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Fostering a research culture has put Uganda's Makerere University back on its feet and is inspiring others, says Peter Wamboga-Mugirya.

Patrick Okori, a crop scientist at Makerere University in Uganda, is breaking a departmental habit of 40 years. He is employing a postdoctoral fellow.

"Today," beams the triumphant scientist from behind his spectacles, "I have been able to employ the very first postdoctoral fellow in the department. And I have also trained 17 postgraduates, 14 MScs and three PhDs over the last four and a half years."

Across the university other scientists tell similar stories as Uganda's highest seat of education gradually regains its prestigious reputation of 40 years ago.

Makerere was founded in 1922, under the British colonial administration, as Makerere Technical School. After independence in the 1960s it developed an international reputation, nurturing many East African leaders. It became an independent university in 1970.

But after 15 years of political turmoil, beginning in 1971, Makerere was almost bankrupt. It was losing its underpaid teachers. Those that remained supplemented their incomes through other work, leaving little time for tutoring their students. Research was at the bottom of the agenda, as was exposure to the international academic scene.

As a result, the general attitude was "a lack of appreciation for the relevance of research, a lack in experience and skills for doing research and an emphasis on financial gain as the key motive for undertaking research," according to an analysis of Makarere commissioned by Canada's International Development Research Centre.

Back from the brink

But Makerere is turning itself around. Change began in the early 1990s. Makerere devised a series of university-wide strategic plans. In 1992 it went semi-private, a pivotal move that generated much-needed revenue from students (although science benefited less than other subjects).

It is the changes of the last decade, however, that are attracting international interest. As a result of them the university has started producing healthy numbers of PhD students and has created a vibrant research culture.

The Faculty of Computing and Information Technology brings Internet access to all

Flickr/ibeatty

Makerere's buildings reflect its chequered story. The main building, with its 1920s British colonial architecture and its sporadically chiming clock, dominates the campus, but the tallest and newest building houses the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology.

Donors who have helped Makerere's transition include Norad, the Pfizer Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. But the key player today is the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), with its Bilateral Collaborative Research Support programme worth 238 million Swedish Kroners (US$27 million). In 1999 Sida started working with Makerere to help it reach a position where it could set about finding its own solutions to Uganda's problems.

Initially, the agency worked with individual researchers and faculties. But a bigger idea emerged: that the changes they were helping to bring about would endure only if the background context — the management, the money, the procurement, the infrastructure — were also transformed.

Support at all levels

Sida decided to engage at all levels of the university as well as with influential outsiders such as the government. That way it might regenerate research and improve analytical thinking — and thus evidence-based decision-making — for the whole of Uganda.

"The aim of the programme is to support an environment that is conducive for research and research training," says George William Nasinyama, deputy director in charge of research at the School of Graduate Studies — the coordinating office for research at Makerere and a nucleus for its transformation.

Hannah Akuffo, Sida's officer in charge of the bilateral support programme, agrees, saying, "It is important for the researcher to have an environment conducive to research, otherwise it leads to frustration".

The aim is to instill a research culture, producing qualified lecturers who build research groups around themselves.

The reformers selected some research themes that would encourage cross-disciplinarity. One, for example, was Lake Victoria and other water resources. Pursuing this drove faculties to pool their information, says Nasinyama.

Okori certainly feels this first goal has been successful. After training abroad he might have returned to a harried researcher's existence with few tools, little money and inadequately trained staff. Instead, he has a new laboratory and settling-in funds.

He and his collaborators plan to train up to 17 more graduate students in the next four years.

International winners

Makerere's vice chancellor, Livingstone Luboobi, notes that units that have been supported under the programme are now able to search for funding themselves. "We now write competitive research proposals that win funding. About 15 years ago, this wasn't the case, " he says. Okori, for example, has already won several research grants.

Another central objective — to increase the number of staff with PhDs — is also well underway, with 156 PhD students trained since 2000.

Akuffo says this "provides a bottom-up approach to improvement," adding, "It has sometimes been frustrating for the PhD candidates, but it has led to many positive changes."

Developing information communication technology (ICT) and library support was a third key goal. Akuffo believes this is the single most important outcome of Sida's intervention.

The university developed an ICT master plan and then solicited several funding sources.

Now it is surging ahead, with more than 8,000 open-access electronic journals available. Having widespread internet access has also revolutionised collaboration and supervision. It has put Makerere on the global research radar.

Makerere's ability to coordinate and administrate research programmes has also been enhanced under the programme through the development of its school of graduate studies.

Today, nearly half of Makerere University's students are female

Flickr/ibeatty

Today, nearly 32,000 students, young and old — and nearly half of them female — frequent the campus. Over 2,000 — just over six per cent — are international. There are 22 academic units and the university's annual budget is about US$56million. Close to 5,000 students graduate each year.

Still a way to go

But all is not yet perfect and some successes have heightened the challenges. The recent report for IDRC, which it commissioned to assess its own support to the university, highlighted the strain caused by the enormous number of students, up from just 7,000 in the 1990s.

Problems include large classes, increased teaching and marking loads and poor salaries, said the IDRC, noting that "at the same time, [staff] are facing an increasing pressure to conduct research and publish".

Meanwhile there is competition for students — whose revenue is vital — from the rising number of private universities in Uganda. Others say that donors are in general unwilling to fund desperately-needed new buildings. The halls of residence, for example, suffer from water shortages and the occasional burst sewer.

Akuffo agrees there are many challenges ahead, singling out "the inability of Makarere to work out a more efficient way to procure materials needed for doing research" as one that endangers a lynchpin of the 'enabling culture'.

"This needs to be sorted out otherwise it will continue to frustrate researchers," she says.

Makerere has experienced strain from its enormous number of students, including large classes

Flickr/treesftf

Success is contagious

But despite the challenges, the future looks promising — and not just for Makerere.

Nasinyama says Makerere's successes are catching the attention of other public universities in Uganda who are coming to it for help — for example with staff training. "We now have the potential to develop world class centres of excellence in regional development issues such as health, agriculture, engineering, technology and social sciences," he adds.

Eli Katunguka Rwakishaya, director of Makerere's School of Graduate Studies, has attributed the progress to Sida supporting both university and national priorities; promising long-lasting commitment involving considerable investment, and the "deep, interactive partnership" the agency has fostered between Ugandan and Swedish researchers.

And Luboobi says there has been a major shift in thinking and new ways of working. "I recall when we used to sit and just wait for interested partners or donors' sympathy," he says.

"The programme has instilled a new culture of working for ourselves and no longer waiting for manna to fall from heaven."

Scientists in Uganda have developed GM bananas that show promising resistance to the deadly banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW) disease.

Bananas are Uganda's leading non-cereal crop with some 70 per cent of the population depending on it as staple food. More than US$200 million has been lost to BXW infestation since 2001. The disease has also been reported in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Now, the banana plants modified with two genes derived from sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum) show resistance to the disease caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. musacearum.

Principal investigator Leena Tripathi, a Ugandan-based biotechnologist from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Nigeria, said inserting the genes — plant ferredoxin-like amphipathic protein (PFLP) and hypersensitive response-assisting protein (HRAP) — separately in four local banana varieties is giving encouraging results (see GM bananas to fight wilt in Africa).

"In over five years of research, we've been able to insert genes into the East African highland banana varieties used for cooking (mpologoma andnakitembe)desserts (sukari ndizi) and brewing (kayinja). From these we've managed to develop resistant lines, which have proved effective in laboratory and screenhouse tests after deliberate exposure to BXW," Tripathi, who works on the project together with the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation and the National Agricultural Research Organization told SciDev.Net.

But, she added, they still need to confirm this effectiveness in a field trial.

Patrick Rubaihayo, a crop scientist at the Uganda-based Makerere University lauded the progress but warned of possible overdose with the molecule that these genes code for.

"My worry is that when a consumer eats large quantities of the modified varieties ... it is likely to be harmful," he said, adding that safety should be established before recommending these bananas for human consumption.

But Feng Teng-Yung, a plant pathologist at the Academia Sinica, a Taiwan-based research institute that provided the genes, said that they were safe. "Ferredoxin is a naturally-occurring protein in all living organisms," he said. "When we modify any plant with ferredoxin, we're only boosting amounts for greater protection against serious infections as bacterial pathogens."     

Even if BXW-resistant bananas prove successful in field trials, the absence of a GM law in Uganda will hamper farmers' access to the technology (see Uganda 'needs biotech law' to save banana sector). The 2008 National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill is yet to be presented to the cabinet for approval before it goes to parliament for enactment according to Michael Olupot-Tukei, assistant commissioner for planning and research in the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development.

eet genes arm banana crops

Uganda's government failed to heed warnings from scientists about the devastating landslides in the mountainous eastern part of the country last month and was not prepared for the disaster, an expert has said.

"The government had been warned of the impending disaster in Bududa — which lies on the slopes of Mount Elgon — by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA)," Arthur Makara, executive director of Uganda's Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development, told SciDev.Net.

Makara said the UWA had advised the government on several occasions to relocate people from mountainsides left exposed from over-population to give the slopes a chance to "re-vegetate".

"But the government never took any action and the consequence has been the loss of lives," he said.

So far there have been no further landslides. But the heavy rain currently pounding the region is expected to continue until the end of May, according to Laz Ocira, an official from the Ministry of Relief and Disaster Preparedness.

Ocira said a much bigger disaster may be looming in Bududa's neighbouring district of Manafwa — another mountainous area in the Mount Elgon region.

"I've seen cracks [in the land] myself and in some points they are 1.5 metres deep. They could cause a slip at anytime."

Satellite images reveal that more heavily-cultivated land in the uppermost parts of the mountain is on the verge of sliding at any moment, said Festus Bagoora, a natural resources management specialist at NEMA.

"In all these districts, farming communities have encroached deeply into what were once pristine environments that had been national parks and forest reserves," he said.

"Encroachment on steep mountain slopes means a calamity. Once heavy rains pound such a place, then debris flow is inevitable and anything on the land will certainly be swept away," said Bagoora.

Makara called for education and awareness-raising for people who inhabit mountainous regions about avoiding cultivation along land contours and instead growing crops across them to cut the amount of water run-off.

"They should also be educated on the use of terracing and construction of bunds that would trap run-off, helping water retention in their fields and reducing soil erosion significantly," he said.

Ugandan researchers will carry out a series of field trials on some of the major food crops that have been genetically modified (GM), following several recent approvals by the Uganda National Biosafety Committee, despite a lack of clear legislation on commercialising any such products within the country.

They will seek to develop both transgenic and conventional maize varieties tolerant to climate change-induced drought; GM cassava resistant to virulent cassava brown streak virus ravaging the starchy root crop across eastern and central Africa; GM bananas with engineered resistance to Xanthomonas bacterial infections; and cotton plants containing both Bt and 'roundup-ready' genes.

According to Yona Baguma, vice-chairman of the committee, the approvals — given in July and followed by planting that started last month (September) and will go on until November — are "historic". They are clear signals that Uganda's scientific community has built capacity in molecular biology and convinced the committee it can adhere to national and international guidelines on GM organisms, he said.

"It is also significant that the committee has matured with functional and competent systems to assess and evaluate applications, with rejections and approvals," said Baguma.       

Godfrey Asea, principal investigator for the maize trials and national project coordinator for Water Efficient Maize for Africa said: "Our confined field trial site is ready to plant the first transgenic maize in November 2010.

"This shall be a trial on efficacy for drought-tolerance by GM and conventionally-bred maize. When it succeeds, we expect to carry out more trials on starch content, taste, production outputs and to commercialise by 2017," Asea told SciDev.Net.

Uganda has previously approved and carried out a field trial on banana to test black sigatoka disease resistance (2007 - 2009)two trials to evaluate Bt and roundup ready cotton (2009 - 2010), one trial to test cassava mosaic virus resistance (2009 - 2010), and one ongoing trial to test banana bio-fortified for vitamin A and iron.

But the country still lacks a national biotechnology legal framework for releasing such crops on the market. The 2008 National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill has still not been approved by Parliament and, with elections expected in February next year, the date of its passage is still unsure.

But Godber Tumushabe, chief executive officer of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment — a policy think-tank — said Uganda is unnecessarily rushing to develop GM crops before it builds the critical scientific and infrastructural capacity to ensure the products are safe.

Only three African countries are currently growing GM crops commercially: Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa. Several others are conducting research and field trials, including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, mainly focusing on staple local crops such as cowpea.

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