Bioversity International: research for development in agricultural and tree biodiversity

Banking on diversity and knowledge-sharing – the story of one of Uganda’s best farmers

15 Mar 2017

One of the winners of Uganda’s National Best Farmers competition, Joy Mugisha is not only an invaluable source of agrobiodiversity knowledge for her community but a key research partner for Bioversity International and NARO.

By Joshua Turyatemba, Communications Assistant at Bioversity International's office in Kampala, Uganda

When Ugandan farmer Joy Mugisha received a call in mid-February inviting her to attend an event related to a coveted farming competition in which she had participated, she thought it was just that – attendance. Yet she walked away with an award for Best Farmer in South Western Region, 2016.

In Uganda, the National Best Farmers competition is held annually since 2013. The ten best farmers get to share 150m shillings worth of farm inputs and a free trip to visit farming enterprises in the Netherlands. 

Joy didn’t go very far in school. She decided to take on farming as a profession and was determined to excel at it, just as lawyers and doctors do in their respective jobs. So it was with confidence that she entered the competition well knowing that her chances were very high. 

“I started farming on a very small scale in 1986 with maybe 100 plants of banana or less and kept expanding. But in 1990 I decided to diversify a bit by adding millet, maize and tomatoes to our garden,” Joy says. 

However, the family suffered a huge setback in 2008 due to an outbreak of Xanthomonas wilt, a lethal banana disease caused by a bacterium. Most of their banana plantation was lost, so they decided to go into coffee farming, dedicating six acres of their land to it. 

Joy demonstrating best method for bean planting. Credit: Bioversity International/J.TuryatembaThat same year, she was visited by a team of researchers from Bioversity International and the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), who were doing studies on pests and diseases in beans as well as bananas. She opted into the study where she worked as a field assistant for the bean trials. 

Rose Nankya, Bioversity International scientist and project manager for Uganda, explains: “The objective of the study was to use genetic diversity in common bean and banana to manage pests and diseases, while promoting the conservation of this rich diversity. We trained local farmers to identify pests and diseases that had proven to be resistant in Uganda and to use mixtures of resistant varieties to decrease pest and disease incidence.”

These were anthracnose, angular leaf spot and bean fry in beans, and black Sigatoka and nematodes in bananas. 

Rose recollects Joy’s important contribution to the project since its very start: “She was among the first people identified in the community. Through her, we were able to recruit and train farmers as field assistants to collect data from on-farm trials, and also create awareness among them on the importance of using diversity for both pest and disease control and food security.” 

Joy and her husband Charles Mugisha. Credit: Bioversity International/J.TuryatembaJoy and her husband were happy to participate in the trials. “Trials need a lot of money. That is why I am very thankful to Bioversity International and NARO because they put in all the initial income,” she says reflectively, before adding, “I hate to waste knowledge… When a person gives me knowledge, I make sure it is not wasted. I have been giving knowledge and seeds to farmers since. You may have bigger land, but without crop diversity, you can’t go far.” 

However, soon after venturing into bean diversity, Joy found herself at a crossroads wondering whether continuing in that direction was worth it. Her diverse seeds were selling for far less than the singular common bean varieties that existed on the market. But with time and continuous exposure through exhibitions, people started appreciating the importance of diversity and she was soon able to start her own seedbank. 

Today, Joy also serves as seed quality assurance manager at the Kiziba Community Seedbank, which was established by Bioversity International and NARO to improve access to and awareness of traditional resistant varieties and how they can help improve yields overall. According to the seedbank manager, Geoffrey Mugarura, Joy has been a blessing to the community. 

“We the local community are very lucky to get a person of national importance. Very many people now know who she is and we keep getting visitors who want to learn how to become better farmers. She is very resourceful and keen on beans. That’s why we even have a bean variety which is named after her,” Mugarura says. 

Her husband, Charles Mugisha, says he has been very impressed with what Joy has been able to achieve and has made the family proud. “I want her to go back to school,” he says. “If she could achieve all this with the little education she has, what can she do with added knowledge?” he asks with a beaming face. 

If there is one person who did not appear surprised by her winning though, it is Rose Nankya. “When she told me she was going to participate in the competition, I told her she would win. When she said that she had been invited to the capital Kampala, I told her she had won,” Rose says.

A team from Bioversity and NARO pose for a photo with Joy Mugisha. Credit: Bioversity International/J.Turyatemba“Joy is very passionate and energetic when passing on knowledge to other people. One thing I respect about Joy and her husband is that they are always working together. It makes them very innovative. They are hospitable and always sharing their knowledge about diversity. She is a change agent… She’s very inspiring!” Rose adds. 

Later this year, Joy – alongside nine other farmers – will head to the Netherlands for a tour and study programme courtesy of the competition sponsors, which include New Vision Media Group, DFCU Bank and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Kampala .   

Joy says her challenge, which she hopes can be addressed during the tour, is to apply the concept of value addition to beans. “I have tried it before, including attempting to convert them to flour but the results were not good. So maybe, I will learn another way in which we can add value to beans during the tour.”

In addition, she intends to use the prize money to set up a demonstration farm whereby people can come and learn at a small fee. 

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This work is part of a global programme working in China, Ecuador, Morocco and Uganda on using crop varietal diversity in integrated production and pest management. It is supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Global Environmental Facility (GEF).

In Uganda, our partners include: the Plant Genetic Resources Center of National Agriculture Research Laboratories (NARO), the Crop Protection Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, the Ministry of Local Government, National Agricultural Advisory Services, the Mbarara and Kachwekano Zonal Agriculture Research and Development institutes, the National Agricultural Research Laboratories Kawanda, Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, CARITAS Nakaseke and the Uganda National Farmers Federation .

This work contributes to the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems 

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Photos (from top to bottom):
- Joy Mugisha in her home seedbank. Credit: Bioversity International/J.Turyatemba
- Joy demonstrating best method for bean planting. Credit: Bioversity International/J.Turyatemba
- A team from Bioversity and NARO pose for a photo with Joy Mugisha. Credit: Bioversity International/J.Turyatemba
- Joy and her husband. Credit: Bioversity International/J.Turyatemba

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