MSI Crop Science: A Public-Private Partnership Produces a 'Milk-Booster' for Cows

by Alan Anderson
3 August 2010
While dairy farming is a major contributor to the economy and nutritional needs of Uganda, dairy farmers face an annual challenge when milk production drops sharply each dry season. The Department of Crop Science at Makerere University has apparently found a remedy, and is eager to apply it through a rare public-private partnership. But whether such a partnership, which is currently mired in a debate over intellectual property rights, can serve as a model for other projects in Uganda remains to be seen.
The goal of the partnership is to produce a feed supplement for dairy cows, and that part of the project seems to be successful. The key ingredient of the formulation is molasses, which the cows like to eat. Once the researchers had determined the best formula, which includes urea, maize bran, cottonseed cake, lime, and salt, they assembled several partners to begin testing. In 2006, Fred Kabi and others in the department learned that a sugar factory was interested in forming a public-private partnership (PPP), and they began talks with Kakira Sugar Works of Jinja, on the shores of Lake Victoria; the Dairy Development Fund (a dairy farmers’ collective), and the Kakira Out-Growers Rural Development Fund (independent growers of sugar cane). The Kakira Sugar Works was eager to participate and contribute the molasses, and a plan was mapped out. The collaborators spoke briefly about ownership of the resulting supplement, but the discussion did not reach the point of specifics.
Once Kakira Sugar developed a process to manufacture the formula, the Crop Science researchers began controlled testing in five large districts, in collaboration with the dairy farmers. The results turned out to be better than expected. Cows that received 1 kg of the “milk booster” supplement per day gave 35.7 percent more milk than control cows that received no supplement. After this success, the researchers began to contemplate a similar booster for beef cattle, which also suffered during the dry season. This would also require molasses, and hence the cooperation of the sugar plant, because the cows do not respond to the supplement without sweetener.
However, while the partnership was trying to develop a fair price for the supplement, Kakira Sugar announced that it should be entitled to profits that were generated by sales of the supplement, because it was the manufacturer and provider of the essential ingredient. Dr. Kabi, head of the Department of Crop Science, has consulted with the legal staff of Makerere, but has received little guidance or legal opinion – partly because there are so few precedents for negotiating IP rights between academics and private partners. He acknowledges that he will benefit by publishing his supplement work in the scientific literature, because academic promotions depend on publications. But he also says that he would “like to get the royalties” as well. So all parties are in the difficult place of breaking new ground.
“Public-private partnerships are very rare here,” said Dr. Kabi. “We have actually gone a step further than others. In reading the literature, this is a problem all over the world. I’m not an expert in negotiating, and the sugar company has many lawyers. They say, ‘You are an academic, you don’t really need any money, you can just publish.’ But that is not a very good answer.”
Meanwhile, the research on feed and negotiations with the farmers continue.

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.