Category Archives: BecA-ILRI Hub

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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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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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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 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.