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How Kibirige’s Innovation Saved Coffee Sector

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Clonal coffee saved the Ugandan coffee sector from possible extinction. This certainly is what makes it one of the most important innovations of the last 60 years. Joshua Kato traces this innovation developed by Kibirige Ssebunya (deceased), former minister of state for agriculture who was one the lead researchers.

With a hand hoe comfortably hanging over his left shoulder, Moses Mutyaba walks down a small farm path towards his five-year-old coffee shamba. His village, Timuna in Nakaseke, is known for coffee growing because every homestead has got at least an acre of the crop.

Additionally, he carries a panga in the left hand. Mutyaba planted clonal coffee on his two acre farm, replacing some older coffee trees that his grandfather had planted in the 1970s.

“The old varieties were affected by the Coffee Wilt Disease (CWD),” he says.

“Do you know the history of Clonal coffee?’ I ask him.

“It was given to me under the NAADS programme. They gave me 900 trees that I planted on my two acres. I started harvesting two years ago. The yields keep growing as the trees become larger,” he says.

Clonal coffee saved the Ugandan coffee sector from possible extinction. This certainly is what makes it one of the most important innovations of the last 60 years.

Cloning coffee started in the 1970s, purposely to improve production of robusta coffee. However, it took a more fundamental importance after the outbreak of the deadly CWD in the early 1990s.

Former minister of state for agriculture Kibirige Ssebunya who has since passed on, was one of the lead researchers in this task. He headed the Coffee Breeding Programme at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).

When coffee came

According to Ugandan Coffee Federation (UCF), coffee farming has been on for over 100 years and while Arabica coffee was introduced at the beginning of the 1900s, robusta coffee is indigenous to Uganda and has been part of Ugandan life for centuries.

However, coffee was not declared a cash crop until around 1920. In fact, it took the eye of the colonialists to turn it into a cash crop, although Ugandans had been consuming it traditionally over the years.

The variety of wild Robusta coffee still grows in Uganda’s rain forests, for example Budongo. In fact, according to Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA), the wild robusta trees have actually survived the wilt, compared to the domesticated varieties.

Incidentally, pre-colonial Ugandans already knew about this wild coffee and were consuming it in different forms, including by drying and roasting it.

Institutionalising coffee production

By 1931, only 17,000 acres were under cultivation. The coffee board was set up in 1929, later becoming the Coffee Industry Board in 1943 and then Coffee Marketing Board in 1959.

The colonial Government divided the country into agro-ecological zones, each specialising in particular crops. Tobacco in Acholi, cotton in West Nile and coffee in the central region.

In the 1950s, extension workers promoted a coffee-planting campaign that saw production reach two million 60kg bags by the early 1960s, and more than three million by 1970. Coffee research centres were subsequently set up across identifi ed areas to aid the spread of the cash crop.

Groom as diseases threaten

But then, groom struck! In 1992, information was received from a coffee trader, John Schluter of a devastating Robusta coffee disease in the Beni and Isiro areas of DR Congo, who warned of its consequences, if allowed to cross into Uganda.

In September 1993, wilting and death of a few Robusta coffee trees was observed in a 2.8 hectare experimental plot at the Coffee Research Institute, Kituza in Mukono district. The first report of wilt outside Mukono district was received in October 1993 from Bundibugyo district.

In this district, both Robusta and Arabica are cultivated, but the disease was reported only on robusta.

According to UCDA, during an initial survey, two farms in each of three sub-counties were visited and samples collected. All the fields visited had some dead plants and partially diseased trees. During this first visit, CWD was not detected, probably due to the high incidence of other fungi, and symptoms of the disease were not typical

Clonal coffee is born

“There was panic all over the country. Government then asked research institutions to find varieties that could withstand the wilt,” Kibirige once said. According to Edward Lutakome, from UCDA and a trainer at the Harvest Money Expo, cloning coffee seedlings had started in the 1970s with the objective of replacing old robusta coffee with better breeds. In 1993, however, it was discovered that all the clones succumbed to the deadly CWD.

“In 1996, however, efforts turned to developing clones that were resistant to the disease,” he says.

The biggest attributes of clonal coffee include being tolerant to the CWD, growing faster with first yields appearing as early as 18 months compared to four years of the traditional coffee,” he said.

How clonal coffee is made

According to UCDA, clonal trees have also got strong tap roots which is not the case with traditional coffee. This makes them more stable in the ground in case of strong winds.

Clonal coffee propagation involves harvesting nodal cuttings from young shoots of recommended coffee varieties and rooting the nodal cuttings under specialised conditions.

This is the best method of propagating coffee varieties derived from individual hybrid trees, selected for exceptional agronomic and market traits that can be lost if the varieties are propagated by botanical seed.

The major agronomic traits for selecting hybrid coffee trees are high yields, tolerant to drought and disease resistant, for example the coffee wilt resistance.

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