land tenure; and most especially, for micro and smallholder farmers who are otherwise excluded for lack of collateral to secure credit.

“By September 2020, the ACF had advanced UGX 2.8 billion to 187 small and micro borrowers with non-traditional collateral under block allocation,” he said.

The ACF is administered by the Bank of Uganda on behalf of the Government of Uganda.

The Deputy Governor said that through this innovation, the ACF working with the participating institutions, has extended loans of up to UGX 20 million to small-scale farmers.

He further said that block allocations support financial inclusion and advance equity in economic activity by serving women and youths with limited property rights.

Dr. Atingi-Ego made the remarks just before he a launched the 2020 Agricultural Finance Yearbook at Imperial Royal Hotel, Kampala on Tuesday.

The Agricultural Finance Yearbook  has produced by the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) since 2014/15.

The yearbook contains several agri-financing models for various commodities such as rice, dairy, coffee, among others. The models have some standard features:aggregation of producers for economies of scale, functional linkages between value chain actors (input distributors, extension agents, agri-markets information providers, producers, storage units, marketing agents, processors, financial service providers, wherein some players are ‘lead agents’ in the segments where value chains are weak.

The Ugandan economy is still heavily reliant on agriculture, with 69 percent of households dependent on subsistence farming and nearly 75 percent of all households.

Atingi-Ego  revealed that the share of value-added by the agriculture sector in the economy stands at about 25 percent, presently.

“Boldly facing these facts, it is clear that whenever the BoU announces the Central Bank Rate (CBR), the intended policy signal may not penetrate through to the majority of the population. It is, also, quite evident that the route for the CBR signals to reach the people will be unblocked through agricultural finance,” Atingi-Ego said.

He added: “Fortunately, by seeking to close the information gap between agriculture and finance, these yearbooks bring much-needed illumination to the recesses of information asymmetry, thereby improving risk analysis and credit scoring of agricultural credit.”

 

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Uganda’s coffee exports on the rise

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The Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) says that the country’s coffee exports are increasing, showing a gradual rise in the last two years.

“Coffee exports for Sep 2019 to Oct 2020 totalled to 5,409,054 bags worth $513.99m compared to 4,465,534 bags worth $435.81m the previous year,” UCDA noted in a tweet on Wednesday.

“This is a 20% and 18% increase in quantity and value. Performance attributed to increase in production, fruitation of new coffee trees and good weather,” the authority added.

In the last one year (since June 2019), the highest earnings from coffee exports of $48.2m were registered in January 2020 followed by the August 2019 earnings of $46.3m.

More so, Uganda’s coffee was ranked third best in the world by cup tasters who graded 1,229 coffees from around the world.

According to the Research Gate, studies show that Uganda is one of the largest producing and exporting countries of coffee products in the world.

Coffee production has heavily contributed to both domestic and foreign earnings in the country.

Moreover, coffee also serves as a primary source of labour, especially for the rural smallholder farmers.

Original Post: New Vision

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Agriculture rebounds as economy recovers

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Prices of agricultural products are starting to rebound as the easing of lockdown measures in Uganda open up places of food consumption.

Evans Nakhokho, the chief manager, Agribusiness at Centenary bank, said during a thought-leadership forum hosted by the bank that economic recovery interventions had triggered a five per cent increase in food prices.

“The five percentage point price improvement is largely attributed to the gradual recovery of activities in the agricultural sector and the economy as a whole. A case in point is the improved price of matoke and other foodstuffs,” Nakhokho said.

Key to this recovery is the role that has been played by both financial and non-financial services in helping to ease the access of credit to framers, which, according to Nakhokho, raised the fortunes in the sector.

“Financing plays an instrumental role in boosting agricultural activities. The structured ecosystem that focuses on both financial and non-financial services has enabled the utilization of credit. This year, we have disbursed close to Shs 600 billion, of which 60 per cent has been issued to smallholder farmers.”

The symbiotic relationship shared by the banking sector and agriculture means that both have been pivotal to each other’s recovery efforts, according to Nakhokho.

“Agriculture financing contributes about 12 per cent of the total lending to all sectors in the banking industry, which is approximately Shs 2 trillion,” he said.

Beyond the financing, banks have also offered guidance to their customers in relation to managing their credit and how it can be invested for a strong return on investment, according to Nakhokho. He said they had reviewed business projects and even restructured the loans to make it easier for customers to pay back the money.

LESSONS

Mona Ssebuliba, chief operating officer, Agricultural Business Initiative (aBi), said their focus as an organization has been on stabilizing and strengthening financial institutions to ensure that agribusiness financing is supported.

“This has been implemented by rescheduling lines of credit (principal and interest) for a period of 12 months, reduced interest rate from an average of 13.5 per cent to 8.2 per cent on all running facilities…”

Ssebuliba said. Ssebuliba said farmers have to improve their businesses if they are to survive other challenges. He advised commercial farmers to have “the ability to swiftly adapt to improved business models, digitizing for improved resilience, business monitoring, and putting in place business continuity plans for the unexpected occurrences…”

ASSESSING COVID IMPACT

Martin Fowler, the agriculture adviser, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Uganda, recently stated that the Covid-19 lockdown presented mixed results in the prices of food. According to Fowler, there was a slight spike in staple food prices between March and April, followed by a slight decline, though, to August.

“Maize prices rose rapidly in the early weeks of Covid-19 lockdown (mid- March to April) from Shs 1,129 to Shs 1,458 per kg. This trend was caused by a combination of panic buying, speculation, government purchases and supply-chain disruptions. Other staples mirrored this trend,” Fowler said.

According to Fowler, food prices currently remain close to (significantly above, in the case of beans) 2019 levels and the five-year (2015-2019) averages, which shows that the sector has for the meantime managed to weather the storm from the impact of Covid-19 on the agricultural sector.

Effecting of the lockdown by the government, therefore, led to a decline in effective demand for food, which reduced household incomes, according to USAID.

Agriculture experts have now projected that the significant loss of formal sector jobs and incomes as a result of the impact of Covid-19 will continue to impact negatively the domestic demand for food, and their prices on the market. Similarly, international and regional demand prospects for agricultural commodities remain uncertain despite the improvement in food prices.

Original Post: The Observer

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