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By Fred Masika, visiting scientist at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub

Fred Masika at UC Davis, US during the 13th Solanaceae Conference was held on September 12— 16, 2016

Fred Masika at UC Davis, US during the 13th Solanaceae Conference September 12— 16, 2016

The modernization of agriculture in Africa has led to the focus on cultivation of a very limited variety of food crops. Sadly, this has resulted means we are missing out on nutritional and health benefits found in traditional plants such as the African eggplant.

The African eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum) is not only a vegetable, but also has medicinal value. Skin ailments, asthma, bronchitis, diabetes and blood cholesterol are some of the health disorders that this plant is known to alleviate. In Uganda, the local variety ‘Nakati’  is increasingly gaining importance as a source of income and nutrition for smallholder farmers, mostly women and youths. I want to contribute to research that will boost its production and enable it to play a role in limiting malnourishment and income insecurity in Africa.

The Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellowship offered by the BecA-ILRI Hub provided me an opportunity to study this under-researched crop. Using high throughput genotyping technologies, I will generate information that will contribute to breeding initiatives to improve this crop.

With full support from the BecA-ILRI Hub, I also had the opportunity to attend the 13th Solanaceae Conference at University of California, Davis (UC-Davis) from 12–16 September, 2016. During the meeting themed from advances to applications, I made a one-minute pitch using a poster of my work ‘Generating genomic tools for efficient breeding of African eggplant’.

The career panel workshop chaired by Ann Powell from the UC Davis department of plant sciences afforded me the opportunity to learn from and interact with international professionals from the public sector and industry. I participated in discussions on cutting edge research in genomic tools, advances and applications for the Solanaceae species.

I am grateful for the research, capacity building opportunity and support I have received at the BecA-ILRI Hub. The training and mentorship has greatly increased my capacity in molecular biology, and bioinformatics. I am now also confident in communicating my research with scientific and non scientific audiences

About Fred Masika
Fred Bwayo Masika works with Uganda Christian University in The Department of Agricultural and Biological Sciences. He has a MSc. Botany (Genetics and Molecular biology) from Makerere University.  Realizing that there is narrowing food diversity and recognizing the potential role of traditional vegetables in combating nutrient deficiencies, Masika is passionate about research of underutilized nutritious vegetables such as those of the Solanaceae family. His work towards generating genomic tools in African eggplant will help boost production of

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Democratic Republic of Congo’s Birindwa Ahadi is at the BecA-ILRI Hub on a quest for knowledge that could transform his country’s livestock industry.

Birindwa Ahadi from Univesité Evangelique en Afrique, DRC working at the BecA-ILRI Hub Laboratory (photo: BecA-ILRI Hub/Sylvia Muthoni)

Birindwa Ahadi from Univesité Evangelique en Afrique, DRC working at the BecA-ILRI Hub Laboratory (photo: BecA-ILRI Hub/Sylvia Muthoni)

Small ruminant farming in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) accounts for more than 72 percent of household incomes. However, according FAO reports, this important source of meat, milk, skin and organic manure in DRC is under threat.

An estimated 1,000,000 goats and 600,000 sheep are at risk of contracting peste des petits ruminants (PPR) disease–also referred to as ‘goat plague’ resulting in annual losses of approximately USD 5.3 million.

From December 2015, Birindwa Ahadi, a lecturer at the Univesité Evangelique en Afrique, DRC has been at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub seeking a solution to the challenge facing thousands of smallholder farmers in his country.

Through an Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellowship at the BecA-ILRI Hub, Ahadi has been carrying out an in-depth analysis of incidences of the PPR virus in goats and sheep. Ahadi hopes to identify PPR hotspots in DRC and identify PPR risk factors. These findings will contribute to appropriate control strategies and policies to be included in a national program for control and eradication of PPR and other related trans boundary diseases.

‘Being the first published report on the prevalence of PPR in eastern DRC, my research at the BecA-ILRI Hub will make a significant contribution to the Ministry of Agriculture in my country,’ says Ahadi.

Since its inception in 2010, the ABCF program has contributed to strengthening capacities of individual scientists and institutions in sub Saharan Africa and is looking forward to supporting DRC in managing the PPR disease that has a high negative impact on food and economic security for smallholder farmers.

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Written by Milcah Kigoni – Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund fellowship program alumni

Cattle at a livestock market in eastern Kenya. Over one million cattle die of East Coast fever each year resulting in annual losses exceeding $300 million (photo:  ILRI/Susan MacMillan)

Cattle at a livestock market in eastern Kenya. Over one million cattle die of East Coast fever each year resulting in annual losses exceeding $300 million (photo: ILRI/Susan MacMillan)

As part of ongoing research to develop an effective vaccine for East Coast Fever (ECF), I conducted a study on the interactions between the parasites that cause disease and vectors that transmit them. East Coast Fever is a tick-borne disease that kills over 1 million cattle in East, Central and Southern Africa annually, devastating the livelihoods of smallholder livestock farmers. I would like to develop a vaccine that can block transmission of this disease at the vector level.

My quest to apply computational methods to identify potential ECF vaccine candidates however requires a more in-depth understanding of parasite and vector biology, and interaction. A travel scholarship from the BecA-ILRI Hub enabled me attend the 2016, the NIH-Global Infectious Disease Training Program’s Workshop on Biology of Parasites and Disease Vectors. This presented an opportunity to progress my search for a solution to ECF which begun through a fellowship under the Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) program at the BecA-ILRI Hub (October 2014–March 2015).

The workshop took place at Gulu University in Uganda, one of the regional institutions whose capacity has been strengthened by the BecA-ILRI Hub. It was organized by Gulu University in partnership with Yale University and Biotechnology Research Institute-Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (BRI-KALRO). It was a good opportunity to share the outcome of my work, build my capacity and network with fellow researchers that share similar interests.

I gained different perspectives to approaching my research. For instance, I learned how  vector physiology, ecology, immunity, evolutionary biology and genetics studies are applied in development of effective disease control strategies. Through group discussions, I got new ideas for future ECF vaccine development studies.

Of course, at the end of the workshop, I gave a brief oral presentation about the BecA-ILRI Hub, and the opportunities available for African scientists to build their research capacity while solving major food insecurity causes such as livestock diseases on the continent.

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Read related story by Milcah Kigoni: Opportunities In Research And Beyond: The Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund Fellowship Program

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By William Sharpee, postdoctoral fellow, North Carolina State University

Gabriela Chavez and William Sharpee

Post-doctoral scientists Gabriela Chavez from Auburn University (left) and William Sharpee (2nd right) from North Carolina State University interact with cassava farmers in the western region of Kenya during a whitefly collecting exercise

Cassava is an important food crop for millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa, but unfortunately this crop is facing a decline in production across the continent due to Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD). I came to the BecA-ILRI Hub in August to work on a project funded by the National Science Foundation Partnerships for International Research and Education (NSF-PIRE) to analyze the evolution of the viruses that cause this disease.

The purpose of this project is to understand how African cassava mosaic virus (ACMV) and East African cassava mosaic virus (EACMV), the causal agents of CMD, evolve during vegetative propagation of infected cassava plants versus being transmitted via whiteflies. It is our goal to understand how these viruses evolve in order to develop strategies that will hinder the development of more virulent strains and thus prevent future outbreaks of CMD.

When I first arrived in Kenya, I travelled to the shores of Lake Victoria in the western part of Kenya to collect whiteflies for the establishment of a colony at the BecA-ILRI Hub. This was a good opportunity to interact with local farmers and see the devastating effects that this disease has on cassava production in Kenya. Once the individual whiteflies were collected we set up a room dedicated to establishing a colony to be used in future experiments.

Because multiple species of whiteflies exist, my colleagues and I have focused our efforts on understanding the genetic make up of the colony to ensure that we have a single species for our experiments. Additionally, we established procedures for the propagation and growth of cassava in the greenhouse. We continue to lay the groundwork for pilot experiments that will act as the basis for our future work.

I am excited to be a part of this project and the BecA-ILRI Hub community. I am grateful for everyone’s support and input and look forward to great discoveries in the future.

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Read related stories:

International partnership on Cassava virus evolution launched in Africa

Auburn University Post-Doc Tracks Cassava Virus History In East Africa

The BecA-ILRI Hub strengthens partnership with North Carolina State University

 

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By Gabriela Chavez, postdoctoral fellow, Auburn University based at the BecA-ILRI Hub

Gabriela Chavez poses with a farmer in Kisumu, Kenya

Gabriela Chavez poses with a cassava farmer in Kisumu, Kenya

I joined the Cassava Virus Evolution Project to study the most economically important disease in cassava in Africa. Like me, the cassava is indigenous to South America, but is now widely cultivated and adopted in Africa where it became one of the major crops for human consumption.

Cassava is a fascinating crop that is able to grow under drought conditions, high temperature, and poor soil conditions. However, its production in Africa is severely limited by viral diseases. The begomoviruses that cause Cassava mosaic disease (CMD) have a long evolutionary history in Africa, including the recent pandemic that spread across Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s and 2000s.

At the BecA-ILRI Hub I am studying how the whitefly influences the evolution of Cassava mosaic begomovirus (CMBs). Together with colleagues, I am analyzing the genetic makeup of a colony of whiteflies collected from the western part of Kenya in Kisumu and Lake Victoria surroundings. This is a critical component of the project because whiteflies exhibit an extremely high rate of differences within the species.

Working in Africa has been a life-changing multicultural experience. I have learnt that Africa is not all about catastrophes or poor infrastructure highlighted in news, but that there is on-going cutting-edge research and high-end technologies. I have also enjoyed the contemporary Kenyan music in English, Swahili and various local languages with intricate melodies that borrow from different styles of music from around the globe. I am also impressed with Kenyans’ ambitions and their spirit of entrepreneurship.

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IMG_0897

A partnership to defeat a devastating disease of cassava, in which the BecA-ILRI Hub is involved, recently received a $2.15 million boost from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Cassava virus evolution research partnership which brings together scientists from East Africa and US is examining how plant DNA viruses change over time with a view of tackling the Cassava mosaic disease (CMD).

Cassava is staple food for over 250 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. Caused by Cassava mosaic virus (CMV), CMD is responsible for between 12 and 23 million tonnes crop yield losses in Africa. The project will be studying the evolution of the Cassava mosaic virus. The virus’ changes over time have enabled it to adapt to different environmental conditions and break plant resistance, confounding efforts to combat CMD.

Promoting north-south research collaboration

A key component of the partnership which was established with funding from the National Science Foundation Partnerships for International Research and Education (NSF-PIRE), is the north-south research collaboration which is strengthening the capacities of African researchers and enabling early career US scientists to work alongside outstanding researchers at the BecA-ILRI Hub and Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute (Tanzania). From August 2016, post-doctoral scientists Gabriela Chavez from Auburn University and William Sharpee from North Carolina State University have been based at the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi.

‘Working in Africa has been a life-changing multicultural experience’ said Chavez, ‘I have learnt that there is on-going cutting-edge research and high-end technologies here’.

‘Our trip to the shores of Lake Victoria in the western part of Kenya to collect whiteflies for the establishment of a colony at the BecA-ILRI Hub was a good opportunity to see first hand, the devastating effects of this disease on cassava production’ said Sharpee.

The project is the most detailed study of any virus ever conducted and is expected to make groundbreaking discoveries on other viruses with significant economic and health impacts like the dengue virus.

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Roger Pelle, BecA-ILRI Hub principal scientist stresses a point during the Science Communication workshop

Roger Pelle, BecA-ILRI Hub principal scientist stresses a point during the Science Communication workshop

Communicating research findings to the general public is increasingly becoming a necessary part of being a scientist. However, the skills to do this are not intuitive to scientists, who have been trained in research methodologies, analytical skills, and the ability to communicate with other scientists. This hurdle is one that the team at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa – International Livestock Research Institute Hub (BecA-ILRI) Hub sought to overcome as they underwent an intensive science communication course.

‘We have a lot of knowledge in the labs but we don’t get it out for people to appreciate and accept’ said Appoliniare Djikeng, the BecA-ILRI Hub director, at the start of the two-day workshop conducted by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter.

Djikeng acknowledged that ineffective outreach could be a contributing factor to researchers not attracting funding from national budgets. ‘We have not made the case for policy makers to appreciate that what we are doing is useful to them’, he said.

During the training that took place on June 28 and 29 at ILRI’s Nairobi campus, the BecA-ILRI Hub team was joined by researchers from the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) working on the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA) project. While giving an overview of the VIRCA project, field implementing coordinator Hannington Obiero remarked that effective communication is key to the project’s success.

‘We are here to acquire the communication skills needed to complement VIRCA’s research and ensure that our findings are adopted by the end-user’ said Obiero.

Margaret Karembu, Director ISAAA AfriCenter, thanked the researchers for taking time out of their busy schedules to attend the training, stating that it was a testament to their commitment to communicating effectively with all their audiences. She lauded their passion for seeking solutions to help African farmers and encouraged them to ensure that their work was well communicated and impacted the very people they work hard for.

The course familiarized participants with various strategies to engage policy makers, the media and the public at large. At the end of the training, participants had learnt how to identify their audiences and develop audience-specific messages.Roger Pelle, a Principal Scientist at the BecA-Hub appreciated the participatory approach to the training which included practical sessions on the use social media for science communication and mock media interviews.

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The Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub will next week (13-14 June 2016) co-host a forum on enhancing agriculture and nutrition outcomes in Africa at this year’s Africa Agriculture Science Week (AASW) and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) general assembly.

The 7th AASW and FARA general assembly is taking place in Kigali Rwanda, 13-16 June 2016.

Approximately one in four children under five are stunted and over 2 billion people are deficient in key vitamins and minerals worldwide. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence of hunger with one in four people being undernourished. Among the factors contributing to the global food and nutrition crisis is post-harvest losses caused by a range of issues including contamination by unsafe use of pesticides, veterinary drug residues, contaminated water and naturally occurring toxins in food. Tackling these challenges to nutrition and health through agriculture requires a concerted multi-sectoral approach.

Drought tolerant maize route out of poverty for community-based seed producer, Kenya

The  ‘Strengthening Systems to Optimize Agriculture and Nutrition Outcomes in Africa’ side event organized jointly by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), the BecA-ILRI Hub and FARA in collaboration with the International Potato Centre (CIP), Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) and University of Rwanda’s College of Agriculture, Animal Sciences and Veterinary Medicine will showcase examples of good practices that are exploiting rigorous research in agriculture and health sciences; policy interventions; and public-private partnerships.

Presentations by representatives of African national agricultural research systems, regional and sub regional organizations, international research institutions, and the public and private sector will share lessons learned and explore promising avenues towards translating these initiatives into more universal impacts.

Read event concept note: Strengthening Systems to Optimize Agriculture and Nutrition Outcomes in Africa

Read about the aflatoxin research project: Capacity and Action for Aflatoxin Reduction in Eastern Africa (CAAREA)

For more information on the Africa Agriculture Science Week visit: http://faraafrica.org/aasw7/

Follow the event on twitter: #AASW7

Related articles:

Public-private partnership for food and nutrition security: BecA-ILRI Hub–Cereal Millers Association collaboration features at continental agricultural forum

A vision for safe, affordable and adequate food

Providing safe maize for Africa: Aflatoxin Proficiency Testing and Control in Africa project at the BecA-ILRI Hub

Regional Aflatoxin control organization recognizes role of the BecA-ILRI Hub in fighting aflatoxins

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By Tim Herrman, Texas state chemist, Texas A&M AgriLife

Anne Muiruri - APTECA (photo: BecA-ILRI Hub/Alnoor Abdulla)

Anne Muiruri – APTECA program coordinator at the BecA-ILRI Hub (photo: BecA-ILRI Hub/Alnoor Abdulla)

The Aflatoxin Proficiency Testing and Control in Africa (APTECA) program hosted by the mycotoxin diagnostics platform at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub is contributing to the availability of safe maize on the African market.

The program, managed by the Texas A&M University, USA, was initiated to support the commercial maize milling sector in Kenya through a public-private partnership. Cereal millers which participate in the voluntary program manage aflatoxin risk by improving their quality systems to accurately perform their own tests for aflatoxins in maize flour.

Proficiency testing program

Participation in the APTECA program improves testing accuracy through qualification of the mill’s laboratory analysts; use of working controls with a known level of aflatoxin; routine proficiency testing; and verification of mill results by the ISO accredited Texas A&M AgriLife laboratory housed at the BecA-ILRI Hub.

In 2015, 31 laboratory analysts from commercial mills across Kenya attended training and qualified to analyse maize flour using validated aflatoxin testing platforms. These qualified individuals analyse working control samples twice a week at their respective mills to ensure testing accuracy and results are evaluated using a statistical process control charting technique. Further verification of mills’ aflatoxin test results of finished product occurs at the Texas A&M AgriLife laboratory at the BecA-ILRI Hub and results are sent to the APTECA mills to assist in quality improvement and aflatoxin risk management.

Already, APTECA has hosted five proficiency testing exercises involving 30 industry and public sector laboratories. The companies involved in the project include Osho Grain Millers; Unga Holdings; Alpha Mills; Capwell Industries; Kabansora Millers; Kenblest Group; Maisha Flour Mills; Mombasa Maize Millers; Pembe Flour Mills; Premier Group; and United Millers all from Kenya.

Co-regulation

The APTECA research is part of an effort to explore co-regulation of aflatoxin as a regulatory risk-management policy alternative with the aim of improving food safety and facilitating trade in Africa. Co-regulation involves a government-private sector partnership in regulation that includes statutory or government-backed codes of practice combined with regulatory and industry oversight. A marketing study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Western Michigan University in collaboration with Texas A&M AgriLife explored the impact on sales of marketing products branded with a logo on packages of maize meal stating ‘Aflatoxin Tested Process Verified by APTECA.’ This logo conforms to the East African Community labelling requirements and AgriLife has received trademark approval for it from the Kenya Intellectual Property Institute.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) with a Kenya regulatory authority, accreditation of the AgriLife laboratory activities by the Kenya Accreditation Service, and training regulatory chemists from six countries and nine agencies has helped lay the groundwork for a regional public-private sector partnership to manage aflatoxin risk and facilitate trade among countries in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.

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A partnership catalyzed by the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub to improve testing for aflatoxins in maize flour will feature at a side event during the 7th Africa Agriculture Science Week and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) general assembly, next week (from 13-14 June 2016).

The partnership brings together the Kenya Cereal Millers Association—which has over ten million customers, including the urban poor—and the Texas A&M AgriLife laboratory which is hosted at the BecA-ILRI Hub. It is enabling millers to accurately perform their own tests for aflatoxins in maize flour, reducing aflatoxin risk and improving food safety for an estimated 16 million Kenyans.

Members of the Kenya Cereal Millers Association visit the BecA-ILRI Hub facilities

Aflatoxins are a naturally occurring carcinogenic by-product of common fungi that grow on grains and other food crops, particularly maize and groundnuts. Highly carcinogenic, aflatoxins are lethal in high doses, with chronic exposure potentially stunting infant development, blocking nutrient absorption and suppressing the immune system.

Preventing human exposure to aflatoxins involves removing crops with unacceptable aflatoxin contents from both foods and feeds.

Paloma Fernandes, the chief executive of the Kenya Cereal Millers Association, will give a presentation on industry-led approaches to controlling aflatoxin in the country’s food supply chain at the ‘Strengthening systems to optimize agriculture and nutrition outcomes in Africa’ side event.

Read event concept note: Strengthening Systems to Optimize Agriculture and Nutrition Outcomes in Africa

For more information on the Africa Agriculture Science Week visit: http://faraafrica.org/aasw7/

Follow the event on twitter: #AASW7

Read related articles:

A vision for safe, affordable and adequate food

Providing safe maize for Africa: Aflatoxin Proficiency Testing and Control in Africa project at the BecA-ILRI Hub

Regional Aflatoxin control organization recognizes role of the BecA-ILRI Hub in fighting aflatoxins