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Research diary: plant clinics in Uganda

Copyright: Andrew Tock

Getting agricultural information to smallholder farmers can help improve food security. The University of Warwick PhD student Andrew Tock explores.


Why did they start the plant clinics?

They are the brain child of Dr Eric Boa at CABI (the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International). There was a lack of means of communicating good agricultural practices to farmers in the developing world because they are often in very remote locations and few have the money to use private agronomists. Responding to this information gap, CABI launched an initiative as part of its Plantwise programme to communicate vital agricultural advice to farmers.

When did they start?

In Uganda it started in 2005, a pilot programme with four clinics in different parts of the country, and from there it's expanded and developed across the country.

Copyright: Andrew Tock
PhD student Andrew Tock made a video diary of his work for the Plantwise clinics.
Copyright: Andrew Tock

How many are there now?

Over 100, and they are continuously opening. While I was there, there was an advocacy meeting in Masaka District to encourage the establishment of more clinics in central and western parts of the country.

What is the breadth of advice that they offer?

The plant doctors give advice for the treatment of any crop problem, although banana, citrus fruits and cassava are the three most frequently received crops. They apply the principles of integrated pest and nutrient management and, where appropriate, provide advice for low- or no-input treatment so that farmers don't have to spend a huge amount of money on pesticides and fertilisers. Sometimes it's unavoidable and there are problems that can be treated only with chemical inputs, but where they aren't essential or appropriate to the farmer's circumstances, the plant doctors will recommend methods that don't involve buying chemicals.

Are many of these smallholder famers unable to afford inputs?

Definitely yes. Another big problem is fake products. So even when they can access and afford chemicals and make the long journey to neighbouring towns where suppliers are, often they are confronted with counterfeit products that don't do the job, and do more damage than good.

What can be done to stop this?

There needs to be an integrated system of regulation and policing. There needs to be oversight in the supply chain, perhaps even at the borders where a lot of the fake products come from, to prevent them from getting to market in the first place.

Uganda's National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) are involved in training bona fide agro-input dealers in providing advice to clients on the correct use of inputs, but there needs to be a system of approved retailers too. There's an informal system at the moment, where the clinics recommend dealerships they trust, but farmers shouldn't have to make a long trip to a plant doctor just to be sure they can later buy legitimate products.

Copyright: Andrew Tock
A busy plant clinic in Nakifuma market, Mukono District.
Copyright: Andrew Tock

How did you find yourself on the project?

It was a three-month project in Uganda, and part of the Midlands Integrative Biosciences Training Partnership (MIBTP), a BBSRC-funded Doctoral Training Partnership.

The first year of the MIBTP programme is a training year, during which students do a three-month internship to test their career ambitions. I had developed a keen interest in CABI's work when I was doing the MSc in Sustainable Crop Production at the University of Warwick in 2011, and Dr Eric Boa came to Warwick to give a lecture on the role of plant clinics in the developing world. When I made contact with Dr Boa and Dr Joseph Mulema, a rising star in CABI who did post-doctoral research at Warwick, both were very encouraging that I should come to Africa.

What were you looking at in the plant clinics?

My role involved monitoring the performance of plant health clinics in Uganda. I did this by visiting clinics and looking at a number of criteria, such as the quality of diagnoses and advice, staff communication, organisation, the availability and quality of materials and equipment, and record keeping. There was often a trade-off, for example, between the ability of staff to communicate effectively with clients and to exercise good record keeping.

How many clinics did you visit and how did you rate them?

Five, and they generally performed well despite a number of important challenges. The staff are well trained and showed incredible enthusiasm for the initiative. But the clinics need additional and better-coordinated financial, logistical, material and technical support from overseeing institutions to enable routine operations. Although there were some shortcomings in the quality of diagnoses, advice, communication and record keeping, these can be addressed by providing additional plant doctor training and staff.

Copyright: Andrew Tock
Plant clinics help smallholder farmers identify and control crop diseases. Copyright: Andrew Tock

Where do the plant clinic staff come from?

They generally have a background in agriculture, either in the classroom or on the farm, or both. Most have undergraduate degrees in an agricultural discipline from local universities, and some have done Master's courses. They have such a depth of knowledge on all the different crop types they encounter.

I hadn't seen anything like it, really. People like me focus on much smaller areas, but the plant doctors have an incredibly broad knowledgebase.

How are the plant clinics funded?

CABI provides funding via its Plantwise programme (see details below) which covers all costs associated with plant clinic operations in the first year, and this includes plant doctor training. Once the clinic is operating smoothly, local government is expected to take up the reins and continue that funding. There have been issues of money not arriving on time and staff having to use their own resources, so this is something that needs to be addressed by the overseeing authorities to ensure the sustainable operation of plant clinics in Uganda.

Are the farmers pleased with the service?

They seem mostly positive. But they do go looking for the chemical inputs and sometimes expect the clinics to be 'pharmacies' that stock agro-inputs, so some farmers are pushing for better access to these chemicals. As with medicines in human healthcare, there seems to be a misconception that synthetic pesticides are silver bullets. But the plant clinics serve as a good vehicle through which to educate smallholders about the value of integrated pest management. I don't think the plant clinics will ever become suppliers of agro-inputs because there would be a conflict of interest.

Many farmers come back and say the advice has worked; it's difficult to say what proportion of clients are reporting positive or negative effects because they often have a long way to travel - it's very rural. Comprehensive impact assessments of the clinics require follow-up monitoring visits to farmers' fields to evaluate the effectiveness of advice given and the consistency with which it has been implemented. The numbers of farmers visiting are increasing all the time, so I think that's an indication of a positive impact.

What follow-up work are you doing back in the UK?

I have been able to report back to CABI with my findings and a number of policy recommendations aimed at addressing challenges to clinic operations. I also hope to integrate aspects of what I have learned in Africa about grower-engaged science into my work in the UK on the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), a staple of both the British and African diets.

One clinic supervisor, for instance, emphasised the unique frontline nature of the clinics, providing agricultural extension staff with an insight into the perspective of the farmer. He said that the clinics enable farmers to communicate directly with extension workers about their crop varietal preferences, and to voice their opinions about the crop characteristics that should be prioritised by national breeding programmes.

The clinics could, then, in the future be included as a useful component of participatory breeding networks, through which new varieties – adapted to local conditions and desired by local farmer and consumer communities – can be developed.

Copyright: Andrew Tock
Plant doctors often talk to clients in groups to facilitate learning, as in Kiyindi (above), Buikwe District. Copyright: Andrew Tock

Had you been to Africa before?

No, it was my first time. It was brilliant, a life-changing experience really – the most rewarding thing I've done in my life. I thought people in Uganda would be wary of the westerner coming in, but they were disarmingly warm and friendly.

Any truly memorable moments from the trip?

One Saturday night at a beautiful place on Lake Victoria called Beach House, where I would go for my weekly 'katogo' (bean and cassava stew). The stomach-lining meal couldn't have come at a better time because I was in for a good night with some really friendly locals celebrating an engagement party.

And the worst?

On safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Our first sighting of the baboons came at the same time my guide, Joseph, realised we had a flat on the rocky road into Maramagambo Forest. Seeing three lions with tyres intact was brilliant though!

So you scared the baboons off while he changed the tyre?

No, I volunteered to remain locked in the car!

But then I did get chased by a horny bull at one point. It had mounted a goat seconds before. Kids circled the inter-species affair and laughed before scarpering when the bull fumed and retaliated in a kind of love-drunken shame.

Funding note: several key national donors provide funding to support the CABI Plantwise programme. These include the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Netherlands (DGIS), Irish Aid, the DG DEVCO-EuropeAid, and the Ministry of Agriculture, People's Republic of China.

Tags: farming international plants video feature