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Aphids, leafhoppers and whiteflies are responsible for the spread of diseases causing significant crop yield losses globally. On 5 July 2017, the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub hosted a symposium to explore ways in which the knowledge of plants, disease-causing organisms and their vectors can be used to combat devastating crop diseases in Africa.

Stephen Runo of Kenyatta University (left) with JIC scientists Beccy Corkill, Olu Shorinola and Sam Mugford (photo JIC/Matt Heaton)
Stephen Runo of Kenyatta University (left) with JIC scientists Beccy Corkill, Olu Shorinola and Sam Mugford (photo JIC/Matt Heaton)

In sub Saharan Africa, the aphid-transmitted bean viruses—bean common mosaic virus (BCMV) and bean common mosaic necrosis virus (BCMNV)—cause up to 100 percent losses for smallholder bean farmers. Growers of cassava—a staple food for over 250 million people— experience losses of up to 23 million tonnes annually across Africa due to disease caused by whitefly-transmitted Cassava mosaic viruses.

In the face of increased regulations on the use of pesticides, a better understanding of the plant-microbe-vector interactions could lead to the development of urgently needed bio pest-controls. The July forum brought together researchers from the BecA-ILRI Hub, Kenyatta University, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Auburn University and North Carolina State University based in Africa; and the John Innes Centre (JIC) from UK.

From left to right: Josiah Mutuku (BecA-ILRI Hub), Olu Shorinola (JIC), Steven Runo (Kenyatta University), Beccy Corkill (JIC) and Sam Mugford (JIC) at the BecA-ILRI Hub greenhouses (photo: JIC/ Matt Heaton

From left to right: Josiah Mutuku (BecA-ILRI Hub), Olu Shorinola (JIC), Steven Runo (Kenyatta University), Beccy Corkill (JIC) and Sam Mugford (JIC) at the BecA-ILRI Hub greenhouses (photo: JIC/ Matt Heaton

The symposium was held under the Alliance for Accelerated Crop Improvement in Africa (ACACIA) initiative—a new initiative established to harness diverse research efforts for hastened crop improvement in Africa.

Read full story: Deciphering Plant-Insect Interactions on the ACACIA website.

Read about the ACACIA initiative: New initiative to accelerate crop improvement for food security in Africa

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In the ‘Land of a thousand hills’ where the largely steep landscape  has led to severe erosion, finding sufficient feed to support the growing dairy industry has been a major challenge to smallholder farmers.

However, a visit to farmers in Eastern and Southern provinces of Rwanda during the country’s dry season in July revealed that the climate smart Brachiaria grass—or ivugbwe as it is known locally—has the potential to extend forage availability throughout the year.

Rwandan dairy farmers have been participating in a research project to assess the performance of best bet varieties of Brachiaria grass for different agro-ecological regions in Rwanda. The Swedish funded project on ‘Climate smart Brachiaria grass to increase livestock production in East Africa’ was led by the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub and implemented in collaboration with the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB).

In this 5-minute video, the farmers talk about why Brachiaria grass has quickly become a favourite forage for their livestock.

Read original article on RAB website: Rwanda dairy farmers praise the climate smart ‘Ivugbwe’ grass  

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Goat in a market in Nigeria (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

Goat in a market in Nigeria (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

From 19–30 June 2017, the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub will host the third edition of the Animal Quantitative Genetics and Genomics annual training workshop. The training is strengthening the capacity of researchers in Africa to apply an in-depth understanding of livestock genetics to the design of livestock breeding programmes.

Early this month (8–12 May 2017) over 250 experts from the public and private sectors in more than 50 countries across the globe gathered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to discuss the benefits and potential of livestock during the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (GASL). The increasing demand for animal protein in emerging economies in Africa presents the challenge of sustainably improving livestock productivity while at the same time maintaining genetic diversity.

Since 2012, the BecA-ILRI Hub has been conducting research to improve performance of indigenous goats using their genetic diversity. Working in Cameroon and Ethiopia, the “Harnessing genetic diversity for improved goat productivity” project looked at the genetic adaptation of goat populations in the two countries to environmental challenges including drought and disease.

To Getinet Mekuriaw, an assistant professor at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia and a visiting scientist at the BecA-ILRI Hub, the key to sustainable development of livestock in Africa is in the optimal exploitation of genetic resources to improve indigenous breeds.

‘We have the evidence of a rich genetic resource in livestock in Africa, and particularly in indigenous goats,’ Mekuriaw said ‘the next step is investing in research that will link this intelligence to the design of trait-focused breeding programs.’

Mekuriaw’s PhD contributed largely to establishing the extent of diversity among indigenous goat breeds in the two countries of interest for the BecA-led research. He also investigated the genetic potential of the goat populations in adaptation, disease resistance, reproduction and hair fibre production.

Strategies to enhance livestock production–including exploiting the natural potential of local breeds–could greatly contribute to the realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through increased agricultural capacity in developing countries.

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Read more about the 7th Multi-stakeholder partnership meeting of the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock

Read related post – Cooperating with the future: Towards multiplying the multiple benefits of sustainable livestock 

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In an unconventional approach to science communications, a diverse group of scientists at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub take to the stage to illustrate their role in the march towards a food secure Africa.

Performed by the BecA-ILRI Hub staff, research fellows from African national programs and international collaborators, this 25 minute skit sheds light on how technology, partnerships and increased research capabilities of national agricultural researchers and institutions can bring about agricultural development in Africa.

The play dramatizes the role of the BecA-ILRI Hub and its national and international partners in bridging high-end research with practical solutions for smallholder farmers. Established as an African centre for excellence for agricultural biosciences, the BecA-ILRI Hub supports African national agricultural research institutes and universities enhance in harnessing bioscience technologies for sustainable agricultural development in Africa.

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Written by Tony Obua, African Biosciences Challenge Fund research fellow

Tony ObuaSince 2010, I have worked on developing soybean varieties with improved nutritional value and high yield. My passion for soybean research earned me a fellowship––the Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellowship––at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research (BecA-ILRI) Hub.

Through this fellowship, I am conducting in-depth analyses of five soybean varieties released by Makerere University and 95 elite soybean lines for different nutritional properties.

Owing to its increased use as human food and animal feed, soybean has great economic potential, which I want to help smallholder farmers in East Africa exploit. I am looking for a fast way of introducing good nutritional properties to existing soybean varieties and hope to develop high yielding, nutritionally superior lines.

Containing approximately 40 percent protein, 20 percent oil and an ideal supply of essential amino acids and nutrients, soybean grains are the world’s largest source of animal protein feed and the second largest source of vegetable oil globally. Aside from their significance as food and livestock feed, the crop improves soil fertility by fixing nitrogen and enhancing moisture retention.

Between 2006 and 2009, earnings from the crop in Uganda rose by 288 percent, but despite the economic opportunities in production and processing, factories established to process soybean oil and soy-based products across East Africa lack adequate raw material to run at full capacity. Furthermore, increased awareness by oil consumers has increased the demand for soybean oil as they seek more nutritious alternatives.

Through my research at the BecA-ILRI Hub and my home institution, Makerere University, I hope to contribute significantly bridging the supply gap and increasing the global competitive edge of locally produced soybean.

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About Tony Obua:
Tony Obua is a researcher at Makerere University in Uganda. He is currently conducting research on genetic improvement of oil quality and yield of soybean in Uganda at the BecA-ILRI Hub as an ABCF research fellow.

Read more about the ABCF fellowship program

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Molly McDonough from the Smithsonian Institution and Maryanne Gitari from University of Nairobi working at the BecA-ILRI Hub (photo: BecA-ILRI Hub/Eleni Vikeli)

Molly McDonough from the Smithsonian Institution and Maryanne Gitari from University of Nairobi working at the BecA-ILRI Hub (photo: BecA-ILRI Hub/Eleni Vikeli)

The Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub, Nairobi recently hosted American scientist recognised for the discovery of the Wilson’s bonneted bat.

For two weeks in April 2017, Molly McDonough who was part of a team credited with discovering a new bat species from the lowlands of western Ecuador and Peru, conducted research on African predators––the leopard and hyena––at the BecA-ILRI Hub. McDonough is a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.

McDonough, who was accompanied by Maryanne Gitari, a Kenyan graduate student from the University of Nairobi, is investigating the effects of climate change in the Mount Kenya region on the predators’ ecosystem. Her research seeks to determine how the alteration of the unique ecosystem over the last decades is affecting the diet and prey base of the two carnivores.

The regulatory hurdles of transferring animal dropping DNA samples from Kenya to the Smithsonian in the US, as well as the challenge of preserving sample quality led to the search for an alternative research base.

‘The BecA-ILRI Hub is an oasis for sequencing in the middle of Africa,’ said McDonough, ‘the next generation sequencing facilities are excellent and all the scientists are helpful and approachable!’

On the potential of such collaborations between international research institutions, national institutions and the regional hub, McDonough cited the affordability and easy access to the facilities as critical to time-strapped studies like hers.

‘The 24-hour access to the facilities is very important when you have limited time to execute the experiment and collate data,’ said McDonough. ‘We definitely intend to come back!’

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Article written by Eleni Vikeli, PhD researcher at the John Innes Centre (JIC), UK. Vikeli is at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi, Kenya as a communications assistant under the BecA-JIC alliance which supports capacity building, resource mobilization and technology transfer activities.

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Brizantha cv. Xaraés, one of the improved varieties of Brachiaria under research for climate change mitigation (photo: BecA-ILRI Hub/Collins Mutai)

Brizantha cv. Xaraés, one of the improved varieties of Brachiaria under research for climate change mitigation (photo: BecA-ILRI Hub/Collins Mutai)

A recent study by the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) shows that farmers in semi-arid region of Kenya could stall the adverse effects of climate change on their farms by planting drought-tolerant Brachiaria grass.

The study shows that Brachiaria grass not only improves the productivity of livestock but that it also contributes to improved soil health. Arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) make up 83 per cent of the total land area in Kenya, which have marginal to low potential for crop production. The soils in these areas are low in plant nutrients and are prone to erosion.

The report Effects of Brachiaria grass cultivars on soil microbial biomass carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous in soils of the semi arid eastern Kenya is one of a compilation of 24 papers published on diverse studies carried out on Brachiaria grass with regards to its adaptation to drought; its impact on milk and meat production; its role in improving soil quality; and establishment of seed production systems for increased availability of the grass seeds and income generation.

Sita Ghimire, a co-author and co-editor of the report and senior scientist at the BecA-ILRI Hub leading the Brachiaria research, says the report is a culmination of pioneering research on the forage in East Africa.

Brachiaria has been used to transform livestock production in South America,’ says Ghimire, ‘however, despite the immense benefits it demonstrated in that region, the true potential of this grass is yet to be realized in its motherland, Africa.’

Livestock production in Kenya accounts for 10 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). With growing population, increasing affluence and changes in food habits there is an increasing demand for livestock products. Over 70 per cent of all the livestock in Kenya is found in ASALs, necessitating research to develop forage options that will sustain increased livestock productivity in the face of climate change.

The collaborative research of the BecA-ILI Hub and KALRO demonstrates that the cultivation of Brachiaria grass improves soil quality by increasing the amount of plant available carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous.

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Anne Njoroge of CIP-SSA at a biotech potato confined trial site in Uganda (photo: NARO-KaZARDI/G. Baguma)

Anne Njoroge of CIP-SSA at a biotech potato confined trial site in Uganda (photo: NARO-KaZARDI/G. Baguma)

Anne Njoroge is a molecular pathologist working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Through a one year Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellowship awarded by the Biosciences eastern and central Africa–International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub, Njoroge has access to state-of-the-art research facilities that will accelerate her quest to defeat potato late blight disease.

Despite the pivotal role of women in agriculture in Africa, the contribution of women in research remains below the desired level. In recognition of International Women’s Day 2017, marked every year on March 8, CIP-SSA celebrates Anne Njoroge for her boldness in following her passion into a male dominated field.

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Read the full article: Bold for change: fighting potato late blight disease in Africa.

Read related article: Three women, three countries, one passion: Celebrating International Women’s Day 2017 at the BecA-ILRI Hub

 

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Every year on the International Women’s day observed on March 8, the BecA-ILRI Hub celebrates women who are contributing to shaping the agricultural research for development agenda in Africa. They may be involved in research, support research or have inspired researchers who are making a difference.

Blessing Adanta (left) and Lyna Mukwa at the BecA-ILRI Hub (photo: BecA-ILRI Hub/Eleni Vikeli)

Blessing Adanta (left) and Lyna Mukwa at the BecA-ILRI Hub (photo: BecA-ILRI Hub/Eleni Vikeli)

This year, we celebrate Blessing Adanta, Jane Githinji and Lyna Mukwa who were awarded the Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellowship to conduct their research at the BecA-ILRI Hub. The ABCF fellowship is a competitive fellowship program that develops capacity for agricultural biosciences research in Africa, to support research for development projects that ultimately contribute towards increasing food and nutritional security and/or food safety in Africa.

Eleni Vikeli, PhD researcher at the John Innes Centre (UK) and Communications Assistant in BecA-ILRI Hub, interviewed the three women about the joys and challenges of being a scientist.

Blessing Adanta is a lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria and a PhD student of Plant Breeding and Biotechnology at Makerere University, Uganda  funded by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) and the Carnegie cooperation, USA. In 2014, she won the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) and the 2014 fall Norman Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Programme (LEAP) fellowships.

Jane Githinji is the Assistant Director of Veterinary Services in Kenya. In 2016, her research on chicken vaccines conducted through the ABCF program, lent weight to the development of policies to guide the production of vaccines for Infectious bursal disease in Kenya.

Lyna Mukwa is an Associate Professor at the University of Kwango in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She is also the director of the Plant Clinic of Kinshasa, a project jointly initiated by the Faculty of Agronomy of the University of Kinshasa and the Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium), with the local support of the Agronomic and Veterinary Centre in Tropical Agriculture (CAVTK).

What has been the biggest challenge of your career so far?

Jane Githinji, Assistant Director of Veterinary Services in Kenya and ABCF alumnus

Jane Githinji, Assistant Director of Veterinary Services in Kenya and ABCF alumnus

Blessing:The biggest challenge I have encountered so far, was when I left my hometown to pursue a PhD career, while I had my daughter with me. Try having long hours in the lab and teaching students with an active toddler waiting–I am very grateful for the support of my husband through all this!

Jane: My biggest challenge has been balancing between multiple roles–as a mother, a wife, a sibling, a manager, a friend, a scientist–in such a way that I remain effective in each one of them, and without losing my peace of mind!

Lyna: The hardest thing I had to do and am still trying to tackle is maintaining a balance between my professional and personal life. While trying to cope, I learned multiple ways to organise myself and organise everything!

What is your biggest reward from being a scientist?

Blessing:  I was privileged to have been given the opportunity as an AWARD fellow, to have mentors from different countries, senior scientists with great experience and qualifications. That enhanced my skills and filled me with confidence that I use in my own teaching sessions. On top of that, I feel lucky that my profession gave me the opportunity to travel and see the world beyond my country.

Jane: Just knowing that I am contributing to making the world a better and a happier place for someone is very fulfilling. I believe I am in this world for a good purpose–to make it a better and a happier world for someone.

Lyna: In my case, the biggest reward has been the interaction with students where I can share my knowledge and expertise. I am also proud of my published work which makes me a part of the scientific community and has allowed me to work in various institutions in three different countries.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?

Blessing: That would be the award I received in 2015 from my home institution, University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria in recognition of my contribution to science. I felt honoured and that all my hard work and sacrifice had paid off!

Jane: I consider successfully completing my ABCF fellowship at the BecA-ILRI Hub despite the initial challenges and being able to apply my research to policy, my biggest accomplishment. It was a test of my faith, patience, and will power.

Lyna: My biggest accomplishment is getting my PhD last November and shortly after that, I was appointed Associate Professor. This was definitely a dream of mine for quite a while and I felt wonderful when I accomplished it!

The three women cherish their roles as science leaders in Africa deeply despite the challenges it brings to their daily lives. To all the girls that dream of becoming the next Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin or Ada Lovelace, they have proved that a woman can have a family as well as a career in science. They have overcome challenges, followed their passion and are making a difference in society.

Happy International Women’s Day 2017!

Eleni VikeliArticle written by Eleni Vikeli, PhD researcher at the John Innes Centre (JIC), UK. Vikeli is at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi, Kenya as a communications assistant under the BecA-JIC alliance which supports capacity building, resource mobilization and technology transfer activities.

Read more about the BecA-JIC alliance: John Innes Centre forms research and capacity building alliance with the BecA-ILRI Hub

 

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By Wokorach Godfrey, PhD student, Gulu University and research fellow at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub

Wokorach-AgshareAgricultural production is a key driver of economic growth for most of sub-Saharan Africa. It has the potential to boost economic development by improving food and nutritional security, providing employment to youth, promoting trade and generally improving livelihoods.

Agriculture under siege

However, this ‘goose that lays the golden eggs’ is plagued with challenges ranging from diseases, parasites, pests, drought, post-harvest losses and lack of access to markets. As such, many countries have experienced a decline, rather than increase in agricultural production and revenues associated with sale of agricultural products over the years.

Some of the problems can simply be addressed by educating farmers on good farming practices. Other challenges are solved through research and implementing of research findings. This requires transfer of knowledge, skills and technologies generated through research, to the farmers, often hampered by a disconnect between the farmer and the scientist.

Through the use of ICT, the distance between scientists globally is being bridged. The ability to share information and work collaboratively on virtual platforms has been made possible by online platforms specially designed to drive these conversations. Among such platforms that I have used are Agshare.Today and Yammer, which have been adapted to co-ordinate root and tuber crops, viruses and vectors research. The platforms connect scientists from different countries working on similar projects and enables them to share information they generate, get access to information they need, safely store research data and communicate their findings.

However, there is an urgent need to speed up the flow of information from researchers or extension workers to farmers and vice versa. A common platform that brings together farmers, scientists, extension officers, traders and other players in agriculture would narrow the existing gaps and potentially increase uptake of new technologies.

ICT to the rescue?

The relative affordability of mobile phones and the improving telecommunications networks in rural Africa have already resulted in evident economic benefits and mass social mobilization. The same technology availing access to vast databases by individuals seeking or sharing information on diverse topics like health, politics, news, markets and agriculture can be applied more effectively to get conversations going between farmers and scientists.

An agriculture-telecentre could facilitate information and knowledge sharing among farmers and the various groups of scientists and development specialists working to improve agricultural production. The platform could be used not only to transmit research findings, but also to receive information from farmers.

The existing technologies could be better applied to areas like disease and pest management, where detailed information such as number of affected plants, radius within which the problem occurs and severity of symptoms along with pictures from farmers, can support experts in assessing the severity of an outbreak and providing possible solutions. Additionally, extension services can relay information on where farmers can easily access the relevant agro-inputs like pesticides, fungicides and how to mix and apply these products.

I envision agriculture-telecentres being used as tools for surveillance of crop and livestock diseases, market information, weather patterns, and production trends of individual farmers. In this way, ICT can be used to overcome challenges associated with limited agricultural extension services, a scenario that is common in many rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa.

Read related article: Being social could help your science