More than 30 researchers converged on the Conference Center of IITA Ibadan campus for a 3-day conference tagged: “Supporting soil health consortia in West Africa: facilitating wider uptake of better adapted Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) practices with visible positive impacts on rural livelihoods.”
The goal of the workshop is to improve agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers by promoting the uptake of appropriate ISFM technologies.
The event was declared open by Dr Ylva Hillbur, IITA DDG (Research), who introduced participants to IITA’s ongoing research, mission, and milestones achieved over the years as well as happenings across all hubs.
Dr Marie Rarieya, AGRA Program Officer, Education and Training Soil Health Program (SHP) underscored the importance of soil health in the agricultural value chain, and attributed the low agricultural productivity in Africa to declining soil fertility.
She noted that AGRA has taken a huge step in addressing this gap but pointed out that there has to be a consensus on goals and more concerted efforts by all stakeholders involved.
“Research must be up scaled to meet up with the agricultural transformation in Africa and this can only be achieved through a synergetic effort of all partners” she said.
The meeting was facilitated by Stefan Hauser (Root and Tuber Systems Agronomist) and Zoumana Bamba, IITA Head of Capacity Development.
“It is life. Without it there is no life,” Langano Mamo, 40 year old mother of five from Lage village in Sidama Zone in Southern Ethiopia summarizes the importance of enset in her life. Enset, also known as false banana because of its resemblance to the crop but its fruits are inedible, is an ancient indigenous crop in Ethiopia-the only country in the world where it has been domesticated and grown for over 10,000 years.
The crop is an important staple for over 20 million people in the central and Southern parts of Ethiopia where it is mostly grown by small-holder farmers such as Langano for food, livestock and fiber which is used for making baskets and constructing their traditional huts.
“We eat enset every day. We make very many traditional foods and snacks from the stem including Bulla, a porridge which is fed to women who have delivered for 40 days so they can regain their strength,” she says.
However, the production of this ancient crop is greatly threated by the deadly bacterial wilt disease which attacks all its varieties and is found in all the enset growing areas of the country. The disease, caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. Musacearum (Xcm) was first detected in Ethiopia in 1968 in enset. In 2001 it was found in Uganda in banana and has since spread to other countries in east and central Africa such as eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi where it causes annual loses of over USD 500 Million.
“We do not know how the disease was contained in Ethiopia for so, long over 30 years, or how it crossed over to Uganda. We assume it could be because of the weather as enset grows in cool areas in Ethiopia so its spread very slowly. However, once it enters a field, it spreads out very rapidly and can wipe off the banana and enset very fast,” says Dr Leena Tripathi, a plant biotechnologist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). “The disease is threatening to wipe off banana and enset as scientists have failed to find any genes of resistance to the bacterium in banana and enset and their wild relatives after over 30 years of research.”
The disease is spread by insect vectors such as aphids and beetles; through sharing of infected planting material among farmers and the use of contaminated farming tools. Control measures are mostly sanitary where farmers are advised to use clean planting material and to disinfect farming tools after each use. They should also closely monitor their fields for the disease uprooting any plant that shows symptoms. , and letting their land to lay fallow for six months to ensure all the bacteria in the soil has been destroyed before replanting banana or enset.
“For the control measures to work, all farmers in a region must cooperate. One lax farmer can lead to failure and making all the other farmers efforts a waste,” Dr Tripathi explains. “The most effective control measure is to develop banana and enset varieties resistant to the disease.”
Green pepper to the rescue
With no known sources of resistance in the banana or enset and their wild varieties, scientists were forced to seek for the resistant genes elsewhere. Scientists from IITA and the National Research Organization (NARO), Uganda, identified two such genes in sweet pepper, Hypersensitive Response-Assisting Protein gene (Hrap) and a Plant Ferredoxin-Like Protein gene (Pflp) and they have successfully transferred the genes to some popular banana varieties. The transformed plants have shown very strong resistance to the disease in the lab, in screen houses and in confined field trials in Uganda. The genes were acquired from Academia Sinica Taiwan through the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF).
It’s enset time
A new project led by IITA and funded by the by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation is seeking to among others transfer this technology to enset to develop varieties that are resistant to the deadly disease in a bid to protect the food and livelihood security of over 20 million people in Ethiopia dependent on the crop.
“Enset is an important crop in Ethiopia. The discovery of the crop and the food processing technologies are indigenous to Ethiopia. The crop is also resistant to drought and is one the crops that small-holder farmers can rely on in the face of climate change. However, the wilt is a production challenge that our scientists have been addressing for many years with little success in developing resistant varieties,’ said Dr Adugna Wakjira, the Deputy Director of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) while officially launching the project
“Currently all control measures are sanitary. This project is therefore very timely and relevant to the country as we have to use modern tools in addition to our traditional conventional breeding to solve this problem,” he said.
The project will also work with the policy makers to put in place the necessary policy and regulations in place to allow such research to be conducted in the country.
“Each time I meet farmers they ask me to save their dying enset. We have been conducting research on enset for over 30years and we have received seven improved varieties. But they are all susceptible to the disease except for one which shows mild tolerance. This project is therefore very welcome,” says Dr Nigussie Dana, the Director General for the Southern Agriculture Research Institute in Hawassa – the heart of enset growing land.
‘We are happy that enset is now receiving the attention it deserves. The crop despite being important to over a quarter of the population of the country
has been an orphan crop receiving less attention from researchers as compared to cereals and cash crops. It is also relatively unknown among international researchers as it is only an important staple in Ethiopia,” he said.
The project was initiated following on a report “Assessment of Biotechnology and Biosafety Capacity in Ethiopia” conducted by a team from AU/NEPAD African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE), Burkina Faso; Michigan State University (MSU), USA and Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), Ethiopia.
After the assessment, ATA requested the Gates foundation to support collaborative initiatives between EIAR and IITA to build the capacity of national scientists and research facilities to conduct transgenic research and to support policy makers to effectively create an improved policy environment to facilitate the research in the country.
Beneficiaries of the AGRA-IITA training course on good laboratory practices and laboratory information management systems have commended the two institutions for building their capacities, saying that the training they received was helping to make them more efficient. During a visit by AGRA-IITA team to the Nigerian Institute of Science Laboratory Technology (NISLT), Samonda, Ibadan; one of the beneficiaries, Nkem Michael-Uwaje, who is also a staff of NISLT explained how she has been able to put into effective use the knowledge she gathered from the training and how this has positively affected the quality of her work and those of her colleagues especially with the tips on how to generate internal control samples with the aid of certified reference material.
“Before the AGRA-funded training, protocols/laboratory operations in the unit were poor, but this situation has improved,” she said while taking the team comprising Marie Rarieya, AGRA Program Officer, and Joseph Uponi, Manager, IITA Analytical Services Lab, on a tour of her laboratory.
“Also during the training, I met and networked with other professionals from different countries in Africa. Since then, our network has grown. I am now able to keep a close tab on my colleagues and compare my work with what they are doing in other African countries. This way, I have been able to monitor how well my work is going. It was really an exciting time for me,” she added.
Nkem is just one among the several persons trained this year, thanks to funds from AGRA. Also in attendance during the visit were two other beneficiaries of the training from the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training (IART) Ibadan, namely Ms Tayo-Aruna Abidemi and Mr Popoola Joseph.
Receiving the team, Dr Ighodalo F. Ijagbone, Director General, NISLT, said the Institute’s collaboration with IITA and AGRA in training and research had been very productive, especially as laboratory practice was concerned.
As a regulator of lab practice, Dr Ijagbone said, “We will support whatever role you want us to play. One of our core functions is capacity building and we have our members across universities, institutes, and polytechnics.”
Dr Rarieya said the aim of the visit was to strengthen partnerships across the institutions.
“AGRA strongly values partnerships and networking…And for us to create impact, we need to build capacity, from farmers to laboratory technicians. In AGRA we are constantly thinking of how we can work with partners to increase productivity,” she explained.
She pledged to strengthen the partnership already established with the institute especially as NISLT will be hosting the in-country course in soil and plant analysis in January 20–24, 2014. Similar in-country training will also take place in collaboration with Kwame Nkrumah University from January 6–11, 2014 for laboratory technicians in Ghana.
The AGRA-IITA team also made a brief stop-over at the Agronomy Department of the University of Ibadan where they met with Mr Omosuli Sunday, a beneficiary of the on-site training in soil and plant analysis which took place in March 2013 at IITA, Ibadan.
These past few weeks have been extremely busy but fun and exciting here at IITA.
First of all, we had our Open Day on 16 November. And boy, was that a big shindig! We had almost 5000 thousand guests – mostly families and friends of staff – trooping into our campus in Ibadan.
We started off the day’s celebrations with an open house at the Conference Center where we showcased samples of the work that we do with science and research exhibitions. A lot of the kids (and the kids-at-heart) got a kick out of looking through some microscopes and trying their hands on some gear (with the help of our scientists, of course). We also treated the guests to a movie of what we do, which I think was really cool.
Among the highlights of Open Day, Long Service Awards were conferred on staff who had served the institute for 10, 20, and 30 years. Wow, talk about loyalty and service! I was also excited when the retirees of 2013 were recognized. These are the fellows who have given so much of themselves to IITA, and they deserved all the recognition.
I was also impressed by the scholars who were given their scholarships by the IITA Women’s Group during the day, especially Segun Daramola, the boy they endearingly called “Prof”. Because of his outstanding academic performance my colleague Dr Akuffo-Akoto gave “Prof” a full scholarship out of his own pocket. Kids like these renew my faith and hope in Africa and its potentials.
Oh, I would have to really put my hands up for this group of our young staff – Bode Olaoluwa, Owija Odihi, Opeyemi Oyatomi, and Soji Akinyemi – who put together a modern and hippy song I am IITA. I never thought that a song about an agricultural research institution could be so cool and hip. This song will probably be permanently in my playlist and it might be in yours, too, once you hear it. It was really amazing!
Of course, no occasion is ever complete without the cultural dancers and musicians. They really spiced up the day, especially for those coming from outside Nigeria. The young ones (and those young once) were also not left out as the tennis courts at the Sports Center were virtually transformed into a kids’ paradise complete with games and jumping castles. Talk about fun!
And do you think our scientists and staff are only good in research? Think again! A dance-off among staff and guests was also held, with winners, chosen by the cheering audience, going home with some really nice prizes.
Then we capped the day’s celebrations by raffling some prizes. The grand prize – a vacation travel package to Accra, Ghana, 3 days and 2 nights complete with return air fare, hotel accommodation, and pocket money – was won by Hakeem Opadeyi, a mechanic working at the Facilities Management Service. I was just glad I had picked out the winning ticket that contained his name.
Through this blog, I would like to thank all those who made this Open Day so successful. I won’t name each one of you, there are just too many. But this also goes to show that here at IITA we are not just an organization, but also a family. And I can’t wait until the next Open Day! I am sure it will be even greater.
By the way, if you want to see in photos what I’ve just been telling you, please grab a copy of the special Open Day pictorial issue of Talking Drums.
Catch you again in my next blog!
PS: I think I am really getting a hang of this blogging thing. What do you think? Let me know.