MSI: Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI)

Alan Anderson

An important component of the Uganda Millennium Science Initiative is the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI). UIRI does little research, but serves primarily as an industrial incubator, moving products to a more marketable stage, training entrepreneurs in various technology-related skills, and transferring technology to the private sector. A national priority is the development of technical skills at this “artisanal” or very small business scale, although some of their work and instrumentation is highly advanced.

UIRI is a beneficiary of the MSI, having received some $4 million to upgrade the entire facility. I lost count of the new and renovated buildings, additions, air conditioners, offices, auditoriums, stairways, laboratories, scientific instruments, computers, benches, workshops, and shop machines that have transformed the campus in the past two years. A biology lab has been separated into a biology lab and a biotechnology lab. An industrial research center that was empty is now bustling with activity. A new auditorium hosts meetings and a large machine building produces complex products for training and businesses.

Before UIRI began all this work, they conducted surveys across the country to determine what kinds of industries to strengthen or initiate. Clearly, the agricultural sector, which employs some 80 percent of Ugandans (President Museveni’s father raised cattle), was the place to start, so they looked at how they could add value to what farmers and artisanal sellers of products were doing. They found that many people tried to process juice, for example, but at very elementary levels, without quality controls and with much waste. The same was true for making bread, sausage, yogurt, and a tea from avocado pits that is said to help prevent malaria. UIRI set up processing facilities for all these and other products and began bringing people in to learn the use of modern processing equipment and methods, as well as basic business principles.

A goal of UIRI is to help businesses find ways to add value to products – another national priority. For example, during the early survey it became clear that the Ugandan steel industry was primarily exporting scrap and importing processed steel. The industry is now prepared to adjust this mix in favor of local processing, although investment is needed to make this happen. Similarly, UIRI is teaching people to manufacture a vaccine for Newcastle disease, a widespread plague of chickens. Today the only vaccine available is imported, but because it is too expensive for local farmers, no one uses it.

Another major effort is chemical analysis of food products. In order to export to the EU and other global markets, Ugandan manufacturers have to demonstrate food safety, which requires sophisticated instrumentation and is usually done by foreign firms. Food testing is now being taught at UIRI, thanks to a range of new analytical equipment (e.g., Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, high-performance liquid chromatography, spectrophotometry) made possible by MSI funding.

A lower-technology, but equally useful strategy is UIRI’s effort to teach farmers, carpenters, machinists, and others to use the impressive new UIRI equipment (lathes, metal benders, milling machines) and even to build their own machines. They learn not only how to make sausage, bread and yogurt, but also how to operate and sometimes build the equipment used to make it. “Industry is always complaining about not having enough skilled people,” said Dr. Kwesiga. “We are teaching these skills. We are also making equipment that formerly we would have had to import – in other words, we wouldn’t have it at all.” For example, they are making looms of many sizes to spin silk from silkworms, and using a home-made mechanical bamboo splitter to make toothpicks, mats, bowls, and other products from mountain bamboo. Some students are making handmade paper for bags and other products from banana, pineapple, sisal, wheat, and many other plants.

Although the continuation of MSI funding for UIRI is uncertain, Dr. Charles Kwesiga, the executive director, is nonetheless ecstatic with his upgraded facility. “If the MSI had not done anything else but this,” he said, “it would still be a dream come true.”
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Several years ago, the World Bank financed a major Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) program to help strengthen science and technology capacity in Uganda. Approximately half of this investment, the Bank's largest S&T commitment to date, supports a competitive grants program for a variety of university research projects. The financing supports stipends and fees for graduate students, faculty salary supplements, research equipment, and infrastructure. Another major portion is dedicated to transferring technical knowledge to the private sector through academic-business linkages and educational activities for farmers, health workers, and small-business people. The MSI program resembles RISE in providing full support for MSc and PhD students, which is extremely difficult to secure in Africa. The August 2010 blog post series illustrates some of the activities supported by the MSI.

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