The ideas are there – now its harvest time

September 24, 2010

The VIPs take a final bow

The two-day science policy dialogue came to a close this afternoon. Two things are clear from the meeting. The first is that Uganda has an impressive range of user-friendly technologies under development.

These include efforts to:

  • Improve disease resistance and post-harvest handling of bananas – Uganda’s golden fruit.
  • See if the Nile perch, a staple carnivorous fish, can be switched to a vegetarian diet to spare the depleted stocks of smaller fish that make up its mainstay.
  • Persuade farmers to use their left over biowaste – such as millet husks – to create charcoal briquettes, which are currently imported from South Africa.

The second is that technology transfer poses a considerable challenge. UNCST staff would be the first to admit that they still do not know how best to identify the most promising innovations and promote their incubation and commercialisation.

This is a problem that many governments face all over the world. Still, no silver bullets were presented at the meeting. A conference such as this can only bring ideas – not set out a work plan. More focused discussions will be required to de-bone key issues stifling commercialisation like proper intellectual property protection.

Still, Ugandans have worked hard for their advances. This bodes well for the future.

To conclude, I want to thank the UNCST for inviting me to participate in the policy dialogue. My tip for anyone coming this way?  Try the local mashed banana, matooke, perhaps with some spicy beef stew. It’s quite a treat!

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

A final bow by the honoured guests from Uganda and South Africa

Ugandan biotech law remains elusive

September 24, 2010

Ugandan biotechnology is showing good form. Genetically modified varieties of banana, cassava, cotton and maize are being developed at labs in the country. These have been given traits to address a number of local problems including drought , disease  and low nutritional contents.

However, although the country’s government approved a GM policy in 2005, it has yet to adopt a law regulating the use of genetically modified organisms. This law is a prerequisite for the improved crops to reach the country’s farmers.

There is widespread anxiety among Ugandan biotechnologists about the delay in getting a biosafety law passed by Parliament. Unfortunately, they may have some time yet to wait before they know for sure the fate of the products they are developing.

So what is holding up the bill? Well, GM is a controversial issue, and one that does not have full support among Ugandan politicians. But a contributing factor will now be the upcoming national elections in 2011. Re-election will be foremost in the minds of most Ugandan MPs in the months leading up to it. And so the bill is likely to be passed on to the next Parliament, says Maxwell Otim, UNCST deputy executive secretary.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

The problems of presidential patronage

September 24, 2010

Delegates networking at Acholi Inn, Gulu

Last night, I interviewed Maxwell Otim, UNCST’s deputy executive secretary, about his organisation’s role in helping science and technology advances to enter the marketplace in Uganda. The discussion revealed an interesting feature of Ugandan science support.

The country’s Millennium Science Initiative loan has resulted in a variety of user-friendly findings that will be incubated by the Ugandan Industrial Research Institute, he told me. But there is another source of support for clever science solutions in the country, namely presidential patronage.

Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, is keen on science and technology. What is more, he likes the personal touch. So when the president visits science expos and sees something that he likes, more often than not he will offer those responsible funding from his own office.

This has become such a trend that there is now a presidential science fund that doles out support to these hand-picked projects. For instance, it has backed the development of a technology to prolong the shelf life of the banana that is prepared as ‘matooke’, a glutinous mash and local favourite served with meat stews. The technology allows matooke to be exported to homesick Ugandans worldwide.

The good thing about the presidential support is that it shows a personal commitment to science. The bad thing, clearly, is the lack of transparency in the selection mechanisms. Otim told me that he is urging the president’s office to put the money in the presidential fund up for open competition. Another one to watch.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

Science and innovation: a masterclass

September 23, 2010

South African delegates, Mjwara is second from the right

There is a sizeable delegation of South Africans attending this meeting, led by Dr Phil Mjwara, director-general of the Department of Science and Technology.

South Africa has a more developed innovation policy than most African countries, but even it has problems. The uptake on the R&D tax credits introduced in 2008 have been less than hoped, and the DST still struggles to elicit high-quality applications for its innovation support schemes. It is currently undertaking a wholesale re-organisation of its innovation support, placing it all under a newly created Technology Innovation Agency.

Yet, South Africa has a lot of lessons to teach a country like Uganda, and that is why it has been invited to come here – to share its experiences in supporting science and innovation.

Much of the discussion this afternoon has focused on shortcomings of the Ugandan science and innovation system: funding shortfalls, poor intellectual property protection and low take-up of science subjects at school and university level.

But when I spoke to Phil Mjwara over coffee this afternoon, he told me that he thought Ugandan scientists were selling themselves a little short. The challenges are not so different in South Africa, Mjwara said. But among other things, South Africa’s science officials are more skilled at publicising their successes to policymakers. This is something Ugandans must cultivate in order to nurthure their support, he said. “When we have achieved something, we shout about it.”

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

The curious fate of Uganda’s MSI

September 23, 2010
Peter Ndemere

Peter Ndemere, UNCST executive secretary, prepared to fight for Ugandan science

The fate of Uganda’s Millennium Science Initiative is hot stuff here. The four year US$33m, low-interest loan will run out next year, and there is an invitation from the World Bank, which backs the initiative, to extend it.

MSI has done a lot for Uganda. Indeed, this meeting would not be taking place were it not for the MSI, which pays for the whole of Uganda Science Week.

Fears about Uganda’s MSI emerged earlier this year after high-ranking Ugandan officials said that the government wanted to ‘take over’ the MSI. Officially, there has been no move from the government to deny another MSI round. But the World Bank needs a request from the government to enter another round. And it hasn’t received it.

In addition, the fourth call for proposals under the MSI should have been announced this week. It hasn’t.

A lot is uncertain. Although the government says it wants to increase its share of the national science funding, it hasn’t really said anything about how it plans to do this. Most scientists support the merit-based, peer-reviewed system used to allocate grants through the MSI.

Speaking to me today, Peter Ndemere, executive secretary of UNCST, hopes that a government-backed MSI would retain the current methods of allocating funding. If it doesn’t he’s happy to resign in protest, he says. But when I wish him good luck in the budget negotiations for 2011, his reply isn’t reassuring: “Thanks, I’ll need it”.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

What is innovation?

September 23, 2010
Ugandan science minister

Ugandan minister with responsibility for science welcoming the delegates

After a delay waiting for the minister, the meeting is now in full swing. The keynote address is being delivered by Professor Banji Oyelaran-Oyeyinka from UN Habitat’s Monitoring and Research Division.

His key message is that policymakers must not confuse science policy with innovation policy. The former is there to promote the development of scientific capacity in a country. The latter has to promote the application of knowledge – whether it comes from a lab or from the brain of an innovative farmer.

That may sound obvious. But I agree with the professor that science and innovation are sometimes bunched together in policy circles. And where science is under-resourced in African countries, innovation is even more so. The danger, of course, is that policymakers decide to take money from science capacity-building to feed innovation policy – that would kill off African science, which at long last is showing signs of improvement.

Indeed, this might be something that is more important for the minister of trade to heed than the minister of science. In Uganda, the professor said, the emergence of 2-3 large agricultural producers that could take advantage of the country’s vast arable tracts of uncultivated land would change the entire country’s fortunes in five years.

Travelling up the road to Gulu yesterday, there were hardly any large farms lining the road. Interestingly, and somewhat depressingly from a biodiversity angle, what does abound along the Kampala-Gulu road is pine tree plantations to produce charcoal and timber.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

Uganda hosts technology transfer dialogue

September 22, 2010

Uganda has many biological resources, such as this sweet smelling cannonball flower, which is used in perfumes

How can Uganda’s advances in science and technology be harnessed to boost the local economy and wellbeing? This is the question that will be debated as national and international experts descend on the northern town of Gulu for a two-day science policy dialogue tomorrow and Friday (23-24 September).

The meeting, hosted by the Ugandan National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) concludes Uganda’s fourth ‘Science Week’ – a showcase of national scientific expertise and a platform for discussion about the use of technology in everyday life.

Uganda needs tech transfer. The liberalisation of the country’s economy since the 1990s has resulted in many international companies setting up shop in the land-locked country. This kick-started economic growth after decades of political turmoil.

But the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, wants to see more local companies thrive, in particular small- and medium sized companies run by entrepreneurial Ugandans. In a development plan for the country, published in April, the government sets out an ambition to boost innovation and technology transfer.

The Gulu meeting will discuss the implementation of this plan. But there are other considerations: What will happen to Ugandan science funding when the money from its World Bank Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) loan runs out next year? Will Uganda’s government pass a law to regulate the growing and selling of genetically modified produce in the country?

Watch this space.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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