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Brachiaria grass, a climate-smart ‘wonder grass’ for livestock farmers

In this interview, Mwihaki Mundia, BecA-ILRI Hub’s Communications Officer, sits down with Sita Ghimire, who heads the Brachiaria research and development program at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa – International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub, to talk about the origins of this important grass and how it contributes to more milk and meat production in livestock.

Mundia: Maybe you could start by sharing a brief history of Brachiaria grass?

Sita: Brachiaria grass is a tropical forage that is native to Africa. It was introduced to America and Australia in the 1800’s. Through Australia, many species were later introduced to Asia and the south Pacific region. The use of Brachiaria for commercial pasture production only began in Africa at the start of the twenty-first century.

M: How many Brachiaria species currently exist in Africa?

S: There are seven species of African origin, namely, B. arrecta, B. brizantha, B. dictyoneura, B. decumbens, B. humidicola, B. mutica and B. ruziziensis. These are all used as fodder for livestock.

Sita Ghimire, in the Brachiaria grass field at Kapiti reasearch station in Machakos county, Kenya

M: Why did BecA-ILRI Hub choose to work with Brachiaria grass as a means of improving livestock productivity in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)?

S: Low livestock productivity has plagued sub-Saharan Africa for a long time, creating amongst other things, a severe food shortage for one of the fastest growing human populations in the world. Some of the major factors that contribute to these are feeds shortage and low-quality feeds. Brachiaria provides a solution because it produces a large amount of high-quality biomass that improves the availability of quality feed, its high nutrient value increases livestock productivity of meat and milk and reduces the overall carbon footprint of the livestock production system. Brachiaria additionally tolerates extreme climatic conditions and grows well in low fertile soils. It makes for a great substitute to other forage grasses such as Napier grass which is widely cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa.

M: Would you recommend Brachiaria grass over other forage crops e.g., Napier grass that has been a popular forage for a long time in East Africa?

S: Though Napier grass is very popular in East Africa, its productivity has been on the decline over the years due to smut and stunt disease attacks. The introduction of Brachiaria grass has provided an additional forage option to farmers and helped to bridge the livestock feed supply gaps especially during the dry seasons. Brachiaria grass is one of the top-ranked tropical forages for nutritive value, livestock productivity and climate change adaptation. It is suitable for both grazing and cut and carry systems.

M: What are the main activities that the Climate-smart Brachiaria program at BecA-ILRI Hub carries out?

S: The program provides technical support to National African Research Systems (NARS), non-governmental organizations, and the private sector on Brachiaria grass production and forage biosciences; carries research on Brachiaria grass diseases management; develops Brachiaria-legume cropping system for soil fertility management; identifies Brachiaria seed production niches in Africa; and discovers and uses plant beneficial microbes to enhance resilience and productivity of Brachiaria grass in sub-Sharan Africa.

Sita and an ILRI casual staff measure the length of a fully matured Brachiaria cultivar at the Kapiti research station

M: Most livestock farmers in SSA are small-scale producers who do not have much land to grow their food let alone grow fodder, how do you encourage them to adopt Brachiaria grass?

S: The transformation of the livestock sector in Africa depends on intensification of livestock production systems. Improved forages like Brachiaria grass are a great resource that play a major role as a source of high-quality feed at a low cost. Planting Brachiaria grass in farmlands improves feed availability, enhances livestock productivity, and generates income for livestock farmers. It also protects soil from erosion and sustains soil fertility. Due to these benefits many livestock farmers especially those with smaller land sizes are dedicating more land under Brachiaria grass, with some farming it in place of staple food crops.

M: How many varieties/cultivars of Brachiaria are available to farmers in Kenya and how many other countries in SSA have benefitted from the Climate-smart Brachiaria program?

S:  Basilisk, MG-4, Piata and Xaraes are the Brachiaria varieties that are being promoted by ILRI and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) in Kenya. These cultivars are currently undergoing the registration process in Kenya. The seeds of these cultivars are available in limited quantities in Kenya through KALRO. Hybrid seed cultivars like Mulato II, Cayman and Cobra are also being sold in Kenya.  So far, about 40,000 farming households in 18 countries in SSA are beneficiaries of the Climate-smart Brachiaria program.

Cattle feed on Brachiaria grass at the ILRI farm on the Nairobi campus. The grass has proven to improve milk and meat production in livestock

M: How else can farmers use this “wonder grass?”

S: Brachiaria grass can be used as a bioenergy crop to produce biofuel.

It can also be used in crop protection, soil conservation and has great environmental qualities.

Farmers can use Brachiaria to generate income by producing and selling hay. Additionally, the production of rooted tillers as a means of planting materials has recently emerged as a new avenue for agro-business for youth and women in the SSA region.

M: How long does it take for Brachiaria grass to grow to its full height and nutrient potential after planting?

S: The height and time it takes for Brachiaria to attain it is influenced by various factors such as the variety, altitude, soil fertility and other agro-climatic conditions. At the ILRI Nairobi campus, the grass grows to a full height of 1.8 metres. Most varieties take about four to five months to attain their full height.  The nutritive value of forage declines as it matures, it is therefore important to identify the right harvesting time with the perfect balance of biomass and nutritive value.  For good quality hay, Brachiaria should be harvested prior to flowering.

M: What are some of the challenges that farmers might expect to face while growing Brachiaria grass?

S: The major challenges could be pests and diseases and a decline in soil fertility if manure and fertilizers are not applied on a regular basis.    

Biosciences fund brings Tanzanian researcher one step closer to unravelling the genetic diversity of the Small East African goat

Goat production is among the foremost agricultural activities that sustain the livelihoods of millions smallholder farmers and pastoral and agro-pastoral communities in Tanzania. Majority of Tanzania goats (about 98%) are assumed to belong to the Small East African (SEA) breed, with very few belonging to other exotic dairy and meat goat breeds.

The Small East African goat breed is predominantly found throughout eastern Africa and parts of southern Africa. These goats have different tribal or local names and are mostly kept by pastoralists in the rural areas, agro-pastoralists and mixed (crops-livestock) farmers for meat. Their coat produces good quality leather. Some of the valuable characteristics of these goats are a tolerance to heartwater (an endemic tick-borne disease of ruminants), worms and other diseases commonly found in East Africa, such as mange. They are small (they range in weight between 20 and 45 kgs), agile and active goats whose colour ranges from pure white, pure brown to pure black with various intermixes of the three colors.

A young boy herds SEA goats in Tanzania

But different agroecological zones result in differentiations in the goats’ adaptive nature. SEA goats in Tanzania have not been fully characterized, and as a result, there is no breed- or strain-specific information on their genetic variability or uniqueness. Today, it is still unclear whether the indigenous goats of Tanzania are one breed (SEA) or if they fall under different strains or ecotypes. Additionally, the performance and adaptive attributes of the SEA goats kept in the country are still unknown.

Tanzanian farmers have made numerous efforts to crossbreed SEA goats in an attempt to improve their productivity, an activity that could prove more harmful than helpful if not checked. Crossbreeding by farmers without understanding the goat genetic resources could lead to loss of some of the unique features of these goats. On the other hand, understanding goat genetics has the potential to increase SEA goats’ milk and meat productivity and create sustainable development of goat farming in the country.

A woman milks an SEA goat belonging to the Pare Doe strain

Athumani Nguluma, a senior research officer at the Tanzania Livestock Research Institute (TALIRI), and a former Biosciences eastern and central Africa – International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellow, is studying the genetic diversity of SEA goats in Tanzania. His goal is to better understand this important goat breed so that he can contribute to a clearer understanding of its population genetic structure and unique genetic features. This knowledge will be vital in designing SEA breed improvement and conservation programs, which could solve the low meat and milk productivity problem of the local goats that plagues Tanzanian farmers thereby considerably improving household income and bringing other socio-cultural benefits.

At TALIRI, Nguluma is working with the organization responsible for coordinating research in Tanzania including small ruminant research, which is where Nguluma was exposed to previous research on SEA goats and his interest was piqued. While studying for his PhD, he worked on the characterization of SEA goats, but due to insufficient funding, his assessed only a few subpopulations of the breed and identified only a few microsatellite markers of the breed’s genome.

Receiving the ABCF fellowship broadened Nguluma’s research from what he had initially hoped to do. His study, which has been ongoing for a year, is focused on assessing the diversity of goats in the major agro-ecological zones of Tanzania. His research methods include on-farm collection of goat blood samples and a cross-sectional research design through farmer interviews to gather information about the goats breeds in the country and their production environment. So far, he has obtained phenotypic and maternal genetic variation data of goats from 11 out of 26 regions in the country.

Nguluma appreciates the role of the BecA-ILRI Hub in equipping him with the skills to do this work. ‘Before coming to BecA-ILRI Hub my knowledge and skills on molecular genetics and genomics was low. I have since been exposed to state-of-the-art molecular labs and the technical knowhow in molecular research. I have also gained modern bioinformatics skills and access to important software for my research.’

The Tanzanian Ujiji Doe strain from the SEA breed

The next steps in his research include data analysis, report writing and publishing his findings. He will also conduct a comparative genomic study of the country’s goat populations to better understand the uniqueness of particular breeds. Later he will carry out whole sequencing of their genetic code so he can develop markers for improvement to boost their productivity. 

While at BecA-ILRI Hub, he was supervised by Roger Pelle. At TALIRI, he’s supervised by S. W. Chenyambuga and Zabron Nziku from TALIRI.

Researcher using skills gained at BecA-ILRI Hub to hasten adoption of improved Brachiaria grass varieties in Tanzania

With an area of 885,800 km2 and a population of 58,458,191 people, Tanzania is one of the largest and most populous countries in Africa. Crop and livestock farming is the main source of livelihood for most Tanzanians. The country’s large livestock population includes 25 million cattle, 16.7 million goats, and eight million sheep.

The main source of feeds for livestock in Tanzania is natural pastures, which are found in the country’s vast rangelands. But these feed sources are often of poor quality and insufficient, especially in the dry seasons. Additionally, conversion of natural pasture into crop production and non-agricultural use areas, and the degradation of pasture due to overgrazing and poor management have reduced the feed available to the country’s livestock.

One step towards addressing the shortage of quality animal feeds in Tanzania is by establishing the available alternative feed resources. Walter Mangesho, a senior livestock research officer at the Tanzania Livestock Research Institute (TALIRI) and a former Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellow at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub, is assessing the Brachiaria grass ecotypes in Tanzania and their morphological and genetic characterizations.

Mangesho collects morphological data (measuring culm thickness) of one Brachiaria ecotype. Standing is TALIRI Tanga field research assistant Salvatory Kavishe recording data

In addition to establishing the types of Brachiaria grasses in the country; Mangesho’s research aims to improve selected Brachiaria grass cultivars, which have high biomass production potential, are nutritive to livestock and resilient to climate change. His goal is to avail the improved Brachiaria varieties to smallholder farmers in Tanzania who will use them as feed to improve the productivity of their animals. ‘I am determined to work towards solving the major livestock challenges in Tanzania, which include a shortage of quality feeds,’ he said

His research, which started in Dodoma, has so far identified and collected 142 Brachiaria ecotypes from 10 regions of Tanzania. These ecotypes are now maintained in a field at TALIRI in Tanga, Tanzania. All the ecotypes were characterized for morphological characteristics and genetic diversity. A subset of the ecotypes with superior phenotypes have been selected and are currently being multiplied for further evaluation.

‘While at the BecA-ILRI Hub, I worked with a team of highly-qualified researchers, mentors and trainers who helped me in molecular biology and genomics research that I had no prior experience with. They strengthened my morphological data collection skills,’ Mangesho remembers of his time as an ABCF fellow at BecA-ILRI Hub.

Mangesho trains on DNA extraction at BecA-ILRI Hub

He was supervised by BecA-ILRI Hub’s Sita Ghimire, Cathrine Ziyomo and Nasser Yao. Jonas Kizima from TALIRI and Angelo Mwilawa from Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries, Tanzania also supervised his genomic and morphological data collection while at the hub.

‘I hope to start multi-location trials in December 2020, once the Brachiaria cultivars are ready,’ remarks Mangesho about his next plans for the near future.

Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund fellow conducts inventive goat genetic diversity research in DR Congo

Goats are among the most common farm animals in developing countries. Africa is home to about 35% of the world’s goat population (FAO 2016). They play an important socio-economic, nutritional and cultural role in rural households. An important indicator of goats’ adaptation to environmental conditions is their reproductive efficiency.

DR Congo has three major agro-ecological zones: the alluvial basin in the northeast and the central part; savannah in the central, western and the southeast; and the high-altitude volcanic mountains in the east of the country. More than 4,082,624 indigenous goats are spread throughout these agro-ecological zones.

Herd of goats

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, goats are the second most domesticated species after chicken. Goats make up between 30% and 60% of the country’s total livestock numbers. The country hosts three major breeds: the small goat, dwarf goat and Kasai goat. Congolese goat farmers raise and breed goats for meat production and commercial transactions, contributing up to 72% of households’ income in rural areas in the country. The productivity of African’s indigenous goats is low, and little is documented on the genetic diversity, production system and distribution of goats in DR Congo.

Patrick Baenyi, an Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellow from the Evangelical University in Africa, DR Congo, undertook a survey on 202 goat farmers in the country to identify typology, production management and critical traits considered in goat selection by farmers in three agro-ecological zones — South Kivu, Tshopo and Kinshasa. In his pioneering research, he collected phenotypic data and used phenotypic and molecular markers, that are the basis for animal genetic diversity studies, to characterize goat genetic resources.

The survey revealed that goats in the three zones were clustered into breed clusters, grouped into small goat and dwarf goat, mostly characterized by a black coat colour and curved horn. The clusters were further distinguished by their reproductive traits (i.e. the number of kids per gestation period, such as twins or triplets) and the total number of kids per goat’s lifespan.

Baenyi and a member of his team collect a blood sample from a goat in Tshopo, DR Congo

Baenyi’s study was an important first step towards goat breeding in the country and aids decision-making on goat genetics improvement in the country. Its findings suggest that molecular characterization by sequencing and genotyping should be considered by animal breeders to clarify the physical differences in goat breeds that were observed and to identify whether these differences are genetic or adapted from environmental influence. A good understanding of this genetic characterization is useful in designing effective strategies for managing, improving and conserving domesticated animal resources.

‘Working with the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub reinforced my skills in conducting genetics research and showed me the value of collaborating with other researchers and sharing my findings with the public. I was also trained in bioinformatics and proposal writing and I have continued with the invaluable mentorship relationships that started during my time at the hub,’

says Baenyi.

He is currently working under the supervision of ILRI’s Roger Pelle and his and is studying for his PhD in animal genetics and breeding at the University of Nairobi.

Ko Awono promises to improve Brachiaria grass production and marketing to secure farmers’ livelihoods in Cameroon

Cameroon, like other African countries, relies on agriculture as a main economic activity with livestock employing at least 30% of the country’s rural population. The livestock sector in Cameroon is crucial to its economic growth, food and nutrition security, and job creation. Forages of African origin, such as Brachiaria have been instrumental in the transformation of the livestock sector in many parts of the world including tropical America, Australia and East Asia. But the potential of native forages to alleviate livestock feed shortage in Africa has been little explored.

In 2012, the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub started the ‘Climate-smart Brachiaria Program’ in partnership with the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) and development partners in sub-Saharan Africa. This program aims to increase livestock productivity in the region by providing high-quality and climate-resilient Brachiaria grass.

Paul Ko Awono, an Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellow at BecA-ILRI Hub from the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development (IRAD) in Cameroon, is researching how to improve Brachiaria seed production technology in Africa. His study, which is supervised by Sita Ghimire and Kingsley Etchu from BecA-ILRI Hub and IRAD, involves collecting information about Brachiaria seed production systems in the North and Adamawa regions of Cameroon, evaluating agronomic performances of Brachiaria landraces and improved cultivars, and examining the quality of Brachiaria seeds produced by farmers in the country. In Cameroon, Brachiaria seed is often traded as a cash crop and is a source of income for many farmers.

So far, Ko Awono’s research has revealed that the size of the farmlands dedicated to Brachiaria production are smaller (0.25 to 0.5 ha) in the North region compared to those in the Adamawa region (1 to 15 ha). His research also shows that Brachiaria seed yield is low in both regions (≤ 300 kg/ha). Major constraints on Brachiaria production in both regions include weed infestation, wandering animals and lack of market for Brachiaria seeds. Additionally, he has found that Brachiaria landraces mature earlier and are better adapted to harsh environmental conditions than improved cultivars. His research has also uncovered that Brachiaria seeds samples produced by farmers in the two regions are of variable qualities (poor to excellent) and some seeds samples are superior for germination than the improved cultivars.

Paul (middle) with his supervisors at Brachiaria experimental plots at Garoua, North Cameroon

Paul’s research revealed that the size of the farmlands dedicated to Brachiaria production by a farmer were smaller (0.25 to 0.5 ha) in the North region as compared to Adamawa region (1 to 15 ha). His research also indicated that Brachiaria seed yield was low in both regions (≤ 300 kg/ha) and the major constraints of Brachiaria production in both regions were weed infestation, wandering animals, and lack of market for Brachiaria seeds. Additionally, Brachiaria landraces were earlier in maturity and were better adapted to harsh environmental conditions than improved cultivars. His research also uncovered that Brachiaria seeds samples produced by farmers in North and Adamawa region were of variable qualities (poor to excellent) and some seeds samples were superior for germination than improved seeds.  

Ko Awono recognizes the role of the ABCF fellowship, which he received in 2019, has played in his work as a forage researcher. ‘It gave me several opportunities: I learnt how to write research proposals, set up agronomic trials, and collect, analyse, and interpret data.’ He also learned several techniques related to seed quality determination in the laboratory and greenhouse settings.  ‘The training and mentorship I received at BecA-ILRI Hub has played a key role in my work. It helped me to improve my scientific skills, which has made me a better researcher. ‘I am using the skills and knowledge I gained to help Cameroonian farmers increase the quality and quantity of Brachiaria seeds, which will improve their livestock production, incomes and livelihoods,’ he concludes.

Speed Breeding, a promising approach to crop breeding

Speed Breeding is a new and exciting approach to breeding originally inspired by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that promises to develop new crop varieties faster, offering hope for food security in the continent. Through Speed Breeding, African researchers are working to develop new crop varieties faster.

The technique involves growing plants under continuous light (20–22hours). This allows plants to photosynthesize for longer, resulting in faster growth. With this technique, four to six generations of wheat plants can be grown per year instead of two generations under normal growth conditions. The result is researchers develop new crop varieties quicker.

Researchers at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa–International Livestock Research Institute Hub, known as the BecA-ILRI Hub and the John Innes Centre, UK, are bringing the benefits of Speed Breeding to Africa. Scientists Peter Emmrich and Oluwaseyi Shorinola are applying Speed Breeding to grass pea and wheat breeding in Africa, demonstrating that the technique can be used for major and orphan crop breeding.

Breeding for improved wheat lines under Speed Breeding conditions at the BecA-ILRI Hub

Shorinola is developing new wheat lines that have seen increased grain size and protein content and that are resistant to major wheat diseases in East Africa. His research has already resulted in faster growth of wheat plants under Speed Breeding conditions in Africa.

‘Speed breeding is such a simple way of growing plants faster. Unlike many advanced technologies that do not easily translate to Africa, Speed Breeding can easily be adopted by African breeders to accelerate their work. There is no “magic” or complicated science behind it; we are simply using LED lights to extend the length of day for plants, and this makes plants grow faster’, remarks Shorinola.

Emmrich is working on eradicating the toxin produced in grass pea, making it safe to eat in East Africa. Speed Breeding is helping the researchers to breed the low-toxin trait developed at the John Innes Centre, UK, into high-yielding varieties that are adapted to East Africa.

Grass pea is great at surviving extreme weather conditions such as drought and flooding, so the researchers hope non-toxic varieties will contribute to maintaining food and nutritional security as climate change progresses, especially in Ethiopia, where grass pea is already widely consumed.

According to Emmrich: ‘The amount of power needed for the lights and temperature control makes this too expensive for farmers to use. Breeders, however, often have to put their plants through many generation cycles, and in this context Speed Breeding can save both time and money. That means improved varieties can be made available quicker.’

Recognizing the potential of Speed Breeding for accelerating crop improvement in Africa, the BecA-ILRI Hub is planning to expand its Speed Breeding capacity and to integrate it with other modern technologies like gene editing and genomic selection and to make it accessible to African researchers.

Cathrine Ziyomo, BecA-ILRI Hub’s Program lead, says that most of the crops that make significant contributions to Africa’s food security have a lengthy generation time and complex biology. She adds that Speed Breeding presents researchers and plant breeders with unique opportunities to fast track genetic improvements for important traits. 

‘We hope that by establishing a Speed Breeding platform in Africa, the Hub can simultaneously increase access to modern and innovative methods of crop improvement while increasing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of breeding for under-researched crops’, says Ziyomo.

Shorinola and Emmrich’s research is done in partnership with the John Innes Centre, with support from the Royal Society and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), UK.

Africa sits at the frontline of a changing climate system and is very vulnerable to climate change. Agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa needs a boost to feed the 600 million people currently experiencing food insecurity, and the extra 1 billion people expected to live in the next 30 years on the continent. In this light, developing better yielding and more nutritious, climate-resilient crop varieties faster is a major priority for Africa’s researchers.

Research at BecA-ILRI Hub supports vaccine development policy in Kenya

By Jane Githinji, assistant director of veterinary services, Kenya and ABCF alumnus

Jane githinjiAs head of the virology laboratory at the Central Veterinary Laboratories in the Directorate of Veterinary Services (DVS) in Kenya, my responsibilities include laboratory surveillance, and confi rmation and reporting of animal viral diseases. My reports form the basis upon which disease control strategies are developed. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that these reports refl ect the true picture of the disease situation in the country, from which appropriate disease control policies and strategies can be derived.

Like in most developing countries, poultry farming in Kenya is mainly in the hands of the smallholder rural poor, mostly women and young people, and is usually the only livelihood source for smallholder farmers. Outbreaks of infectious viral diseases that cannot be treated pose a major constraint on poultry production. Vaccination is the recommended method of control for these diseases. But vaccines do not always prevent occurrence of a disease.

The apparent failure of vaccines to protect chicken from infectious bursal disease (IBD) got me interested in understanding the cause of the disease despite prompt vaccinations by farmers (IBD causes immune suppression, making chicken more prone to other infectious diseases). I wanted to improve my understanding of the epidemiology of IBD in Kenya, starting with the comparative molecular characterization of the circulating viruses with the currently used vaccine virus strains.

The facilities available at the central veterinary laboratory are suitable for carrying out basic molecular analysis. However, to undertake more advanced molecular research required to gain a better understanding of IBD viruses circulating in Kenya, I needed access to the facilities at the BecAILR Hub. Under the mentorship of the BecA-ILRI Hub scientists, in a very conducive research environment as an ABCF fellow, I learned many skills, including sequence editing and analysis, primer design, scientific paper writing and communicating science to non-scientists. These crosscutting skills will be very useful in improving my diagnostic capacity, and ultimately, scientific data collection for policy development at the DVS.

Based on the feedback and recommendations I gave to the DVS director, I am confident my research findings will form the basis for developing effective IBD control strategies, including diagnosis, vaccination, hatchery surveillance and certification, IBD vaccines registration and vaccine production. Implementation of such strategies will have far reaching impacts on poultry production, poverty alleviation, nutritional security, economic empowerment for women and young people, and self-employment. Reducing antimicrobial residues in poultry products will also contribute to a reduction in antimicrobial drug resistance in humans.

With my newly acquired skills, I will be able to contribute more to livestock research: science, technology and innovation. I am a better mentor to young people, a better leader and manager, a more fulfilled person, and, above all, an asset to my country. My time as an ABCF fellow marked the beginning of what I believe will be a journey full of discoveries, networking, research development and fulfilment.

chicken and chics

Read more about the bioscience research and innovations that underpin development outcomes in the BecA-ILRI Hub 2016 Annual Report.

Supporting African-led agricultural research to drive economic growth – Part 2

Investigating the role of bushmeat in the transmission of zoonotic diseases in Tanzania

Research conducted by the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub in collaboration with National Health Laboratory of the Tanzania Ministry of Health and Social Welfare; Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST); Sokoine University of Agriculture; Tanzania National Parks; Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute; Frankfurt Zoological Society; and Pennsylvania State University.

An outcome of the BecA-ILRI Hub’s Swedish funded initiative to strengthen infrastructural and human capability at NM-AIST, was the awarding of a grant to the institution by the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

The NM-AIST School of Life Sciences and Bioengineering and a consortium of partners including the BecA-ILRI Hub received a grant to investigate the role of bushmeat in the transmission of six pathogens between animals and humans in Tanzania.

An interdisciplinary and multi-institutional team of scientists from Tanzania, Kenya and the US are using state-of-the-art techniques to map the distribution of anthrax, ebola, marburg and monkeypox viruses as well as Brucella and Coxiella in bushmeat in Tanzania. The team assesses the biological risk and potential for impact on human health from these diseases.

The BecA-ILRI Hub provides capacity building, expertise and technology for the microbiome component of the project using the genomics platform. During a week-long workshop facilitated by the BecA-ILRI Hub at NM-AIST, Francesca Stomeo provided training on the theory and practice of the genomics pipeline to be used in the project.

Read more about the bioscience research and innovations that underpin development outcomes in the BecA-ILRI Hub 2016 Annual Report.

bushmeat

Supporting African-led agricultural research to drive economic growth – Part 1

Scaling up the use of Brachiaria grass as a key forage in Africa

Research implemented in Kenya and Rwanda by the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub and national partners — the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and  Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB)

On-farm evaluations in Kenya and Rwanda have confirmed that the use of Brachiaria grass extends forage availability for livestock by up to three dry months. These evaluations also confirmed previous observations of increases in milk production and weight when cattle are fed on Brachiaria grass. Over 6,000 farmers in both countries are growing the four best-bet Brachiaria varieties (Basilisk, MG4, Piatã and Xaraés), which were identified through the use of a participatory approach with key stakeholders. These varieties are being concurrently scaled out in Kenya and Mali by the Accelerated Value Chain Development (AVDD) dairy project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Feed the Future Initiative. There is growing interest and a push to adopt Brachiaria grasses in other countries including Botswana, Cameroon, Mozambique, Namibia and Somalia.

This research has identified potentially beneficial bacteria that occur naturally within the grass (bacterial endophytes). The endophytes could be useful: increasing production of hormones that regulate: plant growth and boost biomass production in Brachiaria; improving soil nutrient solubility and soil fertility; enhancing drought tolerance; and improving the overall health of the grass. These endophytes are currently being evaluated under greenhouse conditions for their ability to confer drought tolerance to Brachiaria.

To ensure the transfer of technologies to national programs, seven researchers from five East African countries were trained on forages biotechnology through the Brachiaria program. After periods of between six and nine months at the BecA-ILRI Hub the NARS researchers returned to their home institutions with transferable skills acquired through the training. An in-depth external review of the program concluded that it has made significant contributions to the improvement of forage availability and livestock productivity in the aforementioned program countries.

Read more about the bioscience research and innovations that underpin development outcomes in the BecA-ILRI Hub 2016 Annual Report.

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Driving Africa’s agricultural development by enabling biosciences innovations

AR 2016 reportIn 2016, the Biosciences eastern and central Africa–International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub celebrated 15 years as a centre for excellence for agricultural research. Against a backdrop of renewed impetus for innovation in agricultural research for development (AR4D) in Africa, BecA-ILRI Hub and its partners showcased their joint achievements in responding to the Science Agenda for Agriculture in Africa (S3A)— leveraging science in an agriculture-led social and economic transformation. The event also offered us an opportunity to acknowledge our donors, whose support has made these accomplishments possible.

Research facilitated by the BecA-ILRI Hub drives the bioscience innovations that underpin development outcomes. The success of the climate-smart Brachiaria program in developing technologies that are readily adapted by farmers has generated a demand for their scaling-up. Strategic partnerships, for instance with the North Carolina State University (NCSU)—leveraging the human resource of advanced research institutions—have enabled groundbreaking work in tackling the devastating cassava mosaic disease, potentially increasing yields in what is a staple crop for over 250 million people in Africa.

Through the Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellowship program, up and coming research fellows from national agricultural research systems (NARS) have contributed to the formulation of evidence-based agricultural policies. For instance, seminal work on maize and food safety has provided a clearer picture of the interventions required throughout the value chain in Rwanda and research into chicken vaccines has supported the elaboration of policies guiding the production of vaccines for infectious bursal disease in Kenya. Moreover, the establishment and support of communities of practice (CoPs) for ABCF alumni has enabled the development of a comprehensive regional approach to the tackling of key livestock and crop research challenges.

In step with technology advances, the BecA-ILRI Hub launched the Integrated Genotyping Service and Support (IGSS) platform to enhance efficiency and precision in plant and livestock breeding, as well as quality seeds assessment. In research led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), application of this new technology has improved understanding of the genetic basis for resistance to maize lethal necrosis (MLN). The ongoing upgrading of the BecA-ILRI Hub’s technology platforms is fast-tracking research within the regional NARS and reducing the need for scientists to leave Africa to do their work.

Working to shape to continent-wide processes, BecA-ILRI Hub staff joined CGIAR research scientists, policymakers, and representatives of higher education networks and the private sector at a workshop to develop the concept of the the African Agricultural Research Programme (AARP). AARP is an initiative led by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) to strengthen the continent’s agricultural research systems for increased productivity, profitability and sustainability. As part of our 2018–2023 strategy, the BecA-ILRI Hub will seek to play a leading role in the application of and support for biosciences in the region. A landscape survey confirmed the comparative advantage of the BecA-ILRI Hub as an important regionally-valued bioscience facility. It identified opportunities to enhance our role in helping set the bioscience agricultural research agenda, as well as an advocate for the government funding of NARS work in bioscience technologies and services.

The coming year will, therefore, be characterized by engagement with key stakeholders to guide the development of our new five-year plan. We remain committed to helping Africa use biosciences as a means of transforming agriculture, bridging the gap between population growth and agricultural productivity on the continent. To the readers of this report, we hope you will accompany us on this grand AR4D journey in Africa. To our many partners and donors, thank you for your support.

Jimmy Smith Director General, ILRI

Jimmy Smith
Director General, ILRI

Appolinaire Djikeng Director, BecA-ILRI Hub

Appolinaire Djikeng
Director, BecA-ILRI Hub

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can download the full 2016 Annual report: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/83016

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