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Harriet Bailey reports on her ABSW funded trip to Uganda

The differences between Uganda and the UK are stark but it’s the similarities that have stuck in my mind. I had my preconceptions of a war-torn and poverty-stricken country, mostly drawn from the media and charity campaigns. But as the recent Radi-Aid YouTube sensation demonstrates, this one-sided perspective on a whole continent is grossly mistaken.

As an early career science journalist I was invited to Kampala to be part of the second Ugandan Science Journalism Forum (USJF) as an ambassador for the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW).  Around 50 delegates amassed in the conference hall to discuss the theme of energy – a controversial topic considering Uganda’s recent discovery of another one billion barrels of oil deposits in its borders.

Uganda derives almost all its energy needs from biomass, with demand for wood and charcoal growing an estimated 6% year on year. It took a meal to put this into perspective, cooked by our award-winning host Lominda using a traditional charcoal stove and a chicken that had been scratching the yard a few hours earlier.

Land usage is under enormous pressure, with more acreage being turned over for fuel production a food and water shortage is an imminent danger. Renewable solutions are needed but the culture of a nation almost entirely dependent on agriculture means their adoption is slow at the moment.

Going bananas

The Ugandans have the same concerns as Britons regarding climate change, only its impact has far greater implications on the landlocked country straddling the equator. An overwhelming majority of the population, nearly 90%, live rurally and rely on agriculture to make a living. This dependence is reflected in science coverage in the news; while items about Uganda in the UK science press focus on health, the Ugandans focus on breaking research in the plant world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caption: Dr Andrew Kiggundu runs the research into GM bananas at Kwanda Institute. The scientists are aiming for vitamin A and iron fortification, resistance to diseases such as Sikatoga disease or higher yields.

Dr Andrew Kiggundu studies the nation’s staple food at the Kwanda Research Institute in Kampala, which we visited on our first day. There doesn’t go a meal in Kampala without encountering a banana. Not the bright yellow, bestickered and frankly tasteless Cavendish that we see piled up in our supermarkets in the Western world but a wide variation on the theme; from the starchy matoke, steamed and mashed on every plate, to the sweet lady’s fingers banana, sold in bunches of ten (don’t try buying just one).

A fruit so integral to daily life in Uganda is being researched intensely by the country’s scientists. And for good reason. In the 1950s, a single disease wiped out the world dominant cultivar of banana, Gros Michel, forcing producers to switch to the now commonplace Cavendish. The world’s second largest producer of bananas can’t have another Panama Disease on their hands.

Kiggundu has been working on genetically modified cultivars since 2005 with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. GM is seen as a necessity rather than a controversy in Uganda, but there are still no commercially grown crops in the country.  Not that the locals know this – ask them their views on GM and they’ll tell you they’ve been eating it for years, not knowing the difference between conventional breeding and genetically modification.

The institute itself was remarkably similar to plant research sites in the UK; inside was the spit of Rothamsted or the John Innes. The difference only hit you when you walked outside into the 30 degree heat. I was hugging the shadows and glad to tuck into a plate brimming with food (bananas aplenty) under a mango tree. The best way to put your research into perspective.

Something fishy

From agriculture to aquaculture for our final field trip. The two most commonly eaten fish in Uganda are the tilapia and catfish, both farmed intensively along the country’s waterways. The National Fisheries Research Institute on the road to Jinja is in the process of developing food for aqua farmers to provide the best nutrition for these fish. In a set of ponds in the blistering heat, fish are fed, watered and measured on a weekly basis by a dedicated team – our guide, Joseph, had been at the Institute for 20 years.

Caption: Catfish and tilapia are hatched in the nursery and grown in consecutive pools. Fresh water is supplied to each pond by a gravity-driven irrigation system.

For the last four of those a group of Chinese researchers and business men have been responsible for running the organisation. Boasting two new buildings and a paved road, the Ugandan-Chinese self-styled friendship has driven research towards commercial prospects –perfecting growing conditions for ornamental fish is in the pipeline.

Ugandan style

Back at the conference and the speakers were discussing the potential for commercial ventures in a global market and meeting the concerns of the local people. How can a villager be encouraged to farm sustainably with a variety of indigenous plants to maintain the lush ecosystem when they are being offered cash to crop biofuels?

Caption: Our host, Lominda Afedraru with her print award at the Ugandan Science Journalism Association

I’ve developed an important perspective on reporting from and on a developing country – needs and interests have to be relevant to the readership and what may be a priority in UK science reporting can be trivial to a Ugandan. One thing it seems all journalists have in common is discussing matters over food and a local liquor – a gin in Kampala. Made from bananas.

Harriet Bailey

Harriet Bailey is the newest researcher for 'earthrise', Al Jazeera's environment programme, investigating solutions to environmental challenges around the world. She has just graduated with an MA in Science Journalism after earning a BSc in pure mathematics – though she managed blogs, interviewed scientists and created graphics even as a student. She previously interned at the Science Media Centre and Lion TV Productions.

For a more detailed report on the Ugandan Science Journalists Forum and their associated Science Journalism Awards see here http://www.wfsj.org/news/news.php?id=295

Background to the ABSW funded visit:

The ABSW is twinned with the Ugandan Science Journalists Association (USJA) through a scheme coordinated by the World Federation of Science Journalists. 

To further develop relationships between the ABSW and USJA, the ABSW funded the visit of a Ugandan science journalist for the UKCSJ 2012; subsequent to this visit the ABSW funded two early-career science journalists to visit Uganda and take part in the USJA annual forum, 15–16 November in Kampala. 

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