The National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) through its affiliate the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL) - Kawanda is the only country in the world that has matooke banana cells in the laboratory.
Speaking at the recent Agricultural Biotechnology Support Programme II workshop at Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala Dr Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, the director NARL said the institute had been able to develop embryo cells from the banana plant which cells can be developed into banana suckers in the laboratory through the use of modern biotechnology.
The suckers can be incorporated with nutrition components of zinc or iron or traits giving them disease resistance like to banana bacteria wilt with precision.
“No one in the world has matooke cells,” she boosted. It is only NARO with the capacity to transform the banana.”
The matooke also known as the highland banana is home to East Africa. Uganda is second to India in production though the one with highest consumption average in the world at 120kgs per person according to Dr Jeromo Kuburiba, the head of the banana programme at NARL.
Tushemereirwe said Uganda had made two great strides in banana research. The first one he said was to develop embroyo cells from the plant. The second one was to incorporate traits of interest in the banana cells, the most difficult; here they used genetic engineering because of its precision of cutting out unwanted traits.
“We can do anything on the matooke now,” he said.
Research at the NARL has mainly been on fighting diseases and enhancing the nutrition content.
The institute has already bred a banana variety resistant to Banana Bacteria Wilt (BBW) using genetic engineering. It has also bred another variety enhanced with Vitamin A.
The ABSPII project also promoted the growing of bananas in northern Uganda through the provision of clean planting materials developed using tissue culture technique.
“Our objective is taking bananas to northern Uganda was to make available enough planting materials to whoever wanted to grow them,” he said.
And indeed farmers have been adopting, Moses Okullo -Opio of Okwor village in Lira district is one farmer.
He said he got 55 banana suckers from NARL and another 150 from the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADs). His varieties include Mpologoma, Mbwazurume, Fhia 17 (dessert)& and M9 a matooke variety developed at NARL.
He said banana growing were better because clearing of land is done once and incomes are better compared to other crops.
He said he sells between 70- 100 bunches every months at prices ranging from sh 10,000- 15,000.
Kuburiba praised the banana as a drought tolerant crop and added that the adoption in the north has taken away the myth that the north was not suitable for banana growing.
The ABSPII run from 2006-2016 is a USAID project that was being implemented with support technical support of Cornel University, a United State top research university.
Tushemereirwe said over 85% of the money reached had been used by the institute unlike in other projects where much of the money is spent on donor’s expenditure.
“Cornel has helped us on how to fish,” he said. “They have not given us fish.”
At the same dialogue, Prof Ronnie Coffman of Cornel University said the project was in 12 countries in Africa and Asia and they were in Uganda to help in the improvement in productivity of the banana crop.
On the technology not being with the farmers Ronnie drew an analogy to Tushemereirwe’s fishing comment.
“I think the fish has been hooked,” he said. “Maybe it is in the boat, but not on the table.”
The banana bacteria resistant banana is still under confined field trial at NARL though early results showed 100% resistant to the wilt. Several researchers have asked Parliament to pass the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill so that the products can be given to the farmers for whom they were developed for.
Jerome Kubiriba, the head Banana programme at NARL Kawanda says the country will gain about US $953m annually if BBW is contained.