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Over the years, the ABCF program has supported several researchers who have now grown into positions of influence within their institutions. This week we feature two scientists from the national research organizations and are doing great things for agricultural development.

Nina Wambiji, Kenya

As the assistant director of the fisheries program at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) headquarters based in Mombasa, Kenya, Nina Wambiji is the epitome of a scientist who has grown in leaps and bounds. 

As a young researcher, Wambiji was able to secure the African Women in Agricultural Research for Development (AWARD) fellowship and advanced science training placement at BecA-ILRI Hub with the support from the ABCF program. The opportunity gave her the chance to conduct her research on the application of next-generation sequencing approaches to assess the genetic diversity of Siganus (rabbit fish) species from Kenya.  Her interest to work on this species of fish also called tafi by the coastal people is because it has no scales or bones which makes it easy to prepare and eat. At the time of doing this research, there was no data on rabbit fish.

Dr. Wambiji (left) and Dr. Mukhebi, the Deputy Director of AWARD at a previous seminar held at the BecA-ILRI Hub.

She says, “If we are to identify the cause of dwindling populations beyond overfishing it is important that we also understand the fish physiology and genetics, their movements as well as the effects of climate change”.

From this work, she was able to successfully barcode different Siganus species caught along the Kenyan coast. In addition to acquiring molecular biology skills, Wambiji was also able to gain skills in research communication and public speaking which has greatly helped her in her line of work where she engages various stakeholders. In addition, she supervises undergraduate students taking up coastal and marine sciences subjects. She continues to apply the molecular techniques of extracting and processing of total RNA, cDNA synthesis, DNA, gene expression analysis, cloning procedures, sequence analysis through partnering with colleagues attached to molecular laboratories. 

Wambiji is responsible for contributing to the development of the research agenda of KMFRI Strategic plan by contributing to research knowledge, data and projections needed for strategic planning to make KMFRI undertake research as per her mandate and Strategic Plan. She also manages research programs by coordinating proposal developments for research work, planning research teams, coordinating research reporting and reviewing research performance. 

As a senior scientist, her research areas are on fisheries biology and ecology, stock assessment, fish genetics and impacts of fishing gears on marine mammals. She is also the Country Coordinator for the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association, an organization that aims to promote the educational, scientific and technological development of marine sciences throughout the Western Indian Ocean.

Barberine Assongo, Cameroon

Barberine Silatsa Assongo grew up in a small village along the Cameroonian coastal region where her family farmed cacao and maize. Her love for farm animals made the dream of becoming a veterinarian. But as fate would have it, circumstances could not allow Assongo to enroll in the only school of veterinary medicine. Instead, she enrolled for a course in biochemistry at a local university in Cameroon. 

While doing her Ph.D. at the University of Dschang, West Cameroon, Assongo understood her need to gain access to a well-established laboratory where she could do her research. She came across the ABCF fellowship call during her search for scholarships and successfully put in her application.

At BecA-ILRI Hub, Assongo investigated ticks and tick-borne diseases among the cattle population in Cameroon. Within the context of global warming and conflicts that trigger livestock movements and disease dissemination across the region, her aim was to evaluate the current epidemiological status of ticks and tick-borne diseases of cattle in Cameroon with a goal of assembling baseline data and evaluating the risk of disease outbreaks.

She established that Rhipicephalus microplus (Asian blue tick), one of the most important ectoparasites and livestock disease vectors globally, is now present in Cameroon. This species is known to invade and displace endemic species of the same genus, can transmit a broad range of parasites as well as develop resistance against acaricides.  

Since its introduction in West Africa a decade ago, R. microplus has been reported in Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo, Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria with potentially far-reaching adverse impacts on the livestock sector in the region. Because of its strategic location in the central Africa region, Cameroon plays a pivotal role in livestock trade both within the region and between Central Africa and West Africa. The study has highlighted the future importance of the control of R. microplus in Africa and illustrates just how rapidly it is spreading.

Her research findings have already been published in Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases.

Assongo is now back at the University of Dschang as an assistant lecturer as well as a researcher.  She continues to acknowledge BecA’s role in helping her grow and reiterates that she would like to be the ‘Tick Woman’ who is significantly involved within the community of African scientists that safeguard the livestock sector in Africa. She is also very vocal in her gratitude to BecA ILRI Hub and the opportunities she has been able to get along the way. 

“The program helped improve my communication skills, I won a prize for the best oral presentation at the International Congress on Tropical Veterinary Medicine in Buenos Aires in 2018. Thanks to BecA’s ABCF seminar series”.

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In a truly international collaboration, BecA-ILRI hub is partnering with a team of scientists from the John Innes Centre (JIC, UK), University of Bern (Unibe, Switzerland) and the Ethiopia Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR, Ethiopia) to use modern genomics tools to address some of the constraints to tef production.

The team, whose other members include Dr Kebebew Assefa, Dr Solomon Chaleyew, Dr Brande Wulff, Dr Kumar Guarav, Dr Dejene Girma and Dr Zerihun Zadele (Universität Bern), will be sequencing the entire genome of a representative collection of the 200 tef lines from Ethiopia. This will be the first time genome sequencing will be done at this scale in this primarily neglected crops.

In addition to this valuable genomic data, the team will extensively measure different aspects of tef’s growth in the field, allowing them to identify genes controlling different characteristics in tef including grain size and plant height.

Knowing these genes will enable Ethiopian researchers to mix-and-match different essential genes through breeding to develop tef varieties with bigger grain and studier stem.

“We are delighted to work alongside our partners at BecA-ILRI Hub, EIAR and Bern on this important crop. We hope that the use of genomic approaches and training will provide new tools for breeders to develop improved tef cultivars for farmers.”

Prof Cristobal Uauy, Project lead

Tef is an ancient crop grown in Ethiopia for more than 2000 years. It constitutes a large part of the diet of the 112 million people in Ethiopia as it is used to make Ethiopia’s main staple dish – injera, a flat fermented bread eaten daily in virtually every household.

Tef’s ability to grow under harsh environmental conditions and marginal soils makes it a fail-safe crop of choice by many subsistence farmers in Ethiopia.

Tef is also attracting a lot of attention beyond the border of Ethiopia. Over the last decade, tef popularity as a global “superfood” is growing in the western world mainly due to its high nutrient profile with high Fe, Ca, fibre, resistant starch and lysine content. Tef flour is gluten-free.

Although a vital food security crop and an increasingly popular crop, tef is particularly challenging to produce compared to many cereal crops. One big problem with tef production is the very tiny size of its seed small seed.

Tef seeds are (< 1 mm wide and 75 tef seeds weigh as much a single rice grain. The tiny seed size is, however, not the only problem tef farmers are grappling with. Tef plants also have very tiny, slender and weak stems which falls over (lodge) when the plants are ready for harvest causing massive seed losses.

The name tef is actually derived from the Amharic word for lost (“teffa”) bearing reference to the fact that the tiny seeds are lost during harvest.

The project is funded through a FLAIR collaboration grant award from the Royal Society UK to Prof Cristobal Uauy (JIC) and Dr Oluwaseyi Shorinola (BecA-ILRI Hub).

“This is a genuinely equitable north-south collaboration to improve a very important but largely neglected crop in Africa. Our collaboration will produce lasting and valuable genomics resource that Ethiopian researchers can use and re-use for a long time to improve any characteristic of interest in tef.”

Dr Oluwaseyi Shorinola, a co-lead on the project

CONNECTED conducts Virus and vector diagnostics workshop for selected researchers at BecA-ILRI Hub

The Community Network for African Vector-Borne Plant Viruses (CONNECTED) formed a partnership with BecA-ILRI Hub in 2018 that led to a five-day full-funded training course for early career plant molecular biologists from across Africa. The course titled: An introduction to virus and vector diagnostics took place on 11-15 March and was hosted by BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi, Kenya.

The group pose for a photo

The course trained 17 participants from 10 countries, carefully selected after a call for early career researchers interested in virus and vector diagnostics was put out by CONNECTED and shared on various digital platforms. The trainers were Professor Neil Boonham from Newcastle University and Professor Gonçalo Silva from The Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich, UK. Their key objective was to empower the participants with the ability to diagnose cassava and yam diseases by empowering them with practical skills that can easily be used in their fieldwork.

The training began with opening remarks from Jacob Mignouna, BecA-ILRI Hub’s Director: “This training highlights the functions and goals of our diagnostic platform, that is set up to provide knowledge and technologies to help researchers advance their career goals.” This was followed by an introduction of BecA’s technology platforms in a presentation made by BecA’s Technology Manager, Josephine Birungi and a round table introduction of the participants conducted by Julius Osaso, BecA’s diagnostic platform manager.

Professor Boonham then took the trainees through an introduction to DNA Bar-coding and instructed them on how to achieve high quality results to start off the training, which was followed by a lab induction by ILRI’s health and safety department (EOHS). After lunch, the trainees began their lab training that involved DNA extraction and PCR amplification.

Over the next couple of days, the trainees were taken through gel electrophoresis, product purification, DNA prep for sequencing, LAMP and RPA amplification, Database searching and DNA clustering. The training sessions included a morning outline of activities and questions from the trainees, and a recap of the day’s activities and general questions at the end of the training days.

“I am glad that this workshop has brought in participants from our partner institutions such as NACRRI with whom we already have on-going projects, but also the renewed opportunities for other partnerships.” Julius Osaso, Diagnostics Manager, BecA-ILRI Hub.

 “I have learnt techniques such as bar-coding that will help me distinguish the species of insects like the whitefly, which is very important for the work that I do. I have to thank CONNECTED network and BecA for this opportunity.” Helen Apio, NACRRI, Uganda

“I am a trained entomologist with no prior experience on some of these techniques such as PCR and DNA extraction, which are very important to me and my project work, which is on aphids. I am grateful to CONNECTED because I can now integrate entomology and microbiology to reach greater heights in my career.” Honest Machekano, Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST), Botswana.

“The training has strengthened my skills, which is great for my career, I now know how to diagnose viruses and identify insect pests for plans, I will now be to identify what lies in resistant virus lines.” Fred Masika, ABCF alumni, Uganda.

The course funding included travel, accommodation, course fees and subsistence. The participants came from 10 countries: Benin, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

The CONNECTED network is a project that is working to build a sustainable network of international scientists and researchers to tackle vector-borne plant diseases that devastate lives in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Early career researchers who might be interested in similar opportunities are invited to join the CONNECTED network, which is free of charge by following this link.

The African Academy of Sciences and Royal Society announce the recipients of the FLAIR scheme that is awarding £25M, (£300,000 each) to 30 early career African research scientists.

We are proud to announce that Dr Oluwaseyi Shorinola is one of the scientists that have been awarded £300,000 (Approx. US$400,000) over 2 years. Oluwaseyi’s FLAIR research fellowship will be carried out at the BecA-ILRI Hub.

FLAIR (Future Leaders – African Independent Research) is a programme of The African Academy of Science and Royal Society, with support from the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). The fellowship is designed to help talented early-career researchers, whose science is focused on the needs of the continent, establish independent careers in African institutions and ultimately, their own research groups. Up to 30 FLAIR fellowships will be awarded in 2019 to researchers from Cameroon, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Dr Shorinola has a pre-existing relationship with the BecA-ILRI Hub, where he was on secondment as a post-doctoral scientist from the John Innes Centre (JIC), UK. His post-doctoral work focused on understanding the genetic control of important economic traits in wheat including grain quality and root development. He is using a combination of mutational genomics approaches, high-throughput phenotyping, next-generation sequencing and classical genetics to identify genes involved in grain quality traits and root development and will deploy these to develop improved wheat varieties.

He is additionally involved in the ACACIA (acaciaafrica.org) partnership – a strategic partnership between JIC and the BecA-ILRIHub. Under this partnership, Oluwaseyi is coordinating an extensive 2-year bioinformatics training programme to building a support network for agricultural research in Africa.

His research as a FLAIR fellow at BecA-ILRI Hub will focus on using genetics to improve the yield and quality of wheat production in East Africa.  Olywayesi will particularly focus on using “speed” breeding to introduce five beneficial genes for grain size, protein content and disease resistance into East Africa wheat.

Kodjo Glato was one of 157 passengers and crew who tragically perished in the crash of flight ET302 on 10 March 2019

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA)-ILRI Hub express their profound sympathy to all those who were bereaved when their family members, friends or colleagues tragically lost their lives in the Ethiopian Airlines crash on Sunday, 10 March 2019.

A Togolese national, Dr Glato was an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Lomé, Togo, a partner institution of ILRI’s. He was on his way to Nairobi to attend a BecA-ILRI Hub training course that is part of the Community Network for African Vector-Borne Plant Viruses (CONNECTED).

Dr Glato was a biotechnologist and plant physiologist working on agricultural genetic diversity and smallholder farming practices associated with sweetpotato cultivation. He received his PhD in 2015 from the University of Lomé.

Staff and partners at the BecA-ILRI Hub knew him as a hardworking, affable and dedicated young professional. He was part of a new generation of scientists contributing to Togo’s agricultural development.

Kodjo Glato inspired many with his drive and tenacity. He was known to take on challenges with monumental zeal. His passion for the smallholder farmer will be badly missed. May he rest in peace.
—Jacob Mignouna, director of the BecA-ILRI Hub
It is always sad to lose a colleague suddenly. But to lose a colleague at the very start of his career, with so much left to contribute, is a tragedy.
—Jimmy Smith, director general of ILRI

‘On behalf of ILRI’, Jimmy Smith said, ‘we extend our deepest condolences to Kodjo Glato’s family, friends and colleagues as well as to all those who lost colleagues, friends and loved ones on flight ET302.’

Florence’s study aims to save smallholder farmers’ from losing passion fruit production

Florence Munguti was an ABCF fellow at BecA-ILRI Hub in 2014 when she began her study to identify viruses associated with passion fruit woodiness disease.

In Kenya, the passion fruit is one of the top three export fruits, coming close behind the mango and avocado in terms of foreign exchange earnings.  It is grown mainly by smallholder farmers for subsistence and commercialization and has great potential to alleviate poverty due to its high market value and the crop’s short maturity period. However, many farmers are making great losses due to the devastating effects of the woodiness viral disease that stifles passion fruit production. This makes it one of the most dangerous diseases of the purple passion fruit.

In November 2014, she began her study with the collection of passion fruit leaf samples already showing symptoms of the disease in Njoro, Nakuru county, Kenya. At our laboratories, she used next generation sequencing to identify viruses associated with passion fruit woodiness disease in Kenya. The sequence analysis revealed the presence of complete genome sequences for Cow pea aphid-borne mosaic virus (CABMV) previously associated with woodiness viral disease in Kenya.

Woodiness disease is caused by the CABMV, transmitted by sap sacking insects such as aphids and mites as well as using infected tools in the management of the crop for example during pruning. The disease is characterized by light yellow discoloration on the leaves and a woody hard fruit, hence the “woodiness” name.

The sequences and information obtained in this study will be useful in development of more sensitive diagnostic assays that can be used to detect the disease. Florence’s paper titled: Transcriptome Sequencing Reveals a Complete Genome Sequence of Cowpea Aphid-Borne Mosaic Virus from Passion Fruit in Kenya is available here



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Bunmi Olasanmi, a lecturer and a researcher at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, swears that the most exciting thing about science is developing improved varieties of crops for greater yields.

Olasanmi’s work focuses on cassava, he chose to work on cassava because it is vital to the economy of Nigeria, which is also the world’s largest producer of the crop in the world mainly through subsistence farming.

A new variant of the root crop is the yellow cassava, that is fortified with Vitamin A, a critical nutrient that meets nutrition requirements and improves human health. But biofortified varieties of cassava are susceptible to cassava mosaic disease (CMD). They also have poor plant architecture making them unsuitable for intercropping, which is important to small-scale farmers.

Selecting outstanding genotypes to develop CMD resistant varieties of cassava using conventional screening methods alone may take about 10 years. As an ABCF fellow, Olasanmi used molecular markers to accelerate the process of developing new varieties. Out of over 600 genotypes screened at BecA-ILRI Hub, he was able to identify 68 cassava genotypes with resistance to CMD and high beta carotene content. The clonal evaluation of cassava genotypes for desirable traits are ongoing and the field evaluations will be conducted at different locations in Nigeria for two seasons starting in 2019.

The University of Ibadan has a laboratory where Olasanmi could have done this work. However, it does not have adequate infrastructure to support all his research activities. Olasanmi received his PhD in plant breeding from University of Ibadan. He was awarded a fellowship from the Institute for Genomic Diversity at Cornell University and was a finalist in the third Africa-wide young professionals in science competition that was run by the Young Professionals in Agricultural Research and Development.

Despite the growing demand for cross-nationally-comparable statistics on women in science, national data and their use in policymaking remains limited. A study conducted by UNESCO, published in June 2018 indicates that women account for 28.8% of the world’s researchers

BecA-ILRI Hub is constantly seeking to close the gender gap by encouraging women researchers to participate in the different opportunities the platform provides.

Obaiya Utoblo is a PhD student at the University of Ghana, West Africa Center for Crop (WACCI), who had the opportunity to participate in one of BecA-ILRI Hub’s trainee workshops that equipped students with skills in science communication. The trainees were equipped with data management and communication skills, which provided them with the essentials of effective communication especially while speaking to a non-scientific audience.

While at BecA, Obaiya had the chance to interact with other women in science which gave her the valiance necessary to work towards her career goals.

Read more about her experience as a woman in science on the ISAAA website here

Growing up in Uganda, Joanne Adero’s dream was to be a doctor. Unfortunately, her dream to study medicine was not actualized, so instead she opted to embark on a course in biomedical laboratory technology at Makerere University. She discovered her love for science when she took a module on microbiology, this which led to her passion for research that put her on a path to study sweet potatoes.

Adero is a research assistant at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Uganda where she is part of the Genomic Tools for Sweet Potato Improvement Project team. Besides developing genomics and modern breeding tools, the project places emphasis on capacity building and empowering research staff of national partners to carry out molecular work within their programs.

Due to its outstanding effort in capacity building, the BecA-ILRI Hub offers a perfect base to train in the use of modern, high-end bioscience technologies including genomics, genetics and bioinformatics tools to facilitate crop improvement and improve genetic gains in sweet potato.

Adero secured an opportunity to conduct her research at BecA-ILRI Hub through the ABCF program. “Conducting my research at BecA-ILRI Hub was one of my best career decisions because it gave her the opportunity to develop my capacity in molecular biology, genomics and bioinformatics,” she says.

While at BecA-ILRI Hub, Adero worked on molecular variability of sweet potato viruses to understand the nature of viral disease-causing organisms that are heavily affecting production of sweet potato in Uganda.

The project enabled the determination of sweet potato viruses that exist in Uganda and their genetic diversity and distribution. Ten different viruses were detected including sweet potato badnavirus and sweet potato symptomless virus which have not been previously reported in the country.

In addition, her work helped generate the full genome sequence of the sweet potato feathery mottle virus, sweet potato virus c and sweet potato chlorotic fleck virus in Uganda.

The Genomic Tools for Sweet Potato Improvement Project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and led by the North Carolina State University (NCSU) in partnership with the International Potato Center (CIP), the Boyce Thomson Institute at Cornell University, Michigan State University, the University of Queensland, the Uganda National Agricultural Research Organization, National Crops Resources Research Institute, the Ghana Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Crops Research Institute (CRI) and BecA-ILRI Hub.

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.