Geneticist Priver Namanya Bwesigye is head of the National Banana Program at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), an agency of Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry, and Fisheries. She joined the organization, based in Entebbe, in 1994 as a research assistant. In 2010, she earned a PhD in biotechnology from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia, through a programme called Banana21, a collaboration between QUT and NARO. Sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, the programme seeks to increase the micronutrients in Uganda’s staple food, the East Africa Highland banana. While at QUT, Namanya learnt genetic modification (GM) techniques, which she has used to train NARO scientists trying to improve the banana’s nutritional value and hardiness.
You’ve spent your entire working life at NARO. What route did your career take?
I had a kind undergraduate supervisor, Doreen Kabasindi, who also worked at NARO as a botanist. She encouraged me to apply for the research-assistant post.
My first job was investigating how to breed a banana variety that would be resistant to infection by nematode worms. You could choose projects from genetics, entomology, pathology and microscopy. Later, I chose plant genetic resources because I had been fascinated by taxonomy during my undergraduate time at university. Then later, while at NARO, my supervisor Eldad Karamura encouraged my interest in plant tissue culture.
How has your work at NARO influenced your training?
I came to NARO with a bachelor’s degree from Makerere University in Kampala. In 2004, I got my master’s degree from there in genetics and molecular biology. I have also trained in Germany, Sweden, Belgium and the United States.
It took me 16 years to go from my bachelor’s degree to my PhD because doing advanced training while also holding a government research position depends on the availability of funds. Much of that funding comes from donors and might be available when it is tagged to research areas of high interest. My interest was in biotechnology.
How have you used the biotechnology knowledge you acquired in the National Banana Program?
Much of my work has been in the tissue-culture laboratory, where we grow bananas from plant cells because most edible bananas don’t have seeds to propagate. We select cells of interest from the different varieties of banana and put them on a medium to grow under controlled lighting and temperature conditions into multiple banana plantlets. This is called micropropagation. This technology is important because we can screen and select cells free of disease. We also use it to multiply hybrid plants developed through conventional breeding.
We have been able to release seven improved hybrid banana varieties, which are already with the farmers. They are high-yielding and resistant to pests and diseases, including the common condition banana bacterial wilt.
But hybridization has drawbacks because new hybrid cells can come with unwanted traits. Newer technology, such as genetic engineering, does a superb job compared with hybridization, because it selects only the traits of interest. The cells from the male bud are inoculated with a gene of interest to form embryos that then develop into plantlets.
The genetic-engineering breeding programme has also allowed us to increase the level of vitamin A in one variety of bananas fourfold. We are currently field-testing this banana to see how it grows at multiple locations in different ecological zones. This helps to address the challenge of vitamin A deficiency in people who rely on this staple food, and could boost the immune systems of women of reproductive age and children in particular.
There is resistance to genetic engineering in Uganda — why do you think that is?
Many people here have misperceptions about genetic engineering. First, people think we are playing God. Second, they allege that we are working for multinational agricultural corporations to help them dominate the seed industry. But this is not true. And because some hybrids are not palatable, some people have a negative view of any new product from NARO.
But much of this is based on ignorance and misinformation. For us, GM technology helps us to breed with precision.
We need a bunch of knowledgeable science-communication champions to educate the public on the benefits of GM technology. The lack of a Ugandan law to regulate the development and promotion of GM products under the framework of the Cartagena protocol — an international biosafety agreement adopted in 2003 — has hindered our work. It is very frustrating to see your wonder product not reaching the farmer. Maybe if farmers saw the advantages of the new GM varieties, they would adopt them.
How do you balance the demands of being a researcher, mother and wife?
For me, the most important part is having a supportive husband. My two children are not abandoned, and they are also trained to be well rounded — they help in the kitchen and they do their own laundry. The challenge is that I have only one head for everything: work, wife and mother. My principle is that I try as much as possible to work from the institute. When I leave work, I am wife and mother. I don’t engage in many social activities. My weekend is for my family. I am lucky that I have an extended family and that I live with relatives who are supportive.