‘Import substitution the way to go’

07 May, 2023 - 00:05 0 Views
‘Import substitution the way to go’

The Sunday Mail

Government has expanded the Tobacco Research Board (TRB)’s mandate to include facilitation of research into the production of diverse and alternative crops, especially in the wake of a growing global anti-tobacco lobby. TRB is undergoing a re-branding exercise.

The Sunday Mail’s THESEUS SHAMBARE (TS) spoke to TRB chief executive officer Dr Frank Magama (FM) on the re-branding exercise and the organisation’s new mandate.

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TS: You were recently appointed TRB chief executive officer. What is your vision for the organisation as you embark on this journey?

FM: My vision is for the Tobacco Research Board (TRB) to become and be recognised as the focal centre for national tobacco research, development and innovation.

My strategic focus is not only fixed on tobacco research but also alternative crops, and alternate uses of tobacco.

Regarding alternatives, we will introduce new and profitable crops such as hemp, chia and stevia in tobacco enterprises.

Under alternates, we are focusing on using tobacco crops as biofactories for the production and extraction of high-value medical, pharmaceutical and industrial compounds.

Thus, my vision is for TRB to become an innovation and technology centre for agricultural profitability and development.

TS: The institution is reportedly undergoing a rebranding exercise. Kindly take us through what this process entails.

FM: Indeed, the institution is in the process of rebranding, which is now at an advanced stage.

In the coming weeks, TRB will be unveiling its new logo and payoff line to our stakeholders.

TS: What has motivated the re-branding?

FM: Government, which is our main stakeholder, recognised the institution’s enormous potential and instructed us to play a vital role in achieving Vision 2030 through implementation of strategies such as the National Development Strategy 1 (NDS 1), the Agriculture and Food Systems Transformation Strategy, the Tobacco Value Chain Transformation Plan, and the Zimbabwe Horticulture Recovery and Growth Plan.

TRB was established in 1950 with the singular objective of directing, controlling and carrying out tobacco research in Zimbabwe.

This mandate has since been expanded by the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development to include the following: researching and pioneering the use of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies in agricultural production; conducting biopharming research; researching into methods and techniques for climate-proofing of crops; development of cannabis and industrial hemp varieties suitable for Zimbabwe’s climatic conditions and which meet market requirements; and production of certified seed potato, with the objective of achieving national self-sufficiency in potato production.

Our current brand identity does not reflect TRB’s broadened scope of activities, and this has necessitated a brand rejuvenation.

TS: Considering that you are now branching out into other crops, will this not harm the quality and quantity of the tobacco seed you produce?

FM: Diversification will not affect tobacco seed production.

Tobacco seed will continue to be produced such that, at any given time, there is five years’ worth of supply.

The model is mainly outgrower-based, hence, seed production standards, especially isolation, will continue to be met and satisfied.

Seed Services will continue to monitor and inspect seed crops and also do seed quality tests as per the Seed Act and its enabling regulations.

The TRB skills group responsible for tobacco seed production will be maintained.

TRB is already well-positioned to discharge an expanded mandate.

TRB had expanded the scope of its activities by venturing into commercial production of agro-products, notably seedbed inputs (float trays, Floatfert and Gromix); plant tissue culture; GMO (genetically modified organism) testing and biological control agents.

In addition to re-branding, TRB is also restructuring to ensure that internal capacity, capabilities and competencies generate requisite efficiencies for the delivery of seamless products and services.

TS: Which other crop seeds are you going to be producing?

FM: Government is saddled with a huge import bill for seeds of various horticultural crops and in response, the TRB built a state-of-the-art tissue culture lab and greenhouses to enable the production of various clones and seedlings of horticultural crops.

Through this facility, Kutsaga (Research Station) can now comfortably supply propagules of Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, avocados and blueberries, among many crops that could be grown in Zimbabwe.

However, Irish and sweet potatoes have taken centre stage since they have been declared strategic crops by the Government.

TRB was the seed source for the recent launch of the National Irish Potato Production Programme by the First Lady, Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa, in Nyanga for the Agric4She initiative meant to benefit women.

Additionally, to date, TRB has supplied well over three million sweet potato plant lets towards the Presidential Rural Horticultural Scheme for planting in village nutritional gardens.

TRB is also embarking on an accelerated gum seedling production project to produce seedlings for the afforestation programme.

This blitz is part of the Tobacco Value Chain Transformation Strategy and is aimed at ensuring that all tobacco growers establish a wood lot for tobacco curing to curb deforestation.

TRB has been producing and supplying gum seedlings to growers since 2011 and has mastered the requisite skill and is well-positioned to produce and supply gum seedlings to growers at the planned massive scale.

We also have plans to produce industrial hemp seed in the long term after our Plant Breeding Division completes current projects on developing varieties suited to the Zimbabwean environment.

Industrial hemp is envisaged as one of the economically sustainable alternative crops to tobacco, in line with Articles 17 and 18 of the WHO (World Health Organisation) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

TS: Considering that you are now widening your scope, do we expect to see you hiring more people?

FM: In light of the most recent human resource skills audit, we appeared to possess the necessary skills for the majority of the operations that were planned.

These are the skills that will be redeployed to certain teams, departments or sectors.

I must say retaining these skills in our current environment has been a huge challenge.

However, we shall have to recruit skills that include analytical thinking and innovation, big data, project management and software development.

We are also in conversation with like-minded training institutions to collaborate in areas of industrial hemp genetics and breeding, Irish potato cultivar selection and agronomy, and crop modelling for the areas under production and yield estimation.

TS: Is TRB going to open more research stations?

FM: In addition to the Kutsaga Research Station, we also operate two smaller outposts in Banket and Makoholi, Masvingo.

These have now been dedicated to hemp research and new crop research.

The Masvingo site is ideal for breeding climate-resilient tobacco varieties.

However, we shall request from our parent ministry land for a dedicated potato breeding and seed multiplication centre to allow full-throttle research into adaptable and high-yielding potato genetics.

We have accessed 31 potato varieties from the International Potato Centre in Peru for these studies.

TS: What is your plan regarding contribution to the attainment of Vision 2030?

FM: Our vision is to contribute to the economic prosperity of Zimbabwean farmers through a vibrant, relevant, practical, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable process of insightful research, development and technology transfer.

TRB is one of the key contributors to the Agriculture and Food Systems Transformation Strategy aimed at accelerating agriculture production, productivity and profitability.

This plan is aligned with NDS 1 and Vision 2030.

This plan is backed by intensive research by the TRB to enable tobacco profitability, while at the same time enhancing sustainability in the production processes.

TRB’s Irish potato seed production programme contributes massively towards the Potato Value Chain Financing Facility launched by the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development.

This facility is an import substitution intervention aimed at boosting productivity and profitability in the potato value chain as well as expanding the starch options for the country.

TRB’s Kutsaga station has a state-of-the-art tissue culture facility and greenhouses for the production and supply of elite, disease-free seed potato tubers to potato growers in this scheme.

In addition to seed potato, the facilities also produce other horticultural planting materials in support of Zimbabwe’s Horticulture Recovery and Growth Plan.

All these projects will directly contribute to the ministry’s strategy of transforming Zimbabwe’s agriculture to accelerate the attainment of Vision 2030 through the implementation of NDS1.

TS: What successes have been realised as a result of the New Dispensation?

FM: The economic empowerment of rural communities through programmes such as Pfumvudza/Intwasa, and the Presidential Rural Horticultural Scheme that was initiated and promoted by the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development to ensure household and national food self-sufficiency.

In the face of climate change, the New Dispensation has put in place mechanisms for enhanced agricultural productivity through dam construction, dam rehabilitation and provision of irrigation infrastructure to farming communities.

These irrigation schemes have already transformed some households from subsistence to commercial agriculture.

Dam construction and rehabilitation have also enabled the diversification of farming activities through fish farming.

It is envisaged that the 1 200 dams in the country will create over 50 000 fish farmers countrywide by 2025.

This will not only improve nutrition but also add to the various commercial projects available to the 1,8 million rural farming households.

The Tobacco Value Chain Transformation Plan has set in motion activities that will ensure that, for as long as its production is internationally acceptable, tobacco remains a strategic foreign currency earner for the country.

However, the plan also incorporates an agricultural crop diversification plan that allows growers to cultivate commercial food and alternative crops to tobacco.

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