After a long eight hour drive to western part of Uganda where scientists at Kachwekano Zonal Agricultural Research and development Institute (KaZARDI) have been carrying out research on improved transgenic Irish potato, one is welcomed by the beautiful scene of healthy looking plants at the field trial.
The scientists and farmers who are busy harvesting the potato at a trial farm in a bid to collect data about its efficacy performance are equally happy to receive a team of scientists from the Ministry of Agriculture who are responsible for variety release.
As the principal investigator of the trial at KaZARDI, Dr Abel Arinaitwe is optimistic they will soon start distributing the new drought and disease resistant potato varieties to farmers in order to increase yields.
Irish potato in Uganda is a food security crop and is grown in the highland areas of south western Uganda in Kabale and Kisoro districts as well as the mountain slopes in eastern Uganda in parts of Mbale and Sebei region. For the communities living in this part of the country, the crop is considered both a staple food and main source of income.
The Rwenzori zone made of Kabale and Kisoro districts contributes 60 per cent of the national Irish potato production while the volcanic zone which comprises Mbale, Kapchorwa, Bududa, Kween and Sironko districts contributes 30 per cent.
As a result of increased demand especially in the urban areas production has been intensified in the traditional zones and is spreading into central Uganda and other areas.
Dr Arinaitwe explaining the importance of the crop notes that it is a popular crop in Uganda with great potential for income generation and improving nutrition. So much so that the Ugandan government has declared it a key crop for the country.
The varieties that are yet to be given names were successfully tested in both Kisoro and Kabale districts, some of the highest producers of Irish potatoes in the country. The varieties followed some others which were released recently. They were particularly found to be resistant to heat, which also makes them suitable for growing in other regions of the country.
According to officials from KaZARDI, a lot of efforts was put in providing Irish potato farmers with new clones as it has been proven that farmers were growing seeds imported several years back, which were no longer productive as they got old.
Currently, 300,000 metric tonnes of potato are produced each year in Uganda, where farmers earn market prices ranging between Shs2,000 and Shs5,000 per kilogramme depending on the season.
Farmers grow Irish potatoes in areas of 1,800m above sea level that borders with Rwanda and Congo and in the eastern part of the country around Mt Elgon.
These impressive numbers, however do not reveal the growth potential for potato in Uganda. Farmers currently average seven metric tonnes per hectare but with improved varieties and best farming practices, they could produce up to 40 metric tonnes per hectare.
“Farmers have been growing varieties which were not responding to their demand towards optimal produce as the varieties were too old, yet quality varieties are required for various purposes including processing, the previous varieties were no longer resistant to climate change,” said Dr Arinaitwe.