Uganda: Plant clinics take root (IRIN)

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Using a sharp kitchen knife, Daniel Lyazi dissects a slime-covered cabbage at a farmers market in Mukono town. He is a plant doctor in Mukono District, east of Kampala in central Uganda. This is the area where the devastating cassava brown streak disease was first identified in 2004.

A group of farmers gather around his table. Mr. Lyazi points with the tip of his knife, saying, “There’s a small caterpillar which is eating the cabbage, and according to me it’s a diamondback moth.”

He advises the farmer to switch to a different pesticide, and to grow onions alongside his cabbages as a moth repellent. Mr. Lyazi then jots down his remedy on a piece of paper, and turns his attention to an undersized cassava tuber.

For the last seven years, plant clinics have been provided as a free service to Ugandan farmers, complementing the work of the country’s extension services. Many government extension officers are general agronomists rather than pest experts, and this is where the plant doctors help out. Since 2012, the clinics have spread from Mukono to 45 Ugandan districts, according to the UK-based Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience, or CABI.

Although the title of “plant doctor” is not an official one, it has been adopted by CABI for the 1,000 agricultural extension workers trained as part of its Plantwise program. Since 2010, CABI has set up plant clinics in 24 countries, including three countries in West Africa and nine in East Africa. Last August, it opened an additional 13 clinics in Zambia.

Pests and diseases are major threats to food security and livelihoods in most developing countries. CABI cites research stating that farmers lose 40 per cent of the potential value of food crops to insects, weeds and diseases before harvest.

According to the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, losses in staple crops may be much higher. Cassava losses in the Great Lakes region from brown streak virus may be as high as 70 per cent.

Eric Boa is the pioneer of these plant clinics. He says: “The variety of pests and diseases [in eastern and central Africa] is daunting. Clinic data reveal the farmers present problems on over 30 crops, and plant doctors have to consider over 60 different pests and diseases.”

According to CABI, its plant doctors have already advised over 200,000 farmers. Their goal is to reach 800,000 farmers in 31 countries by 2014.

Many Ugandan farmers attend Mr. Lyazi’s plant clinic in Mukono. During one three-hour session, consultations were non-stop and 17 farmers were given detailed recommendations. They left the plant doctor carrying a slip of paper with a prescription to treat the crop’s ailment.

The head of a local farmers group, Erifazi Mayanja, said the large turnout showed that everyone was happy with the advice provided by Mr. Lyazi.