Monday, December 19, 2011

Handle with care

IITA scientist cautions against promoting tissue-culture plantlets as a stand-alone technology at the fourth ISHS-ProMusa symposium in Brazil

Farmers using banana plantlets produced through tissue culture, or TC plantlets as they are often called, can stand to increase their household annual income by as much as 50%, a study conducted in Kenya found. Such results support the claim that TC plantlets can help farmers make the transition from subsistence to small-scale commercial farming, but it’s more than just a matter of switching planting material.

TC plantlets are relatively fragile and require appropriate management practices if they are to realize their full potential, as Thomas Dubois of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) explained in a talk on lessons learned from East Africa presented during the fourth ISHS-ProMusa symposium in Brazil.

In East Africa, bananas are traditionally propagated by suckers. In Kenya, only 7% of the banana production area has been established using TC plantlets. In Uganda and Burundi, the area cultivated with TC plantlets is even lower. One reason is the higher cost of TC plantlets. Suckers may be cheaper for establishing a new field, they have a major drawback. They usually come with baggage, the pests and diseases they have picked up along the way, whereas the process of tissue culturing eliminates pathogens, except viruses which, as cell parasites, need to undergo specific therapies. In East Africa, however, the quality of TC plantlets tends to be variable, largely because commercial producers are for the most part unregulated. The IITA scientist underscored the urgent need for certification schemes to improve the quality and health status of TC plantlets.

Producing good quality plantlets is one thing. The manner in which TC plantlets are delivered to farmers is also important. In East Africa, developmental NGOs tend to be the main supplier of banana TC plantlets. While their intentions are good, notes Dubois, they can contribute to giving TC plantlets a bad reputation if farmers are not shown how to handle them, especially during the critical period immediately following transplantation in the field. If the plantlets get off to a wrong start and the harvest is below what they have been told to expect, farmers may tell their friends not to invest in TC plantlets. At least, that’s what Dubois and his colleagues believe happened when, as part of a study on the drivers of adoption, they found that having in one’s social network a high proportion of farmers who have used TC plantlets is negatively correlated with adoption of the technology. Some of these early adopters probably had negative experiences with banana TC plantlets and shared them with their friends.

“The transfer of TC material to subsistence farmers needs to be undertaken as part of an encompassing training program or input package” stresses Dubois, who also adds that offering TC plantlets at subsidized prices may also be counter-productive. “The technology will benefit farmers most when sustainable distribution systems are in place, through nurseries, for example.” The IITA researcher gives as a model Kenya, where nurseries for weaning and hardening plantlets are run independently from TC producers and are generally owned by farmer groups who are also customers of these nurseries.

To assess the impact of training, prospective nursery operators and farmers in Burundi, Kenya and Uganda were trained in technical and agronomic aspects (such as the construction and maintenance of humidity chambers and screenhouses for nursery operators, and water management after field transplantation for farmers), as well as in marketing, business, group formation and financing. The scientists then collected agronomic and economic data on 1,350 banana plants in 87 farmer fields in Burundi and Uganda. Farmers were randomly divided into three groups: non-TC farmers, untrained TC farmers, and trained TC farmers. During the first crop cycle, there was no difference in yield between farmers who had planted suckers and those who had used TC material but had not received training. However, because fewer plants were lost and larger bunches were harvested, yields in plots managed by TC farmers who had received training was twice as high. And because the trained farmers were better at marketing their bananas and obtaining higher prices, they earned up to three times as much as the untrained TC farmers.

In the end, however, the decision to invest in TC plants may be determined by the distance to market. Dubois and his colleagues saw a similar trend of diminishing returns the further away farmers are from their market, as has been observed for fertilizer use. In Uganda at least, it looks as if the economics are not favourable to a large-scale adoption of TC plantlets any time soon. Indeed, only 20% of the banana production occurs in the central region where it is most profitable to use TC plantlets because of the proximity to Kampala, the country’s capital and main market.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tanzania's PM lays foundation stone on IITA’s state-of-the art science building

IITA hopes to boost its research efforts to secure the food and income for millions of smallholder farmers in eastern and central Africa, a region that experiences severe food shortages from time to time, with the construction of a state-of the art-science research block in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The building whose foundation stone was laid by the country’s Prime Minister, Hon Mizengo Kayanza Peter Pinda recently, is expected to be completed in October next year (2012) and will serve the institute’s research for development activities in 17 countries in the region.

Speaking during the foundation-stone-laying ceremony, Hon Pinda thanked the IITA Board of Trustees for honoring the country by choosing it as the Regional Hub for eastern and central Africa and for investing its resources in the much needed building that will strengthen agricultural research in the country.

He noted the building would generate much needed scientific research to provide solutions to problems of food security and poverty alleviation therefore improving the lives of millions of small-holder farmers in the country and the region.

He said that agriculture was the backbone of Tanzania's economy and played an important role in its overall economic development and the livelihood of its people. He said statistics showed that in 2009, the agriculture sector contributed 24.6 percent towards the Country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and during the 2009/2010 farming season, the sector managed to produce 12.32 million tonnes of food against an estimated demand of about 11.15 million tonnes, leading to food self-sufficiency of about 110.6 Percent.

However, he said the overall productivity was still very low and that the country had not achieved its goals on food security and poverty alleviation by ensuring adequate and surplus food production, for local consumption and for export.

Furthermore, he noted there were still more challenges ahead in the pursuit for food self sufficiency and poverty alleviation posed by the increasing population coupled with global warming which, called for more investment of resources - money, human resource and infrastructure development and greater collaboration in agricultural research among local, regional and international institutions.
Agricultural research, Hon Pinda said, has a very important role to play to generate knowledge on how to sustainably increase productivity. These include providing improved high yielding varieties resistant to the major pests and diseases, good agronomical practices to get the maximum yield and sustainable and cost effective ways to control pests and diseases and on processing and proper post harvest handling of the farmers’ produce.

While welcoming the honorable Prime Minister to lay the building’s foundation stone, the outgoing Board chair Prof Bryan Harvey, in a speech read on his behalf by Prof Bruce Coulman -the new incoming board chair-, thanked the Government of Tanzania for its commitment to agriculture and agricultural research in the country.

He said that IITA had been operating in Tanzania for many years, primarily through special projects, but was elevated to be the institute's regional hub for East and Central Africa in 2005 to support the expansion of the its (th institute’s) activities in the region.

He said the expansion created the need for more space and resources and hence the decision, once more by the Board of Trustees, to acquire the present property of 2.3 acres and to invest in new research facilities, one of which was the modern and energy-efficient science block which was the first of its kind in Tanzania.

The IITA science building is an ultra-modern, environmentally friendly building with state-of-the-art, energy-efficient construction, appliances, and renewable energy sources, such as solar water heating, solar power, and natural lighting. It will reduce its energy use by 65-70% with efficient air handling control. It is dedicated to the fight against hunger and poverty and will contribute towards boosting agricultural productivity in the region.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Farmers embrace new technologies to get healthy banana planting material

Small and delicate
Kagimbi Tharcisse lifts up the transparent polythene sheet and delicately pulls back some soil to proudly show us the tiny banana plantlets growing underneath. Small and delicate, they will be gently taken care of for two months. Each will then be replanted in polythene bags, to grow bigger and stronger and in three months, it will be ready for the farmers’ fields.

The banana plantlets were obtained through a rather more complicated process compared to the traditional way of growing banana using suckers – these are the daughters growing at the base of the mother plant that farmers uproot from their own farms or buy from a neighbor. It is a slow method of obtaining planting material and it easily spreads pests and diseases from one farm to another if the suckers are not properly selected and treated.

However this new technology, known as macro-propagation, aims at overcoming these two challenges – it allows the rapid production of pest-free planting material. In this new procedure, Tharcisse explains, one starts by selecting a vigorous healthy-looking sucker – the type that only has very thin pointed leaves and using a large knife peels of the dirt and roots. Next, it is immersed in hot boiling water for 30 seconds to kill any pests. The outer leave sheaths are then carefully peeled off to expose the meristem - the growing part at the center of the plant.
The meristem is cut into pieces which are placed in special sterilized chambers lined with transparent polythene sheets for extra warmth, humidity and light for 15 days during which they will sprout many little plantlets. These plantlets are carefully detached once they grow 2 to 3 leaves and planted in pots with sterilized soils to acclimatize. They are ready for field planting after 2 to 3 months. And though using this method, a sucker can produce up to twenty plantlets instead of just one.
Tharcisse is a member of a farmers association in Muyinga, eastern Burundi known as the ‘Tukarukire Gitok’ meaning let us rehabilitate banana in the local language.

The group received training on macro-propagation from the Consortium for improving agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) project as part of efforts to ensure farmers have adequate healthy planting material of their desired varieties, be they local or improved varieties to curb the spread of banana pests and diseases. The group then used its own funds to start the macro-propagation to meet their demand for clean planting material.

The CIALCA project brings together various partners and donors to improve farm level productivity through, among others, promoting Integrated Pest and Disease Management. It is led by Bioversity International, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (TSBF-CIAT).

Eagerly awaited..
Bakame Pankris, another member of the group is eagerly awaiting the new planting material. “Our bananas were getting diseases and we were getting very poor yields. Then we discovered these new FHIA varieties which are high yielding and are not attacked by diseases. With FHIA, we are getting even up to 100 kgs per bunch while most of our local varieties rarely exceed 25 kgs” he says. “I now want to increase the banana in my farm as we are doing very good business with traders from Tanzania who come to buy in the farms.”

Pankris explains that by using the plantlets most of his banana will grow uniformly and be ready for harvest almost at the same time. He will then call the traders for collection. However, when using the traditional method, the bananas grow at different rates.

FHIA are a range of hybrid banana varieties from the Honduran Agricultural Research Foundation that CIALCA and its partners are promoting in the region as field trials have shown they are high yielding, have varieties that are suitable for the different banana uses – cooking, dessert, juicing, and making beer and are well accepted by farmers.

Deadly banana diseases
In Burundi, banana is one of the important sources of food and income for farmers. However, the crop is under attack from a plethora of diseases and pests. Of special concern are the bacterial Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) and the viral Banana Bunchy Top Disease (BBTD) which have the potential to wipe out this important food and income crop as all banana varieties are susceptible.

BBTD, described once as the banana version of AIDS by Lava Kumar, a plant virologist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) leads to stunted plants which do not produce fruits and eventually die. It has been spreading havoc on the crop through West and Central Africa including Burundi and neighboring DR Congo and Rwanda.

BXW, whose symptoms include the wilting of leaves, premature ripening of bunches and rotting of fruit, and eventual death of the plant, is destroying banana in East African countries including Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Dr Congo. In Burundi both diseases are present with recent confirmation of BXW in parts of the country and frantic efforts are underway to control their spread.

The diseases are mostly spread through the exchange of infected planting material and use of infected farm tools. Control measures include uprooting and burning any infected plant to stop their spread, timely removal of male bud and disinfecting farm tools.

Disease free planting material
According to Emmanuel Njukwe of CIALCA, due to the threat to banana posed by the two diseases, there is an increased demand for healthy planting material and good management practices. Use of tissue culture planting material is the most effective and safest way to get clean planting material. However, it is a complicated and costly technology.
“The plantlets are expensive, with a single plant costing up to 1 USD though most farmers receive them through development organizations. They are fragile and need a lot of care, like babies,” he says. “Untrained farmers often have bad experiences with the delicate tissue culture plantlets in the past and do not want anything to do with them.”

Njukwe however says they should not avoid the use of clean tissue culture plantlets and the project is therefore finding ways of integrating it with macro-propagation.

“We are promoting macro-propagation as an alternative and to complement tissue culture. We are working with NGOs and farmers groups as our go-between with the farmers. We give them healthy tissue culture plantlets of the varieties they want, local or improved. They then take care of them in mother gardens and after 6 to 8 months, they start to field multiply using decapitation techniques or macro-propagation to obtain more plants for distribution to farmers,” he says.

“To ensure they are indeed disease free, we first send samples to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) at Ibadan, Nigeria or Kawanda agricultural research station in Uganda for disease testing and virus indexing and discard any that is infected,” he explains. One such development partners is the Post-conflict Program for Rural Development (PPCDR) funded by the European Union which has hired 12 technicians who will work with CIALCA, the farmers associations and NGOs to promote the use of tissue culture banana and rapid propagation techniques.

According to Piet van Asten, an IITA agronomist working on the project, Burundi is one of the countries that is food insecure as a result of a high population density, increasingly smaller farm sizes, and low yields. All efforts must therefore be made to increase production and protect farmers' harvest from pests and diseases.

And farmers like Tharcisse and Bakame are ready to embrace new and better ways of farming to increase their production and improve their livelihoods.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

War for food, war for space. Is this the future of Central Africa?

Unless there is widespread adoption of sustainable agricultural intensification in Central Africa region, the future looks grim, according to Nteranya Sanginga, director general designate of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

Speaking to journalists at a press conference on the opening day of the CIALCA conference, Challenges and opportunities for agricultural intensification of the humid highland systems of sub-Saharan Africa, in Kigali, Rwanda, today, Sanginga made the scale of the challenge in the region clear.

“In Rwanda and Burundi…we have almost 400 inhabitants per square kilometre. That’s huge. The question will be, can the land support the population we have?”
Without sustainable intensification of food production, there will be a high price, he continued.

“We will be going back to the situation of war – and not because of ethnicity – war for food, war for space. “

Delegates at the CIALCA conference are hearing about and sharing some examples of sustainable agricultural intensification in the Great Lakes Region of Africa.

Examples include the widespread adoption of high-yielding climbing beans in Rwanda to boost food production, dietary protein, and improve soil fertility, and efforts to intercrop high-value coffee plants, with staple crops like banana.

Hopefully, it is these kinds of innovations that can help steer the region towards a brighter future.

Press Release: Feeding a Booming Population on Less Land

Experts highlight Rwanda’s progress in food security, but warn of significant challenges for Africa’s most conflict-ridden region in the face of climate change

KIGALI, RWANDA (25 October 2011) – Unless there is widespread use of farm approaches and innovations that can grow more food with less land, countries in Central Africa’s densely populated Great Lakes region could face increased conflict and greater instability in coming decades, warned agricultural experts meeting in Kigali this week to examine the challenges and opportunities for sustainably improving farm production in Central Africa.

Although good rainfall and temperatures make Central Africa one of the continent’s most high-potential farming areas, small farm sizes, persistent civil conflicts, poor infrastructure and political instability have left the region plagued with chronic food insecurity and the highest rates of malnutrition and extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Great Lakes region includes Burundi, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, northwestern Kenya and Tanzania. Most of the agricultural land has extremely high population densities – up to 400 people per square kilometer in Rwanda and Burundi – and severely degraded soils.

The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has been in a state of almost continual instability and periodic violence since 1996. The International Rescue Committee has estimated that 5.4 million excess deaths resulted between the start of the second Congolese war in 1998 and 2007. A decade of conflicts in Burundi and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are responsible for widespread displacement and regional instability.

“Previous conflicts have been indirectly driven by the ability of the land to support the food needs of Central Africa’s high population densities,” said Nteranya Sanginga, a Congolese scientist and director general designate of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) speaking in Kigali.

“In the future, a big question will be whether the land and the soils that underpin farm yields can support booming populations under new constraints like rapid climate change and other environmental factors,” continued Sanginga. “Without sustainable intensification of food production, there will be a high price. We will be going back to the situation of war – and not because of ethnicity – war for food, war for space.”

Indeed, the effects of climate change in the region are a major concern for the already resource-strained, landlocked countries of Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. Recent research by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has shown that the ability of farmers to grow coffee – one of Rwanda’s largest cash crops – is severely affected by rising temperatures, making it more susceptible to pests and diseases.

The Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) and the CGIAR Research Program on the Humid Tropics today opened the first international conference to examine the challenges and opportunities for intensifying farm production in sub-Saharan Africa’s humid tropical regions.

During the morning’s keynote speech, Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute and World Food Prize Laureate, argued that many current approaches to farm production are harmful to the environment and not accessible enough for farmers to adopt on a broader scale.

Participants at the CIALCA conference shared examples of sustainable farm approaches that can increase yields and alleviate land pressure in the region.

These include the widespread adoption of higher-yielding climbing beans in Rwanda that improve soils and the availability of dietary protein and intercrop high-value coffee plants with banana in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

“Hopefully, it is these kinds of innovations that can help to steer the region towards a brighter future,” said Jos Kalders, representing Belgium’s Directorate General for Development Cooperation (DGDC), which funds the work of the Consortium.

And while significant progress has been made in the region, scientists also drew attention to the severe yield gap of sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural productivity. Staple crops such as maize, millet, beans, sweet potato and cassava are being produced at 60 percent to 90 percent below their potential.

“The region and the global community cannot afford to wait for pressures to mount again before acting,” said Kalders. “Addressing social and environmental pressure through sustainable farm intensification should be given a priority focus to reduce the immense pressure the region is under now.”


The Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) is a Consortium of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Bioversity International and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and their national research and development partners, supported by the Belgian Directorate General for Development Cooperation (DGDC), and aiming at improving livelihoods through enhancing income, health, and the natural resource base of smallholder farmers in Central Africa.

Bridge the gap between innovation and policy – change the paradigm

When it comes to food production and tackling hunger, we can’t continue with business-as-usual. We’ve been hearing that for years.

So, why is it still an issue?

According to Hans Herren, President of the Millennium Institute, it’s because scientific research and policymaking have become disconnected.

The 1995 World Food Prize winner’s passionate keynote address to around 300 agricultural scientists in Kigali, Rwanda, paved the way for a lively four-day conference onChallenges and opportunities for agricultural intensification of the humid highland systems of sub-saharan Africa, organized by CIALCA.

“While people are going hungry, the earth is being destroyed when, actually, we’ve known that we should have changed the course of agriculture long ago,” he said.

“Science has come up with a lot of good innovations (but) the policies have not followed. Business-as-usual is not an option – change the paradigm.”

Herren called for a better understanding of the complexity of agricultural systems, both above and below the ground.

Contemporary agriculture produces 4,600 kilo-calories per person, per day, he said. “No wonder we have half a billion obese people out there…We don’t need any more; we need it in different places, of a different quality, grown by different people.”

He also called for more investment in research and education.

“We want something different; we need something diff. [It’s time to] finish with the quick fixes.”

“It can be done, and it has to be done now,” he concluded.

CIALCA partnership highlights contribution of research to bringing stability in Africa’s Great Lakes Region

The Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) and the CGIAR Research Programme on the Humid Tropics today opened the first international conference to examine the challenges and opportunities for intensifying farm production in sub-Saharan Africa’s humid tropical regions.

Although good rainfall and temperatures allow cropping most of the year, small farm sizes, persistent civil conflicts, poor infrastructure, and political instability have made it difficult for Central Africa’s small farmers to eke out a living. The region has some of the highest rates of food insecurity, malnutrition, and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

“When CIALCA first started, we thought this was the best opportunity to highlight that science can contribute to peace,” said Nteranya Sanginga, a Congolese scientist and Director General designate of IITA, which will lead a major global CGIAR research program for the humid tropics that builds off of CIALCA’s work.

“Achieving food security in CIALCA region is a big challenge,” said Sanginga. “If we don’t find solutions to food security under the current constraints, we will face major challenges and increased conflict over food, land, and other natural resources in the next few decades.”

During the opening plenary, CIALCA partners and representatives of the Rwandan government highlighted the success of several projects that are delivering results for farmers and national food security. In 2007, 20 out of 30 districts in Rwanda were reported as being food insecure. Today, as a result of increased public investment in agriculture and country’s National Crop Intensification Program, all of Rwanda’s districts are now food secure. In addition, the country is exporting surplus crops to neighboring countries and is the only country in the region not dealing with food crisis.

Rwanda’s Permanent Secretary for Agriculture, Ernest Ruzindaza, noted the importance of linking research knowledge to the needs of farmers on the ground and taking a more systemic approach to ensure food security and eradicate poverty.

“CAADP is here to support African countries in their push to support agriculture, but agriculture alone cannot solve the problem of poverty. Other rural development programs are need and agriculture is a key player,” he said.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Can agricultural research help eradicate famine?

Every day, we see images of refugees fleeing a drought-ridden Somalia, crowding into camps along the country’s borders, desperate for food and shelter to stay alive. Tens of thousands of people have already died in the region, livestock, essential to the wellbeing of the local populations, suffer the same fate. Yet, as more than half a million children teeter on the brink of starvation, we ask ourselves “what could we have done to prevent this?” And, even more importantly, “how can we prevent this from happening again?”

No matter how severe, droughts do not have to lead to famine. Droughts are natural events, famines are not. Famines happen when countries and regions are not equipped to deal with extremes in weather. This current famine results from an extended drought and political instability, but it also reflects the long term vulnerability to food insecurity that is endemic in the Horn of Africa. As Oxfam recently pointed out, food aid alone does not help people to withstand the next shock: “Much greater long-term investment is needed in food production and basic development to help people cope with poor rains and ensure that this is the last famine in the region.” We at the CGIAR, the world’s largest partnership of international agriculture research, could not agree more.

Recent research by our climate change, agriculture, and food security research program has identified future “hotspots” of climate vulnerability-- areas where climate change impacts on food security are expected to become increasingly severe by 2050. Not surprisingly, some of the same countries being affected by the current drought where identified in the report as “hotspots” for climate-induced food insecurity.

Meeting the challenges of ensuring food security for the world, especially those is more remote and marginal locations and the poor in both rural and urban locations, as well as averting future famines, require us to act with an urgency. We must develop new ways of thinking more holistically about natural resource and farmland management, as well as revitalized water management practices, and the development of drought-tolerant crop varieties and hardier livestock breeds. Investment in such research is highly cost-effective: for every US$1 dollar invested in international agricultural research, US$ 9 dollars worth of additional food is being produced in developing countries.

What more can we do to ensure our research helps avoid future famines?

Good research is not enough
Even the best agricultural research can only realize its potential if it is used on the ground. For this to happen, it must be delivered under a benign policy environment, into agricultural systems with sufficient infrastructure and access to viable and predictable markets, and with the extension support needed to secure farmer adoption. Because of this, we need to work closer with funders, local and regional governments, national research institutions, universities, non-governmental organizations, aid agencies, farmers, civil society organizations and private sector companies. Only by mobilizing such collective strength, can we find and deliver the effective solutions at the scale needed to avert future famines and food crises.

The way ahead: working in partnership for better research outcomes
The good news is that agricultural research finds itself in a new era of opportunity. Rapid scientific progress has been made in genetics, ecology and information technology, offering a multitude of new ways to improve agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability. The CGIAR is using the latest scientific approaches and technologies in a series of new global research programs aimed at improving food security and the sustainable management of the water, soil, and biodiversity that underpin agriculture in the world’s poorest countries.

What is more, the reformed structure of the CGIAR opens the door for stronger collaboration and partnership with other research and development actors. The 11 new research programs approved in the last year, bring together the broadest possible range of organisations, combining the efforts of multiple CGIAR centres with those of many and diverse partners from across the research and development spectrum. Working in partnership on such a large scale, makes this new CGIAR effort unprecedented in terms of its size, scope and expected impact on development.

The work of the aid agencies is vital to provide the emergency aid that is desperately needed right now, but even aid agencies this time appeal for more to be done. We at CGIAR are doing our best to ensure that such famines never happen again. I was once told that the CGIAR is the best kept secret in agricultural research. We must make sure that our work remains a secret no longer, because agricultural research really is the key to better global food security and a sustainable, famine-free future.

Lloyd Le Page
Chief Executive Officer, CGIAR

Friday, June 10, 2011

IITA, partners launch project to control cancer-causing aflatoxin

The Kenyan government warmly welcomed a project seeking to identify and avail to farmers a natural, safe, and cost-effective solution to prevent aflatoxin contamination in maize and peanut in the country and pledged its support to ensure it was a success.

Noting the importance of maize in the country where it is the number one staple, Dr Wilson Songa, Agricultural Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture said the country needed the initiative yesterday.

Kenya, aflatoxin hot spot
“Kenya has become a hotspot of aflatoxin contamination. In 2004, 150 people died after eating contaminated maize. Last year we had 2.3 million bags of maize contaminated. Currently we have 160,000 bags of infested maize that are not only taking up storage but are also a problem to dispose off. It is a nightmare. That is why I say this launch should have been yesterday!” he said while launching the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (B&MGF) funded project, on June 3, 2011, in Nairobi.

He said this was one area that the Kenyan government could not afford to go slow on. “We are happy with the innovative scientific solution which has done well in Nigeria. The ball is now in our court and we shall move fast so our farmers start benefiting from the technology.”

IITA’s Deputy Director General, Research for Development, Paula Bramel said IITA was pleased to be part of this exciting project which would see its biocontrol solution for aflatoxin reach the farmers.

“This project will take our biocontrol product, commercialize it, and make it available to farmers. We have worked on it for many years, tested it in many fields in Nigeria and we are pleased with its effectiveness,” she aid. “And we are optimistic it will help farmers.”

She thanked the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their support and Peter Cotty from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for sharing on the experience in the US and his collaboration and commitment to the project.
Dr Prem Warrior, a senior Program Officer from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said aflatoxin impacted negatively on human health and was a great barrier to trade and economic growth.

“Today we have an opportunity to do something about it (aflatoxins). This project is a short term development strategy to test the technology and learn on product development issues. We have confidence in the technology but how we will commercialize it and who are our customers?” he said.

Acting Executive Director of African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF), Jacob Mignouna, noted that maize was an important staple food for 300 million people depending on the crop so its contamination was of great concern.

Director of Kenya Agricultural Research Organization (KARI) Ephraim was happy to note the speed at which the discussions on aflatoxin were moving from the boardroom down to where the problem was.

Deadly aflatoxin and its eliminator
Aflatoxin is a chemical produced by a fungus scientifically known as Aspergillus flavus, which suppresses the immune system, retards growth in children, and causes liver disease and death in both humans and domestic animals when exposed to levels above the recommended limits.

Explaining the technology, Dr Ranajit Bandyopadhay, IITA plant pathologist, said not all strains of the Aspergillus flavus fungi produce the toxins. The biocontrol solution works by introducing non-toxic fungi or 'the good guys,' that are able to outcompete and drastically reduce the population of their toxic relatives, or 'the bad guys' in affected field.

He said the technology held great promise as it was easy to use – farmers simply throw it in their fields three weeks before the flowering of the plants and this successfully protects the maize and peanut while in the field and in storage.

The biocontrol was first developed by the United States Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS) and is widely used in America to control Aflatoxin. Partnering with USDA, IITA has successfully adapted this technology for use in Nigeria where it has been widely tested with very promising results - it consistently reduced aflatoxin contamination in maize and groundnut by 80–90% and even some cases as high as 99%. It is now ready for registrations under the name 'Aflasfe' and the project will support its commercialization.

In Kenya, efforts to seek a biocontrol solution have been on-going for 4 years and great progress has also been made. Potential strains of non-toxic fungi have been identified and the project will narrow down to the most effective strain that will be registered and packaged into a product.

The project partners are IITA, USDA-DAR, KARI and AATF.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The day cassava ruled

“Are all these made from cassava?” this was the most popular question of the day by people from all walks of life invited to the Mozambique Cassava Day held in Nampula, Mozambique in November 2010.

There was a wide array of foods made from cassava and its derivatives, cassava cakes, cupcakes, cookies, biscuits, bread, pies, samosas, chin chins, cocktail tit bits, doughnuts, egg rolls, meat balls, pancakes, croquettes, sausage rolls, and puddings to be sampled. All the other food items were made from 100% high quality cassava flour except for the bread which had wheat flour added.

Speaking on behalf of the governor of Nampula, the Provincial Director of Commerce and Industry, Ilidio Marfres, said the crop had immense potential to develop the province. He was happy to note that the province’s strategic plan included exploring the use of cassava as a source of raw material for industries.

He challenged them to explore the wide range of uses and opportunities offered by cassava that go beyond making their staple food, ‘karakata’ – a paste made from its flour and ‘mathapa’ – cassava leaves cooked in coconut - to fight poverty and develop the region.

Richard Okechwuku, Deputy Project Manager of UPoCA project, noted the great strides made in the province in one year following a series of trainings conducted on cassava processing by the project.

“We were here last year, at a time like this, to train on the various products that can be made from cassava. Today, we are impressed to see so many products as a result of it.

The day was organized to create awareness on the versatile hardy tuberous crop by IITA’s UPoCA project, Mozambique’s Center for Promotion of Agriculture (CEPAGRI), the Mozambican Agricultural Research Institute (IIAM) and the Provincial Office of Agriculture in Nampula (DPA).

It brought together farmers, private sector, non-governmental organizations, and government organizations and aimed at creating awareness on cassava utilization and lobbying for much-needed government support

Idea to save women time in the kitchen leads to a successful business

Relax, let me make your life easy. Do not spend so much time in the kitchen after a long day at work. This was the noble idea behind Wissa Ltd says its founder Judith Celeste Macuacua-Pinto and how she started making and selling ready-to-cook blended cassava leaves mixed with garlic and raw paw paw.

Today Wissa Ltd has grown into a small cottage industry with a diverse range of ready -to-eat and cook food products. It is also one of the enterprises benefiting from the UPoCA project in Mozambique.

The 56 year old widow says she closed her kindergarten in Maputo and moved to Nampula three years ago when her husband died. She first started processing castor oil but the company buying it was offering a very low price and so she changed to processing cassava leaves for making ‘mathapa’. This local delicacy made of cassava leaves cooked in coconut is very popular in Nampula but is tedious to prepare as the leaves have to be crushed to remove cyanide and soften them for cooking.

In 2008, she attended a meeting at the University of Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, the first university in the country, on cassava processing. After the training, she requested for processing machines and after some negotiations she received a grater and 20 drying trays in October 2009 and started processing the crop.

In 2009, she attended a series of trainings by UPoCA on processing cassava into marketable items such as high quality cassava flour, rale and starch as well as making a diverse range of products from the flour.

She was also trained on maintaining hygiene and safety standards, and packaging, labeling and marketing and says she has tried to implement everything she learnt. She worked with a designer in Maputo to make neat labels and has also sent samples to the government lab to get feedback on the nutrition and their safety.

She says she is now processing more than a tonne of high quality cassava flour in a month but the market is still low as the community prefers dark flour made from moldy cassava to make their local dish ‘karakata’.

“For them, the darker the flour, the more delicious the ‘karakata’ is. They need some time to get used to the idea of white flour,” she said.

She also worked with UPoCA’s Agro-Enterprise Specialist, Melba Davis-Mussagy to develop a business plan. She says this has been a very useful exercise that led her to realize she was selling her cassava flour at a loss.

“From the business plan, I discovered I was selling a kg of cassava flour at 15 MZN but that barely meet the costs of the packaging material, the content and the labor costs. There was no profit. So I have now adjusted my price and sell at 25 MZN,” she said.

According to Davis-Mussagy, very few of the small-scale enterprises that UPoCA is supporting have business plans to guide their costing and future growth.

“I found out they did not know how to cost a kg of any of their products. They just set a price and they could not explain why and as a result, they were selling at a loss,” she said. “They have now understood the importance of detailing everything from their own labor, material, and transport costs. They also know which products give them the most profit.”

Extension worker retires to lead way in cassava processing

Two years ago, a great belief in the power of the cassava and impatient with the slow uptake of processing technologies motivated Ernesto Lopes to leave his job as an agricultural extension officer, after 25 years, to set up OLIMA Ltd to practically show that the crop can be a source of food and money. OLIMA means to farm in one of the local languages spoken in Nampula.

“We started promoting cassava processing from the 90’s in Nampula province which is Mozambique’s number one producer and consumer of the crop. However, up to now, the technologies have not picked up. So I decided to take it up upon myself to show by example,” he explained. “Many times people need to see things practically to believe.

The 47 year old father of nine set up a processing centre in an abandoned garage of the Caminhos de Ferro de Mozambique (Mozambique Railway) borrowing old machines that were lying idle at Mozambican Agricultural Research Institute (IIAM) at Nampula - a chipper, 2 graters, and a press to extract water from the grated cassava.

In March 2010 he started processing very slowly, experimenting with piles of cassava purchased from nearby farmers and processing into high quality cassava flour and starch. After a training by the Unleashing the Power of the Cassava in Africa (UPoCA) project of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) funded by USAID, he added rale.

As his products improved, his orders increased. He says he is now buying truckloads of cassava from the nearby farmers who are only too happy as it saves them a trip to the market and he purchases at a much better price.

UPoCA also worked with him to develop a business plan in which he projects to increase his production to five tonnes of high quality cassava and one for starch, dried chips, and rale.

Currently, he has seven permanent employees and in a month sells approximately 500kgs of the flour, 100 kgs of starch, and 50 kgs of rale to local consumers who come to buy at the processing centre or at OLIMA offices in Nampula town.

“The government should also lead the way in exploiting the wide range of opportunities the cassava offers. For example promote the use of cassava in the bakery industry, ” he said.