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Research Diary: Plant Clinics in Uganda

03 November 2014


Getting agricultural information to smallholder farmers can help improve food security. 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.

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.

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.

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.

November 2014

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