Close to his retirement age, Johnnie Ebiyau still lights the torch of breeding Epuripur sorghum and its four other sister strains.
Ebiyau strikes a visitor as an earnest, passionate scientist, keen on making a difference among sorghum farmers. In a country where scientists are hard to get, Ebiyau prides himself as the third-best scientist when it comes to breeding cereal crops on the continent.
“In Uganda here at the moment, I am the only one who can do this. I am mentoring two more, and at the moment, the institution has sent them for further training in South Africa,” says the soft-spoken and humble Ebiyau.
Nationwide, many cereal crops are bred in Serere, with sorghum taking the biggest percentage, given its use of brewing beer and consumption as food by both human beings and animals. Epuripur is used basically to brew Eagle and Senator lagers, all by Nile Breweries Limited.
Ebiyau, a senior research officer with the National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute (NASSARI), walks with the aid of a metallic crutch that he dramatically swings around to show that his disability is not inability.
Not his dream
“I never, at first, thought of studying agriculture,” says Ebiyau, who holds a master’s degree in Agriculture, majoring on cereal crop breeding. He studied Botany and Zoology as his first degree in Makerere University in 1979 but picked interest studying agriculture after realising that there were few scientists in this field. He chose to specialise in sorghum research, a research work that has bolstered sorghum-farming in the country.
He went for his master’s degree in crop science at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria which he finished in 1992; a degree that he says has since changed his life and the way he views scientific research. Besides his degree courses, Ebiyau has attended several short courses such as information generation and management for sorghum and millet research and development domains in Kenya.
He also learnt about genetic basis of mutations and related biotechnologies for crop improvement at Silesisn University, Katowice, Poland. Born in Ngora, a rural part of Kumi district, Ebiyau says sorghum, mostly Epuripur, annually earns farmers a total of Shs 8bn after selling it to Nile Breweries. Teso sub-region, Ngora in particular, is reputed for sorghum-growing.
“I fell in love with sorghum since it is the third-most important staple cereal food crop in Uganda, occupying 265,000 hectares of arable land,” Ebiyau says.
The crop is grown mainly in the southwestern highland and in the lowland areas of the eastern and northern regions of Uganda. According to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), while the area planted with sorghum remained stable, the production decreased from 467,000 tonnes in 1975 to 430,000 tonnes in 2002.
In collaboration with the Serere Agricultural and Animal Production Research Institute (SAARI), samples of six sorghum varieties were collected in 2001 and taken to South Africa for grain-quality analysis and trials on a pilot brewing plant in Johannesburg. This process involved the use of exogenous enzymes, which are added to the mash to achieve starch conversion and to yield a fermentable extract.
In the same year, Nile Breweries Limited (NBL) decided to brew a quality beer for the Ugandan market, based on local ingredients. This was viewed as means to reduce foreign exchange payments because all ingredients used in the brewery industry were imported from Europe. The weakness and volatility of the Uganda shilling, the high transport costs and the tax structure added considerably to the cost of producing beer.
Sorghum appeared a useful alternative to some of the beer ingredients. A detailed survey of the Uganda sorghum-growing industry was undertaken in July 2001 by NBL to determine the size of the industry, the cultivators where sorghum-growing was prevalent and what support infrastructure existed.
The survey showed that sorghum was widely grown in Uganda, but that the annual tonnage had been declining for some time as a result of lack of available market as sorghum was used only for food and brewing at household level. The dominant varieties were red sorghums, which were unsuitable for beer brewing purposes.
However, Ebiyau says they released improved sorghum varieties, most especially brown and white varieties, which had potential to be utilised in the brewery industry. These include Sekedo 1995, Epuripur 1995, SESO1 2012, SESO2 2012, and SESO3 2012. With all the varieties in offing, Ebiyau comes off as a scientist with a knack for turning every seed into gold as sorghum farmers have reaped big from Nile breweries.
These sorghum hybrids provide different tastes, give resistance to crops and pests and result in increased yields. He says the biggest challenge facing sorghum is striga, which, he says, is the deadliest weed. Productivity of sorghum remains low in Uganda due to drought and the poisonous striga.
Ebiyau explains that “in Uganda, the striga-infested area is estimated at 107,798 (ha) by mainly striga hermonthica and striga asiatica, causing yield losses of about 60 to 100 per cent under severe field infestation.”
One striga plant produces over 50,000 seeds and can remain dormant and viable in the soil for up to 20 years. Ebiyau was, eventually, made a principal investigator, charged with evaluating and promoting the integrated striga management project in sorghum for Teso and Lango farming systems by the National Agricultural Research Organisation, a project that was funded by UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).
He says if a farmer manages to eliminate striga in his farm, he will significantly increase the production of sorghum. He quickly adds that there is no single method that can effectively control striga, but an integrated approach is an acceptable solution for subsistence farmers where the parasite is endemic.
The only option that a farmer has is to plant resistant varieties, intercropping sorghum with legumes, crop rotation, and soil fertility improvement methods can be used to control striga in sorghum.
“We get funds from other development partners, but that is not enough, my humble prayer is for government of Uganda and other stakeholders such as Nile breweries, and other companies that use sorghum for making beer come to support this initiative, Ebiyau notes, warning that “if they failed, then Ugandans are likely to see the production of sorghum drastically fall, hence even the production of beer will also be greatly affected.”
Ebiyau says improved and certified sorghum breeds fetch a higher price than regular seeds but are the way to go.
“And for us to be able to maintain these seeds, we do not discard the traditional seeds, we keep growing them also so that we can maintain the original seeds,” he said.
But Ebiyau says the difference is vast between the two.
“What they sell is not seed but grain. The word seed is a symbol of quality and potential. Improved seed is always expensive because it has to be produced and packaged hygienically to ensure it meets the scientific standards.”
Ebiyau says farmers can find bred seeds at their local agro-dealers, where seed companies stock them. For farmers to know which variety they need in their village and region, they can go to their local agro-dealer and get the information.
A satisfied life
“My career as a plant-breeder is something I enjoy so much. When I was young, I was very accurate at measuring where to plant the seeds and my parents preferred me to be the one doing the work as they would always come out in the right order. I actually liked agriculture, and I didn’t even think I would do it professionally,” he says.
Ebiyau has received many awards, shelved in his office, in recognition for his outstanding achievement in cereal breeding. He recently came third as the best scientist, after scientists from South Africa and Zimbabwe.
As for the enchantment that has enabled Ebiyau succeed in cereal plants innovation, he cites determination, passion and hard work as the key attributes, as well as encouragement from parents, family and workmates. He highly recognises Dr Joseph Oryokot, the former agricultural director of Serere district and later the deputy director, National Agricultural Advisory Services (Naads), for mentoring him and making him what he is today.