FinCEAL+ Grantee Story: Dr. Haukka’s trip to Uganda for LEAP-Agri Proposal development

LEAP-Agri call was opened earlier this year to attract proposals for long term EU-Africa research and innovation partnerships on food and nutrition security and sustainable agriculture. Our Sustainable Intensification of Aquaculture in Africa (SAquA) preliminary proposal was accepted to the second application round.

The consortium involves partners from Finland (main coordinator Dr. Marko Virta, University of Helsinki), Norway, Germany, Spain, Uganda, Ghana and Kenya. Makerere University from Uganda is a key partner and their team is led by Prof. Denis Byarugaba. Since there are no former links in this field of science between University of Helsinki and Makerere University, SAquA project’s coordinator Dr. Kaisa Haukka applied for a FinCEAL travel grant to visit the Makerere University in Uganda to form a closer collaborative link.

In addition to discussions on the LEAP-Agri proposal, the visit program also included two field trips to fish farms.

Discussions with researchers at the Makerere University

Prof. Byarugaba and Samuel Wamala work at the Makerere University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resource and Bio-security. Prof. Byarugaba is a microbiologist by education and is involved in many public health –related projects. One of the ongoing projects is the study on fish diseases, where Samuel Wamala is pursuing his PhD. He is currently writing the last publications to his thesis, which has been done in Uganda and in Norwey, at the University of Oslo. His topic is the bacterial diseases of cultured fish in Uganda. Fish farming is a growing business in Uganda, suitable to both small-scale farmers, who operate a few earthern ponds, and to middle-scale aquaculture businesses, who operate fish cages in Lake Victoria. However, very little has been known about the causing agents of the bacterial or viral diseases in the country. Yet, these diseases can have devastating effects on fish growth; they can stunt the fish or even kill them all in an infected batch.

We toured the college premises and laboratories meeting with researchers with similar interests to ours. The laboratories were small but well-equipped with modern molecular biology equipment in active use by the researchers and technicians. We also paid a courtesy visit to Dr. Robert Tweyongyere, who is the Dean of the College. We discussed Wamala’s manuscripts in detail, e.g. the antimicrobial resistance properties in the Aeromonas sp. strains that he has isolated and characterized. Aeromonasis a common fish pathogen in the warm waters. With another PhD student, Kalule John Bosco, I discussed the STEC and other foodborne pathogens.

I also met with Dr. Bernard Erima, who works closely together with hospital laboratories in the western part of Uganda. With him it would be possible to collect human pathogenic bacteria that could be whole-genome sequenced in collaboration with Prof. Jukka Corander (University of Helsinki and University of Oslo). For this initiative money is available immediately. We agreed that I will send a draft agreement text to the Ugandans to comment and if accepted, we will start collaboration.

Most importantly, we had two opportunities to discuss the requirements for the LEAP-Agri second round application. The requirements to the Ugandan partner differ from the others, since they need to show that their plan includes a product at the proof-of–concept stage and that the product can be taken to the commercialization stage during the project. We discussed this requirement and how to respond to it. Prof. Byatugaba had a very clear vision on how the work should be carried out by the Ugandan partner. We agreed on the best approaches on the various application points and Prof. Byarugaba will write them down on the proposal form provided by me asap.

Growing tilapia in cages in Lake Victoria

Visits to the fish farms

Together with Wamala and a driver we set off to visit two types of fish farms, the visits were facilitated by the fisheries officer Olofoi Stephen, who accompanied us. The first visit was to a farm, whose owner started digging earth ponds three years ago, and has been successful in cultivating fish in them and he is currently expanding his farm by having more ponds dug. He is cultivating tilapia and now also catfish, which grow bigger. He has not experienced any diseases in his ponds yet, and as main challenges he sees the poor availability of local quality feeds and the lack of fish storage facilities. Therefore he only catches the fish after customer’s order, the local school being the main customer.

The second place to visit was a fish farm growing tilapia in cages in Lake Victoria, indicated to us by Mulambi Romulus, the principal Mucono District fisheries officer. We made a boat trip to Lake Victoria to see the cages, a dozen cages with 8 m diametre. The owner told that they have not faced any diseases either. They feed the fish with feeds imported from Brazil and Malaysia, the local feeds they have tried have been unsatisfactory. They also would wish to have local quality feeds available.

The trip to see the fish farms took a whole day but was very informative. The farmers were knowledgeable, although they had not received formal training to aquaculture. Based on their experience on the lack of local quality feeds, this is an important component of our LEAP-Agri project plan also in Uganda, although the disease prevention by developing suitable fish vaccines is the main aim of Prof. Byarugaba’s team.

Text and photos: Kaisa Haukka, University of Helsinki