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Dr. Geoffrey Ssepuya wins USD 63,750 grant from the UNCST

By Irene Best Nyapendi,

Geoffrey Ssepuya, a Senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University (UCU), has won a grant, worth USD 63,750, from Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST). The grant focusing on “Piloting the production of low cost protein and micronutrient rich cricket feed from food waste in Kampala,” will run for 18 months.

Out of over 400 people who applied for the grant, only three won it. That is to say; Dr. Geoffrey Ssepuya from the UCU Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, Prof. Charles Muyanga and Prof. Archileo Kaaya from Makerere University.

On October 10, during the UNCST grant launch at UCU, Deborah Kasule, Outreach & Information Management Head, announced the winners of the grant on behalf of the UNCST executive secretary as she highlighted on their partnership with UCU.

“We value the partnership we have with UCU and recognize the role higher education plays in knowledge generation,” Kasule said.

UCU Vice Chancellor Applauds Ssepuya’s Groundbreaking Research in Cricket Feed Production

Prof. Aaron Mushengyezi the UCU Vice Chancellor congratulated Ssepuya upon this win, mentioning that it is through research that the university can make an impact on the innovation sector in Uganda.

“At UCU we are consciously making efforts to build our research portfolio. It is a joy for me to witness this award ceremony to scholars taking ground breaking research addressing a national need,” Mushengyezi said.

He also commended UNCST for considering and supporting private universities.

This is the second phase of Ssepuya’s research as he looks at how to sustain increased cricket feed productions.

During the first phase, his finding was: high returns on investment if one used the formulated feeds and the cost of production is relatively low. With the formulated feeds, the crickets require 8 – 10 weeks to mature, faster than on normal food waste where they will take about 12 weeks.

One of the areas he is focusing on in this second phase includes enhancing the packaging and distribution of the formulated feeds.

Specific objectives of the study:

Establishing sorted food waste collection/supply from households, markets, and food service centers.

Establishing and equipping a private sector pilot food waste up cycling facility.

Training food waste handlers, feed retailers on processing and storage practices.

Relevance of the research project

This project aims at converting food waste to cricket feed, support cricket growth, and increased protein availability.

Crickets can be used to enrich the diet with protein and other nutrients when added to daily meals. It is a common practice in Uganda to eat fried insects such as crickets and grasshoppers. In this project, crickets, which have more protein than fish and beef, are ground to be mixed with staple flours for porridge and food. 

“Instead of consuming cassava bread that is only about 2% protein or even less, communities can supplement it with crickets which are 50 – 65 % rich in proteins,” Ssepuuya says. “So, with the feeds now available they can rear the crickets, dry them under the sun, grind them into powder and add the protein-rich powder to their food.”

The most common sources of proteins such as meat, milk and chicken are not affordable to many Ugandans, yet it can now be redeemed from eating crickets. 

Outcomes of the research

Sustainable production of nutritious (low cost) cricket feed.

Increased farmer participation in cricket rearing due to increased profitability.

Increased conversion of food waste to cricket feed.

Reduced disposal of organic solid food waste at non-gazetted areas.

Increased employment opportunities for youth and women (Those employed to process food waste).

Increased access to information about food waste processing and cricket production.

Increased research and feed processing capacity built.

Increased collaboration among researchers and stakeholders in solid food waste management.

Dr. Nicholas Odongo Research Fellow African Centre for Technology, the keynote speaker at the UNCST grant launch mentioned the need of turning research into market.

“Today universities are called upon to go beyond knowledge generation into generation of more practical and less abstract solutions. If the research doesn’t lead to employment creation, then it has been half useful,” Odongo said.

He added that innovation needs not to be part of but rather the core culture of a university because technology is the only means for socioeconomic transformation.

I can contribute to the fight against food insecurity’

Edrick Bwambale, a Uganda Christian University (UCU) alumnus, has scooped the African Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Achievers Award for his work connected to training rural farmers best practices. 

Awarded at the four-day, 5th African Youth SDGs Summit in Lusaka, Zambia, in August 2023, his accolade was in the category of  “No poverty,” which derived its name from the SDG 1 – End poverty in all its forms everywhere. 

The 2019 graduate with a Bachelor of Agriculture Science and Entrepreneurship was recognized for his efforts with rural female farmers who are survivors of domestic violence in Kasese district, western Uganda. He was commended for improving the farmers’ profitability by introducing better crop varieties, providing support and creating online marketplaces for their products. 

Bwambale was grateful to the summit for recognizing his efforts and the networking opportunities it opened for him. He said he benefited from sharing with experts who showed him “a whole different perspective of things.” He was sponsored for the conference, got books to help him in his projects and also networked with peers and experts for further correspondence. 

“It is important for us as youth to take part in this because we are leaders of today, not just tomorrow, and our contributions are crucial to making progress in the 17 areas of the SDGs,” he said.

He said the award has motivated him to refine his ideas, opened doors to capacity-building opportunities and given him access to experts.

“The award opened doors for valuable networking with experienced professionals,” Bwanbale said. “And if I use the opportunities and network I made, it would benefit me more.”

Bwambale does the work under his organization, Sustainable Agri Food Initiative (SAFI Uganda), which he founded in 2021. He trains crop farmers using the knowledge he got at UCU and through the practical field experience while working at Mubuku Irrigation Scheme (in Kasese) as a field extension officer for five years.

He expanded the SAFI initiative when leaving his field extension job in April 2022. The SAFI farmer groups with 517 members increase support from financial institutions. 

“I know what kind of seed is planted in what kind of soil, at what time, and I have field experience that I share with farmers,” Bwanbale said.“Banks will not trust individual farmers with money because they don’t see security, but they can trust a group of farmers who are doing something,” 

During his field work, he realized that farmers needed extra help in accessing agricultural knowledge and training.

“The whole essence of field extension made more sense because I saw how local farmers were being challenged by transport limitations,” he said. “They hardly got the required technical support.”

Bwambale’s mission is “to improve the technical knowledge, farm production and productivity and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in East Africa.”

He achieves this through on-farm field extension services, advising farmers on crop management, pest control, and more. He works with a team of field assistants who are his current and former interns who help him during the field training.

In creating an online marketplace for farmers to access better markets, he seeks to eliminate middlemen who exploit farmers when prices drop after harvest. He also conducts field sessions to empower farmers, allowing them to replicate best practices.

“We meet two days a month in a classroom setting,” he said. “Additionally, once every week, we gather in a garden we call a training site. Here, we focus on practical learning. Farmers replicate what they have learned by practicing it in their gardens.”

Bwambale’s motivation to engage in sustainable development started by recognizing his potential to effect change in his community.

 “I know I can do something,” he said. “I can’t just sit there and watch people suffer when I can contribute to the fight against food insecurity and poverty.”

UCU researchers develop three new nakati varieties

By Jimmy Siyasa
Renowned for its research excellence, the Uganda Christian University (UCU) Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, previously led by Prof. Elizabeth Kizito, proudly presents three extraordinary varieties of Solanum aethiopicum shum, commonly known as nakati – the beloved African eggplant.

Introduced as the UCU-Nakati 1, UCU-Nakati 2, and UCU-Nakati 3, these innovative nakati varieties mark a significant milestone in Uganda and Africa. The varieties offer farmers a reliable and easily accessible source of African nakati seed. Previously, nakati farmers relied on saved seeds from previous seasons or obtained them from neighbors, friends, and relatives, leading to limited availability and inconsistent quality. One will no longer need to rely on uncertain or unreliable sources as UCU’s nakati varieties ensure consistent quality and ample supply for farming needs.

The development of these nakati varieties involved making crosses over multiple generations, meticulous selection, and ensuring distinctiveness, and uniformity for improved yield and desirable plant characteristics. Each variety has been carefully tailored to meet the expectations of farmers and consumers, incorporating valuable feedback from end-users and thorough market surveys. 

These varieties have received certification by the National Variety Release Committee: A Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry, and Fisheries, ensuring the highest standards of excellence.

Characteristics of the Nakati varieties
Each of the varieties has unique characteristics.

UCU-Nakati 1:

UCU-Nakati 1 is green-stemmed, has green leaves and leaf veins, and the leaf margins (the boundary area of the leaf that is extending along the edge of the leaf) are generally whole. Nakati-1 is not drought tolerant. In sensory evaluations with consumers and market vendors, it was found to be relatively bitter. Its average yield per acre is 982.4 kg/acre.

UCU-Nakati 2:

UCU-Nakati 2 has green, purple stems, green leaves, and green leaf veins. The leaf margins are moderately serrated. Nakati-2 has green-purple stems and green leaf blades. The mean fresh leaf yield at harvest is 936.9 kg/acre. Nakati-2 was identified as a drought-tolerant genotype. In sensory evaluations with consumers and market vendors, products had a generally appealing aroma, appearance, and flavour.

UCU-Nakati 3

UCU-Nakati 3, on the other hand, is purple-stemmed, has green leaves with green-purple leaf veins, and has a deeper serrated leaf margin. The leaf yield at harvest maturity, about 8 weeks after planting, is 976.3 kg/acre. Nakati-3 is moderately drought tolerant and has a generally appealing aroma, appearance and flavour in sensory evaluations with consumers and market vendors. 

Implications and Applications

The potential impact on the field or society
The implications of these groundbreaking developments are far-reaching. Previously, there were limited systematic efforts to improve African Indigenous Vegetables (AIVs) in Uganda. The new nakati varieties are the first of their kind. UCU has developed nutritionally rich improved varieties of nakati. This intervention will not only offer farmers quality-assured varieties of AIVs but also set standards for subsequent variety evaluation for distinctiveness, uniformity, and stability (DUS) as well as value for cultivation and use. Releasing these varieties brings to the fore, especially for Africans, the availability of quality seed to meet nutritional and income security needs because these can now be potentially accessed in agro-shops or stores, something that was impossible until recently.

Practical applications and real-world scenarios
With over 200 tons of nakati traded weekly in major markets, this crop plays a crucial role in Uganda’s urban and peri-urban areas, surpassing even the country’s main cash crop –  coffee. The popularity of nakati extends beyond Uganda, reaching Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Its nutritional and economic value makes it an indispensable part of traditional dishes and a means of livelihood for poor and unemployed women and youth.

AIVs such as the UCU Nakati varieties, hold immense practical applications and can address real-world challenges in achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs). These vegetables have the potential to alleviate hidden hunger (SDG 2 – End hunger) and poverty (SDG 1 – Zero poverty), particularly among vulnerable groups like women and children under five. In Uganda, a country with high levels of undernutrition, where 3 in 10 children under five are stunted and about 3.5% body wasting, the nutritional value of nakati is significant. It is rich in fiber, minerals, carotene, proteins, fats, ash, crude fiber, carbohydrates, calcium, magnesium, iron, and phytochemicals with therapeutic properties, making it essential in preventing nutrient deficiency diseases and non-communicable diseases. By improving crop varieties and enhancing productivity and incomes for farmers, poverty reduction and improved food security can be achieved, as farmers who cultivate improved varieties often earn more and enjoy better livelihoods. 

Expert Reviews
Dr. Ssebuliba James
, agronomist and former head of the Department of Crop Production at Makerere University College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences:

  • “This is a great addition to knowledge. Research plays a crucial role in the addition of new knowledge, which ultimately advances our understanding of the world and contributes to various areas of daily life. When new knowledge is curated and put in the right hands, it has the power to bring about high-value change in society.” 

Dr. Godfrey Asea, Director of Research, National Crops Resources Research Institute, Namulonge: 

  • “This is a good opportunity as a starting point to harness the indigenous vegetable resources.”

Dr. Flavia Kabeere, Seed Technologist and Consultant:

  • “These varieties will guarantee quality for consumers.”

Collaborations and Funding
The UCU community, leadership, and researchers (Prof. Elizabeth Kizito, Dr. Sseremba Godfrey, Mildred Nakanwagi, and Pamel Kabod) expressed appreciation to the European Union, PAEPARD (Platform for African-European Partnership in Agricultural Research for  Development) and The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) for their valuable support. Funding from the EU through PAEPARD initiated this research, while TWAS contributed to basic research and the selection of drought-tolerant varieties.

Call to Action
Others are invited to delve deeper into this groundbreaking research and its potential applications. Seed companies or other stakeholders interested in the multiplication of seeds are invited to place their orders. For more information, visit the Directorate of Research, Partnerships and Innovation website (https://grants.ucu.ac.ug) or directly contact 

Recap

  • UCU researchers develop three Nakati varieties UCU-Nakati 1; UCU-Nakati 2; UCU-Nakati 3; with immense promise for enhancing food security, reducing poverty, and promoting better health in Uganda and Africa.
  • Nakati is considered an African Indigenous Vegetable.
  • Nakati is one of the most important local vegetable species in terms of providing income and food in urban and peri-urban areas of Uganda.

Raising a child while searching for knowledge

Ugandan agronomist Rosemary Bulyaba is exploring how to find varieties of cowpea that are more resilient to adverse climatic conditions, can thrive in various soils types and environments, and whose leaves can be utilized as vegetables and are rich in vital nutrients such as iron and folate. Bulyaba however must also balance her research work with her role as a mother of two children, a 2-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl.

However, her second maternity leave has been much easier than the first one, because, while working at the Uganda Christian University (UCU), in Mukono, Uganda, she received a special grant that TWAS established in collaboration with the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Called the Seed Grant for New African Principal Investigators (SG-NAPI), itoffers an unprecedented mother-friendly component called ‘Scientist after Child’ scheme. This scheme allows pregnant scientists and new mothers to receive extra funding to hire a lab assistant, thus obtaining reliable maternity leave support.

“Receiving the SG-NAPI was a huge help for my scientific career. I could continue my research with the aid of an assistant while staying at home and breastfeeding,” she explained. “This grant has strengthened my reputation and increased my value at UCU. My career was uplifted: I was head of the department and now I am the Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences.”

The SG-NAPI grant meets the needs of early-career scientists from developing countries, and, in particular, from the least developed countries (LDCs). With funding entirely from BMBF, it allows young scientists to purchase the research facilities they need to enhance their productivity. Its ‘Scientists after Child’ scheme seeks to enhance the productivity of female scientists returning to academia after maternity leave. Another component of the programme, the ‘Master of Science training grant’, allows scientists to train master’s students within their research group. Bulyaba benefitted from both these components.

A mother-friendly scheme

Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) is an annual herbaceous legume originally used to feed animals, especially by smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa – hence the name cowpea.  However, it is becoming increasingly relevant in human nutrition, as it is rich in protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and fiber, and low in fat content.

Bulyaba’s interest in nutrition-sensitive agriculture and agronomic management practices is not recent. Her early step in science led her to study grain legumes such as cowpeas, common beans, lablab beans, and soybeans. In 2019, she earned a PhD in crop production, physiology, and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University, US, and then moved back to Uganda. Shortly thereafter, she discovered that she was expecting, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was about to begin.

“I was afraid that I would have to halt my scientific career for a while, because my husband and I already had a young daughter, who was only 1 year old at the time, to take care of. However, field and lab work are often quite demanding,” she recalled.

An agronomist’s life is physically intense. The fieldworkbegins with land preparation and the planting of the seeds. Then weekly monitoring activity requires extra work to ensure that the plants have germinated and are growing well—otherwise a new round of sowing is needed. Sometimes insects ruin the crop, and scientists need to use pesticides to keep those at bay.

When Bulyaba was still a new staff member and a mother for the second time, she learned about a programme that would preserve her work. The former Dean of Bulyaba’s faculty mentioned the SG-NAPI grant and the mother-friendly scheme. Bulyaba applied, and her maternity leave improved. With a two-year long grant covering 2022 and 2023, she could hire an assistant who supports in supervising the research activities while she is at home with her kids. This also ensures that her master’s students have the support they need and prevents a gap in her scientific work.

“I have three sites to check on periodically, in Eastern Uganda, Central Uganda, and in greenhouses,” Bulyaba explained. “With my students, we are now testing over 100 different genotypes, across these sites, to see which ones best adapt to these environments, under those specific conditions. It is interesting to see how plants behave under conditions that are apparently similar, but in practice different.” Some of the cowpea genotypes are from Ghana, others from Makerere University, and from UCU where Bulyaba is employed.

A mother’s impact on child wellbeing

The grant’s impact was enormous, not only on her career. In a more relaxed mood at home, Bulyaba offered her newborn, Shaun, quality time, and the difference from the first pregnancy was evident.

“My presence at home brought several benefits to my son, who is more self-confident, assertive, and prompt from a cognitive point of view,” she observed. He was breastfed for 18 months, while his sister stopped after four. In addition, Shaun, not yet 3, can count one-to-ten, recite the alphabet, identify shapes and colours, and has started speaking both his native language, Luganda, and English without having attended kindergarten yet.

The SG-NAPI grant put Bulyaba in the position to make a difference also for young scientists in her community. She hired two master’s students, Naome Aryatwijuka and Norah Akaba, whose role in this cowpea research is crucial.

Aryatwijuka, who conducts agronomic field work and experimentation, is a master’s student in agriculture research. She handles tasks such as planting the seeds, collecting the leaves, and correlating the quality and yield of the harvested crops with specific genotypes and field locations. Then Akaba steps in.

Thanks to the SG-NAPI grant, Akaba can pursue her master’s degree in human nutrition. She uses Aryatwijuka’s information to select the most potentially nutritious leaves, which are naturally rich in micronutrients that are especially important for reproductive-age women. She is also involved in the preparation and development of a nutritionally dense cowpea soup for the local communities. Additionally, she is working on gathering feedback from community members regarding the quality and acceptability of the meal.

“I feel quite privileged because the SG-NAPI grant gave me the chance to hire two young women and have an impact on their education and career,” Bulyaba said. “Women often face more challenges and have fewer privileges compared to men, and having a child can often so easily lead to the end of their scientific career. I do hope that both Akaba and Aryatwijuka will also pursue a PhD after this master’s experience.”

“Receiving this grant was not only for me but for my students as well,” she concluded

University proves insect value in nutrition and alleviating food waste

By Irene Best Nyapendi
The Uganda Christian University (UCU) Faculty of Agricultural Sciences has teamed up with crickets – the insect and not the sport – in a successfully piloted food chain project that alleviates hunger and malnutrition.  The ‘Food Waste-2-Cricket Feed’ enterprise produces cricket feed from food waste and then turns the insects into a nutritious food supplement.

The UCU agriculture research team, led by Geoffrey Ssepuuya, a senior lecturer, established that there is a daily production of 768 metric tons of food waste in Kampala.

The project aimed at developing a processing protocol for converting food waste to a safe and shelf-stable cricket feed. It was funded by the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST). Florence Agwang, the grants officer at UNCST, says the undertaking was especially viable because the country has long struggled with waste management. 

“If this project succeeds and is able to get support from the government, we shall be able to greatly reduce the problem of waste in Uganda,” Agwang says.

The project involves collecting food waste from the UCU university dining hall in addition to remains from restaurants, hotels and markets.

Collected food waste such as bananas, rice, etc. is heat treated, dried, ground into powder and mixed according to predetermined formulation proportions into feed for the crickets. The crickets are reared in aerated food containers and provided with hide-outs because the crickets are nocturnal (comfortable in dark places).

In a bid to ensure sustainable cricket production in the country, the project is working towards continued production and distribution of this low cost “protein and micro–nutrient rich cricket feed.” The developed cricket feed is nutritious with a performance similar to that of broiler starter mash. With the formulated feeds, the crickets require 8 – 10 weeks to mature, while with local feeds, crickets take about 12 weeks to mature. 

Crickets can be used to enrich the diet with protein and other nutrients when added to the daily meals. It is a common practice in Uganda to eat fried insects such as crickets and grasshoppers. In this project, crickets, which have more protein than fish and beef, are ground to be mixed with staple flours for porridge and food. 

“Instead of consuming cassava bread that is only about 2% protein or even less, communities can supplement it with crickets which are 50 – 65 % rich in proteins,” Ssepuuya says. “So, with the feeds now available they can rear the crickets, dry them under the sun, grind them into powder and add the protein rich powder to their food.” 

The most common sources of proteins such as meat, milk and chicken are not affordable to many Ugandans, yet it can now be redeemed from eating crickets. 

Dr. John Livingstone Mutyaba, Head of Agriculture (Postgraduate), explained that rearing crickets can be a new source of income for farmers through rearing and selling them. Crickets (Acheta domesticus) lay hundreds of eggs, which makes them multiply in a very short time.

Mutyaba says unlike what some commonly believe, crickets are not demanding in terms of housing and food.

The biggest challenge is feed in addition to proper management of heat and humidity. This is because crickets are more comfortable in dark places, and during cold days, they need heat.

There also is a need for labor and sufficient space to dry the crickets when they reach maturity. This is because they are best when dried before consumption.

The project is also supporting research by students like Derrick Kizito Okettayot, a fourth-year student of Food Science and Technology. To Okettayot, crickets are a delicacy.

“When I was young, we used to pick a few crickets hiding under the grass, roast and eat them,” Okettayot recalls. “I used to eat them in small quantities because they were rare, but I am so glad that I have now learned how to rear crickets, and I can now have enough of them.”

He adds that one can even blend crickets with fruits to make a protein shake.

“This is a win-win solution when we use food waste to feed the crickets and later feed on the crickets, so the food waste comes back to us in a different format to benefit us and the insects,” Dr. Rose Mary Bulyaba, the dean of the Faculty of Agricultural Science says.