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Plant Clinics Taking Root in East Africa

  • Nick Long

FILE - A worker is seen at a tea plantation near Kasese town, some 500 km west of Uganda's capital, Kampala.
Despite advances in science and technology, crop disease continues to plague farmers everywhere. The Britain-based Center for Agriculture and Biosciences International, or CABI, says up to 40 percent of the food grown worldwide is lost to pests and diseases before it can be consumed.

CABI is trying to change that with a crop protection program called Plantwise. In the past three years, the program has trained nearly a thousand so-called plant doctors in 24 countries, including one near Kampala, Uganda.

It’s market day in Mukono, a village about 15 kilometers from Kampala. Plant doctor Daniel Lyazi has arrived by motorbike to set up his clinic next to a stall where a traditional healer is trying to sell herbal remedies to shoppers.

There is no remedy for the diseased plant samples that people bring to Lyazi’s clinic, which is basically just a table under a small tent.

The slime-covered cabbage that a farmer plunks on the table is not going to get any better, nor will the rest of his cabbages. But Lyazi’s recommendations may save the next season’s crop.

“So he’s telling me there’s a small caterpillar which eats [the cabbages] starting from the youngest leaf. He’s told me that the whole garden has been attacked and affected by this caterpillar. So according to me, I know that it’s a diamondback moth and I’m going to give him recommendations,” says Lyazi.

The farmer has been using an insecticide but Lyazi says it’s the wrong one.

FILE - Farmers attend one of the plant clinics in East Africa (Courtesy - CABI).
FILE - Farmers attend one of the plant clinics in East Africa (Courtesy - CABI).
“It’s tolerant - it doesn’t kill the diamondback moth caterpillar. So I’m recommending him to use another insecticide called Fenkill, and in another planting season he should plant with onions. Onions can repel (the caterpillar) and he can get income,” advises Lyazi.

What Lyazi means is the farmer should interplant onions between the rows of cabbages as an additional protection measure.

The clinic lasts about three hours and in that time Lyazi advises about 20 farmers. The head of a local farmers’ group, Erifazi Mayanja, says they are really benefiting from this twice-a-month clinic, which started last year.

“That’s why they have come in great number today, because of the good advice they are getting from our master here,” says Mayanja.

Program popular and growing

Plantwise says there are now about 90 of these clinics in Uganda, and this year donors spent around $290,000 training plant doctors and expanding the system in the country.

Coordinating the Plantwise program in Uganda and Zambia is Joseph Mulema. He argues that plant clinics are a far more effective model for getting advice to farmers than the traditional one where agricultural extension workers, in theory, visit farms.

“Plant clinics can help so many farmers in a very short time. In fact, more farmers are seen in a plant clinic session, if good mobilization is done, than actually an extension officer can look at in an entire month,” says Mulema.

Government crop protection officer Robert Karyeija says training plant doctors has been vital, because even though there were thousands of agricultural extension workers, they just didn’t know enough.

“They were there. But the problem [was] they would be general agriculturalists who knew agronomy but didn’t know much about pests and diseases,” says Karyeija.

Since 2010, CABI has set up Plantwise clinics in 12 African countries - nine in East Africa and three in West Africa.