Category Archives: Crops

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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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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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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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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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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

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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 Paloma Fernandes, CEO of the Kenya Cereal Millers Association

PalomaHaving a milling capacity of 1.6 million tonnes of maize per year and constituting 85 percent of the commercial flour on the shelves sold to about 10 million consumers annually, the Cereal Millers Association (CMA) bears the heavy responsibility of providing safe, affordable and adequate food for their consumers. This responsibility is at the heart of our vision as an association which comprises 27 of the largest millers in the country.

Our four-year relationship with the BecA-ILRI Hub’s aflatoxin research project was borne out of our quest to bridge the existing gap in best practices for diagnosis of aflatoxins at the millers’ level. In efforts to find a solution, we participated in various national forums on the control of aflatoxins in the food value chain in Kenya and eventually made the connection with the project.

Through our collaboration with the BecA-ILRI Hub, CMA staff members have received training on the proper use of aflatoxin diagnostics equipment to get the most accurate results.Visits by the BecA-ILRI Hub scientists, research technicians and project collaborators to three CMA mills has helped us ascertain the levels of testing, training needs and ways in which we can improve our storage, transport and testing facilities.

In order for us to take adequate measures in providing safe food for Kenyans, we have extended
our collaboration to exploratory research on the types of aflatoxins we are dealing with at our mills and will provide samples of both wheat and maize to the BecA-ILRI Hub for analysis.

Through this partnership, we have also identified a consultant from Texas A&M University, USA, to
develop and test the feasibility of maize sampling and aflatoxin testing protocols for use in Kenyan maize mills – an initiative in which many of our mills are involved.

The dream of CMA is to have a fully-fledged laboratory for testing of aflatoxins and we believe with the support of research institutions like the BecA-ILRI Hub, this dream is not very distant. Ultimately we hope that we can achieve our goal to provide safe, affordable and adequate food for all our consumers.

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When she chose to spend her sabbatical in 2014 conducting research at the BecA-ILRI Hub, Jacinta Akol from the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda had no idea that this research would win her international awards.

Jacinta Akol receives the ‘Pat Coursey’ award from Keith Tomlins, president of the International Society for Tropical Root Crops (ISTRC). Looking on is Claude Fauqet, co-founder of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21 Century (GCP2) (photo: WCRTC)

Jacinta Akol receives the ‘Pat Coursey’ award from Keith Tomlins, president of the International Society for Tropical Root Crops (ISTRC). Looking on is Claude Fauqet, co-founder of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21 Century (GCP2) (photo: WCRTC)

During the First World Congress on Root and Tuber Crops (RTCs) meeting that took place in China from 18–22 January 2016, Akol was awarded the Pat Coursey prize in recognition of her contribution to research on yams in Uganda.

The research done on this under-studied, underutilized food crop by Akol through an Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund fellowship. Akol reiterated the impact of the fellowship at the BecA-ILRI Hub in defining her scientific goals and giving her career more focus.

‘While at the Hub, I was able to sharpen my skills in networking, adoption of modern scientific techniques and most importantly effective communication,’ said Akol. ‘This has really boosted my confidence and profile as a scientist’ she added.

Akol stated that the BecA-ILRI Hub is an extremely significant investment in raising agricultural research in the region.

‘At the BecA-ILRI Hub, science leaders who will improve the face of agriculture in Africa are being created,’ she said. ‘It is important that African governments support such organizations which exist to support our national agricultural research systems,’ she added.

Root and tuber crops, including yams, cassava, sweet potato, potato, cocoyams and other root crops are important to agriculture and food security of more than 100 countries. In Uganda, yam is increasingly gaining importance as a source of income for smaller holder farmers.

The RTCs congress aims at raising awareness of the importance of the RTCs in the world. It reviews scientific progress; identifies new opportunities; and sets priorities to tackle challenges including finding the resources to support research and development in areas where it is currently inadequate or lacking.

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About the Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund

The Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF), managed by the BecA-ILRI Hub, provides fellowships to scientists and graduate students from African national agricultural research systems to undertake biosciences research-for-development projects at the BecA-ILRI Hub. The ABCF fellowship program develops capacity for agricultural biosciences research in Africa; supports research projects that ultimately contribute towards increasing food and nutritional security or food safety in Africa; and facilitates access to cutting-edge research facilities by African researchers.

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Appolinaire Djikeng, director, the BecA-ILRI Hub speaks on the role of genomics in plant breeding

The availability of genomics tools is transforming plant breeding by making it possible to identify and capitalize on their positive genetic traits. Genomics, or the study of genes and their interrelationships and functions, is giving plant breeders the means to accelerate the development of new higher yielding crop varieties that are capable of withstanding pests, diseases, or climate changes, and ultimately improve the global status of food and nutritional security.

In this three-minute video, Appolinaire Djikeng, director of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub in Nairobi, Kenya gives his views on the future of genomics in breeding and why research programs should invest more in the acquisition and application of genomics tools.

The BecA-ILRI Hub, a joint initiative of the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AU/NEPAD) and ILRI, is strengthening the capacity of African scientists to exploit advances in research by providing access to technologies previously unavailable in the region. The BecA-ILRI Hub genomics platform actively supports a wide range of research projects in molecular breeding as well as animal, crop and environmental health. Through a continued collaboration with researchers from African national agricultural research systems, the genomics platform is helping guide the design of strategies for increased agricultural productivity and crop and livestock disease management in Africa.

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Read more about the BecA-ILRI Hub Technologies and research related services

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K24 Journalist Violet Otindo highlights the changing fortunes of dairy farmers using Brachiaria grasses to feed their animals in Kenya.

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Preliminary data from dairy farmers participating in on-farm evaluations of Brachiaria grasses in Kenya shows that the nutritious grasses contribute to increased milk production.

The on-going research program on Climate-smart Brachiaria Grasses to Increase  Livestock Production in East Africa conducted by the BecA-ILRI Hub in collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Institute (KALRO); Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) ; International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia; and Grasslanz Technology Limited, New Zealand has engaged smallholder farmers in cultivating the grasses as major livestock feed sources and as a source of household cash income through the seed production.

The Swedish funded program has been successful in, together with farmers, identifying best bet varieties for different agro-ecological regions and creating awareness among the farmers, researchers, extension agents, policy makers and politicians on the significance of Brachiaria grasses to support a growing dairy industry. Through the project, farmers have discovered that the Brachiaria grasses not only preferred by animals but  also grow better than most forage in marginal soils of semi-arid and sub-humid environments that are common in most of Sub-Saharan Africa.

In this four minute video, K24 journalist Violet Otindo talks to Albanus Nduva from Kanzalu village of Machakos County in eastern Kenya, one of the 1200 farmers in Kenya who have been involved in participatory on-farm evaluations of Brachiaria grasses as pasture and recording the milk production data Otindo also gets insights from BecA-ILRI Hub scientist Sita Ghimire who leads the program and Donald Njarui from KALRO, Kenya as to why Brachiaria grasses are good for the environment.

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