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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

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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 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 African eggplant and related species.

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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.