After nearly 20 yrs at the helm of Uganda’s cassava breeding, Dr. Robert Kawuki has taken on a new position as a Research Scientist and Scientific Partnership Manager for Asia & Africa at the World Coffee Research (WCR), Dr. Robert Kawuki has been the team leader of cassava breeding at NaCRRI since 2004. This outgoing Senior Principal Research Officer moves-on from a productive career journey in which he has led research on development and release of 9 elite cassava varieties in the past two decades. The first 7 varieties released in 2011 were very instrumental together with other integrated pest management strategies in containing the then notorious cassava mosaic disease reversing it from the national average incidence of 64% in 1994 to 17% by 2013.
“The epidemic had wiped out more than 500 land races of cassava”, he reminisces. Following the release of two varieties (NAROCASS1 and NAROCASS2) released in 2015, NAROCASS1., has become a household name in cassava industry impacting Uganda and across boarder in Rwanda, Congo, Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania owing to their resilience to Cassava Brown Streak and industrial applicability.
“I can comfortably say that almost 80% of cassava grown are improved varieties that come from NARO and where I have contributed. So, I look back and it gives me pride,” Dr. Kawuki says beaming with excitement.
Dr. Kawuki is a celebrated researcher and academic in the cassava circles who leaves behind a legacy.
He boosts of successfully supervising and mentoring several staff, 5 PhDs, 13 Masters, 4 post-doc students and 71 scientific publications. He is mostly proud of driving cassava towards industrial application. “I’ve led a team to make sure that cassava can be utilized in the brewing industry and varieties that we released i.e., NASE 14 and NAROCAS 1 are being used in the brewing industry for making beer,” he says
Dr. Kawuki started off his career in soybean research as part of his graduate project for master’s degree. “In that graduate study, I worked on soya bean rust, which by then was a big problem in Uganda and in fact that work led to release of MAKSOY 1N one of the varieties that was released to contain the soya bean rust epidemics”.
As he exits, he leaves behind a challenge for the cassava research team to develop a variety suitable for high-altitude communities, an area where progress has been slow. “The cassava varieties that we have released so far are mainly adapted to the mid-altitude and low lands and we haven’t made progress to go to high land areas, so that is an unfinished journey during my career in cassava breeding,” Dr. Kawuki says.
He holds a PhD in plant breeding and genetics acquired from University of the Pre state South Africa.
Dr. Kawuki who hails from a farming background. On why he is leaving cassava to coffee, Dr. Kawuki shares his long-harbored career objectives especially anchored on his family history. “I have had growth plans which have got a historical association. I come from a farming family that depended on coffee and it’s a crop now which isn’t at its best. I think that innovations in cassava can be utilized in coffee to make it very more competitive,” he says.
Senior Principle Social Economist – Dr. Anton Bua who has been Dr. Kawuki’s long-term supervisor and mentor reminisces on his journey since scouting him as a talent that would immensely benefit cassava research. “Robert has delivered but the last 19 years. He is very professional and reliable in the way he operates. Our breeding team has many times been described as the best in Africa,” Dr. Bua reveals.
Many describe him as a man of impact, humility and generosity. NaCRRI Director-Dr. Godfrey Asea describes him as professionally productive and exceptionally person who has especially excelled during the implementation of the NextGeneration Cassava Project for the last 8years. “Because of his leadership, Uganda is one of the best implementers of the NextGen Project. He has impacted many in many ways especially through his perspectives as a breeder, mentoring others and to the organization as a whole,” Dr. Asea says.
At the WCR Dr. Kawuki is now responsible for co-developing breeding strategies with other scientists and its institutional partners, designing and applying modern breeding techniques, compiling and analyzing data to facilitate high throughput screening and selection, designing and executing independent projects in support of WCR’s goals in modernizing variety systems, and providing scientific and technical advice. Dr. Kawuki is replaced by Dr. Williams Esuma another seasoned breeder with a PhD in Plant Breeding and Genetics from the University of the Free State in South Africa. He is currently a Senior Research Officer and has been a cassava researcher for over seven years; leading various breeding activities on cassava and yam. He has expertise in plant breeding, genomics selection, data management, gender-responsive agriculture, and research management. Dr. Esuma is passionate about improving crop yields through innovative breeding techniques and is dedicated to ensuring food security in Africa.