Dr Ed Mabaya during the launch of the tool to aid access to seed information at the AFSTA Congress 2022.

New tool to facilitate easy access to seeds now available

By Christine Ochogo| christawine@gmail.com

Farmers in Africa now have an easy-to-use, digitised seed information tool that facilitates access to data that supports seed system development. Development Gateway – an IREX Venture (DG), The African Seed Access Index (TASAI), and Cornell University started developing the dashboard in 2019 to support policy reform by government, investment priorities by development partners, and strategy by private companies working in Africa’s formal seed sector. The new interactive digital tool dubbed Visualising Information on Seeds Using Technology in Africa (TASAI-VISTA) Dashboard will visualise and use data to support a fully functional formal seed system. Speaking during the launch of the tool at the 22nd African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA) congress in Djerba, Tunisia, a fortnight ago, Mainza Mugoya, TASAI Regional Coordinator, said the tool will enhance access to improved seeds by smallholder farmers in Africa.

The CEO of Development Gateway (DG), Mr Joshua Powell, added that the new interactive digital tool includes data from 17 African countries and displays 22 different indicators such as number of active breeders by crop, availability of basic seed, number of active seed companies/producers, number of varieties sold, and number of seed inspectors. He said that the quality and availability of seeds is a crucial component of supporting smallholder farmers to increase food security in these African countries, including Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Senegal, Rwanda, Nigeria, Mozambique, Mali, Malawi, Madagascar, Ghana, Ethiopia, DR Congo and Burkina Faso. “By providing clear data and insights on country seed systems, the TASAI-VISTA dashboard helps partners identify where and how to create policies and investments that support farmers and their crops,” said Mr Powell. Dr Ed Mabaya, Research Professor in Global Development at Cornell University and Chief Scientific Adviser to TASAI, mentioned rising populations, climate change and other environmental aspects as key factors threatening food and nutritional security in many subSaharan African countries.

He emphasised the need to improve seed quality, this being one factor that can help in addressing these challenges and that decision makers need information on where and how seed quality and availability are lagging. This dashboard, he said, is one step towards making that information more easily accessible, user-friendly and actionable. “The TASAI team has been collecting country-level seed sector data since 2015, and we are excited to share this wealth of information in this new digital format.”

Seed sector stakeholders already rely on TASAI country reports as a source of valuable information, but the new dashboard will expand their access and allow for comparisons across time and space that were difficult to do previously,” Dr Mabaya said. He explained that the TASAIVISTA Dashboard was developed after an initial assessment of stakeholders in the seed sector. Following the assessment, Development Gateway and TASAI held a co-design workshop to get feedback and to validate initial findings before incorporating user responses into the final design. “Along with the public dashboard, DG and TASAI have developed survey tools for internal use by TASAI researchers, which have allowed the team to digitise their data collection and validation process. Data collected through the new tool is published on the dashboard after final validation,” said Dr Mabaya. For much of sub-Saharan Africa, rising populations combined with climate change and other environmental factors are threatening food and nutritional security.

Experts say timely availability of improved seeds at affordable prices is critical to improving food security, resilience, and livelihoods for smallholder farmers in Africa. Improved seeds, they observe, can deliver state-of-the-art technology to farmers, including higher yields, disease and pest resistance, climate change adaptation, and improved nutrition. According to Duncan Onduu, the Executive Secretary at Seed Trade Association of Kenya, over the last two decades, formal seed systems in Africa have been gradually liberalised, resulting in increased participation of private seed enterprises. His counterpart in Ghana, Augusta Clottey, welcomed the dashboard, saying that a competitive seed sector will ensure famers access quality seeds of improved, appropriate varieties at affordable prices to help attain food security in Africa.

The launch of the tool comes amidst findings of a recent report that stated that Africa still trades in both old and new varieties.

One Health the gateway to human, animal and environment wellbeing, say experts

Applied research through the One Health approach will lead to health investments that will accelerate economic development and reduce social inequalities, experts have advised.

Speaking to science, health and environment journalists, Delia Randolph, professor of food safety systems at the Natural Resources Institute in the UK, said One Health allows for integrated thinking across three sectors – human health, animal health and environment health.

Randolph, also a contributing scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), said One Health is therefore a collaborative, multisectoral, trans-disciplinary approach that cuts across the local, regional, national and global levels.

Bernard Bett from the One Health Research, Education and Outreach Centre (OHRECA) said One Health and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are closely linked.

One Health, he said, contributes to SDGs 1, 2, 3, 12 and 17 (no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, responsible consumption and production, partnership). More so, the One Health approach contributes to SDGs 5, 6, 10, 15 (gender equality, water and sanitation, reduced inequality, life on land).

“Ending poverty and other deprivations goes hand in hand with improvements on health, education, reduced inequalities and economic growth,” said Mr Bett.

He said based on the One Health approach, genomic analysis of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has boosted the capacity of COVID surveillance in Kenya.

In this regard, he said, testing for SARS-CoV-2 using qPCR has been ongoing at ILRI since 2020. A total of 24,398 samples have been tested and results shared with the Ministry of Health (MoH).

The ILRI laboratory where genomic analysis is ongoing is part of a network of facilities in the country that is supporting COVID-19 genomic surveillance.

Genomic analysis is the identification, measurement or comparison of genomic features such as DNA sequence, structural variation and gene expression. Essentially, genomics is the study of genes that makes it possible to predict, diagnose and treat diseases more precisely.

Bett said the genomics laboratory “has received additional funding to the tune of $1 million from the Rockefeller Foundation to support genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 in the Eastern Africa region.

He also delved into intersectoral collaborations for rabies control in Machakos, saying that Kenya has increased coverage of control measures.

This is a step in the right direction as rabies remains a serious public health issue. Canine rabies, he said, causes an estimated 55,000 deaths annually across Africa and Asia.

As such, with the most effective strategy towards minimising human exposure being controlling rabies in dogs, OHRECA and VSF Germany are in collaboration to develop sustainable and scalable vaccination strategies for rabies through the One Health approach. Bett said that through the collaboration, the target is to vaccinate 200,000 dogs per year.

“New knowledge on the impact of climate and land use change on zoonotic diseases occurrence is being used for contingency planning,” he said.

OHRECA is leading studies to identify drivers of Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever in Burkina Faso and Rift Valley in Kenya.

On institutionalising One Health in Kenya, Dr Athman Mwatondo, who is the co-head of Zoonotic Disease Unit at the Ministry of Health, said the Unit was formed between line ministries of human and animal health.

Established in 2012 through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), the Unit’s structural office is in Kenyatta National Hospital grounds, at the MoH grounds.

The Zoonotic Unit, Mwatondo said, has a mission to “establish and maintain active collaboration at the animal, human, and ecosystem interface towards better prevention and control of zoonotic disease.”

The Unit’s priority areas of outbreak investigation and response include the Rift Valley fever, anthrax and rabies, with a view to particularly eliminating rabies.

Mwatondo spoke of the need to create sustainable county level One Health platforms that will facilitate the devolution of the One Health approach.

Progress thus far includes the epidemiological investigation of a Rift Valley fever outbreak in humans and livestock in Kenya in 2018. Outbreaks of the Rift Valley fever were recorded in Wajir and Siaya counties in 2018, Murang’a from 2019 to 2021 and Isiolo in 2020 and 2021.

There was also an investigation of recurrent anthrax outbreaks in humans, livestock and wildlife from 2014 to 2017.

Mwatondo said rabies elimination activities include improving access to post-exposure prophylaxis and rabies education and awareness. Thus far, he said, there has been coordinated mass dog vaccinations in two pilot counties.

Mwatondo said the challenges in implementing the One Health approach include difficulties in coordinating multiple partners and operationalisation difficulties such as high staff turnover.

He said there is a need for domestic funding of One Health activities for sustainability purposes and to understand and adapt because the One Health approach is not a one size fits all.

By Joyce Chimbi


Weather forecast app to help farmers reduce losses

The unpredictable weather conditions caused by climate change has become prevalent, forcing farmers to rely on speculations while farming. This has greatly affected crop yields and lowered productivity.

With over 80 percent of farmers dependent on rain-fed agriculture, there is a need to be able to predict the weather patterns in order to plan accordingly.
To address the issue, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) has developed a digital app to help farmers easily access weather information.

Researchers believe if farmers use the online weather platform, it is possible to adapt or mitigate the effects of adverse weather conditions through predicted weather forecast.
Irene Kimani, KALRO ICT specialist, says the Kenya Agricultural Observation Platform (KAOP) is a forecasting tool that assists farmers to monitor weather through their mobile phones.

She says KAOP is able to provide data on previous rainy days and predict long-term trends.
“KAOP is an app that has been giving me accurate information on weather forecast and some agronomy advisory services. Some of the information I have been getting is like the rainfall amount to be expecting and when to plant, harvest and what to grow at a particular season,” says Margret Wambui, a farmer in Njoro, Nakuru County.

Wambui, who is also an agrovet shop attendant, says since she started using the app, she has advised many farmers visiting her shop using the application.
“I share the information I get from KAOP with my customers when they come to buy seeds or chemicals. I ask them where and when they want to plant and I check on weather conditions for that particular day because some chemicals work best with minimal rainfall, otherwise they will incur losses and blame the chemical for not working,” she says.

Using the online application, farmers can now get weather information for seven days before and after.
Kimani says the application is designed to provide agronomic advisory services to farmers by providing information on actions they need to take in the various stages of farming, including soil preparation, sowing, adding manure and fertilisers, irrigation, harvesting and storage, as well as marketing period based on the weather conditions predicted.
Collins Kipchumba, a farmer in Njoro Rumwe farm, says since he started using the app, his production of Nyota beans has doubled.

“I learnt about the app in a farmers’ platform and since I started using it my bean production has increased from four bags per acre to eight bags per acre. For instance, if I want to spray, the app will indicate the strength of the wind in a particular day. If it is windy I will postpone my spraying to a calmer day to avoid losses, says Kipchumba.

“When I want to harvest, I use the app to check weather conditions to avoid post-harvest losses that maybe caused by rains.”
John Maina, Agriculture Chief Officer in Nakuru County, says the county has introduced this platform to farmers.

“By embracing the technology they have been able to bring the youth onboard who are particularly encouraged to download the app and use the information to do farming,” Maina says.

“This technology is assisting to know or predict how the weather is going to be in good time and give the farmers an opportunity to plan their production.”
The ICT specialist notes that the technology is 95 percent accurate, has the capability of forecasting weather within a radius of 9km and can zero-in on an individual farmer’s farm.

“Through the system, farmers get advisory services in time, hence alleviating losses they incur because of climate change. In the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, and at a time when traditional in-person farmers’ visits have been severely constrained, such phone-based advice is cost-effective and plays a key role in improving the productivity in farmers’ fields,” says Maina.

The tool developed by KALRO is among the ICT-based applications that KALRO is leveraging to bridge the gap of access to information between researchers and farmers, especially during Covid-19.
Since its launch, there has been increase of downloads by over 5,000 and 2.7 million website visits.

This indicates that the uptake is good and that farmers now have an easier way of seeking assistance from agricultural experts through the incorporation of digital technology into agricultural research.

Besides the KAOP technology, there are over 30 mobile applications that have previously been launched by KALRO to assist farmers with systematic information on how to manage crops. In addition, other apps address fall armyworm reporting and mapping, grey leaf spot disease resistance maize varieties and maize lethal necrosis disease control.

The technology is 95 percent accurate, has the capability of forecasting weather within a radius of 9km and can zero-in on an individual’s farm.


How to access: KAOP is easily accessible as a mobile app via google play store by downloading on https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.andromo.dev724321.app929771 or through a website www.kaop.co.ke .


New maize variety set to uplift farmers’ fortunes in Africa

By Christine Ochogo I christawine@gmail.com

For the second day in a row, Jerry Oyoo, a western Kenyan farmer from Nyagowa Village, Karachuonyo Constituency has just returned home with a sack of maize from his Kimira wetland farm.

“This is a huge waste of time, energy and money,” Mr Oyoo tells me sounding as if he needs some psycho-social support.

“I spent Ksh 5000 (USD50) to pay for the tractor man to till my land. I spent a further Ksh 3000 (USD30) to pay farm labourers for the first weeding plus a further Ksh 2500 (USD25) for the second weeding, and today I have just paid Ksh 1000 (USD10) to helpers to harvest the produce,” he says looking forlorn and dejected.

In all his calculations he spent Ksh 11,500 (USD115) only to return home with three sacks of maize all valued at Ksh 9,000 (USD90). As he brought home his last sack of maize harvest, Oyoo had just incurred a loss of Ksh 2500 (USD 25) without taking into consideration other inputs and time spent on the farm.

While addressing journalists allied to the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) in a virtual conference, Dr Sylvester Oikeh, a maize scientist, says farmers like Oyoo need not give up on farming asserting that biotechnology is the way to go in addressing the challenges brought along by effects of climate change, ever growing population leading to shrinking land for cultivation and biological challenges like pests and diseases. He added that biotechnology remains a strong investment for farmers like Oyoo.

The conference brought together 100 journalists from 30 African countries.

“Globally, for each dollar invested in biotech crop seeds, farmers gained an average $3.49. In 2016, farmers in developing countries received $5.06 for each extra dollar invested in biotech crop seeds, whereas farmers in developed countries received $2.70 for each extra dollar invested in biotech crop seeds,” Dr Oikeh said.

To show that scientists are not sleeping on the job, the maize guru said that his organisation, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation with other partners such as the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation  (KALRO) have been working towards getting transgenic drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize varieties to farmers to enhance food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

“We work on a project called TELA maize which seeks to ensure farmers who access the variety will be able to mitigate effects of climate change especially moderate drought and losses to insects such as stem borers and fall armyworm,” said Dr. Oikeh who is the Project Manager at AATF.

Dr. Oikeh spoke on the Status on development and commercialization of transgenic TELA maize for African farmers in a virtual conference that brought together nearly 200 science journalists from 30 African countries and beyond to discuss conservation, climate change, agriculture, and health to bolster factual reporting on science.

“When farmers have access to the TELA maize varieties they will be able to mitigate effects of climate change especially moderate drought and losses to insects such as stem borers and fall armyworm,” said the expert who boasts of over 30 years research trail on maize in the continent.

TELA Bt maize hybrid varieties were released to smallholder farmers in South Africa in 2016 and has been granted environmental release to proceed to national performance trials in Kenya.

“National performance trials (NPTs) are carried out in Kenya by the Kenya Plant Health and Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) to determine the agronomic potential and adaptability of new varieties relative to those currently in the market,” said Dr Mwimali Murenga from KALRO. He added that they have already planted in Alupe, Kakamega and Kibos. Other sites Embu, Mwea and thika will be planted from mid Oct 2020 during the short rains season.

The NPTs are carried out to evaluate maize hybrids that have potential for commercialization. Experimental material under test are usually compared to those in the market. Several sites from a minimum of 6 sites to a maximum 10 sites are usually planted depending on the growing zones, added Dr Murenga.

Bt maize gave positive and significant effect on yield across varieties and trials with 52 per cent yield advantage over non-Bt maize in Kenya and Uganda,” said Dr. Oikeh, noting that full adoption of Bt maize in Kenya could save the country a whopping 400,000 tonnes equivalent to US 90 million that is lost to stemborer damage annually.

Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a microbe naturally found in soil and that has been used as a biological pesticide for several decades to control insect damage mostly in the horticulture industry. Usually used as a spray, scientists found a way to incorporate Bt proteins (genes) into the plant to give the plant protection against certain insect pests such as stem borer and fall armyworm without spraying the plant.

While responding to a question on safety concerns on the technology, Dr. Oikeh re-affirmed the safety of biotech products, noting that farmers from other regions across the world are enjoying the benefits of the technology.

“Several global authorities including World Health Organization (WHO); Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and many Academies of Sciences have all indicated the GM food that have been evaluated and passed through regulatory scrutiny and approved are safe to eat,” he emphasized.

In Africa, nine countries including Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Nigeria and Sudan have approved and released transgenic cotton, cowpea, maize and soybean. Globally, 67 countries are either growing or trading with biotech crops.

The TELA Maize Project works with governments in seven African countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda – to deliver the new TELA maize varieties to farmers. All TELA maize varieties will be made available to smallholder farmers through local seed companies after assessment by national authorities according to the country’s regulatory requirements.


Malawi farmers record huge harvest from genetically modified cotton

By Suzgo Chitete I chitetesuzgo@gmail.com

After years of research and scientific approvals, the Malawi government in November last year released genetically modified cotton seeds for commercial cultivation. 

The farmers who planted Bt cotton for the first time in the last growing season took a gamble to depart from tradition.

France Thole, a cotton farmer in Chikwawa, Southern Malawi, was among the few farmers who were part of the field trials of the new cotton varieties, which have performed wonders elsewhere.

Through the trials, farmers had a feel of the new technology and were convinced this could be the way to go. But it was a real gamble, according to Thole.

“There was a lot of negativity from community members when we told them we wanted to try Bt cotton. In as much as we were convinced that the new cotton variety was better than the traditional seeds, we were still not sure if we would be successful,” says Thole, 60, who has been growing cotton for almost half his age. 

 “I can tell you the quality of the new variety is impressive; one plant gives you up to 150 bolls when the local variety would give 40-50 bolls. The cotton is thick and good looking.”  

Bt cotton seed has been genetically engineered to make the crop resistant to bollworm. Scientists say this resistance significantly reduces the cost of production as one does not need pesticides now and again. 

“If you follow instructions properly you gain more with this new variety. You can produce up to 3,000  bags per hectare while the old variety would you give you 1,000 -1,500 and yet it is also labor intensive because it requires frequent spraying of pesticides,” says Allan Tchalison, another farmer in the Lowershire zone.

Apart from his modern, fully electrified house, some herds of cattle, chickens, and goats, Tchalison sponsors his grandchildren’s education. His son’s daughter is in the second year pursuing an engineering course at the University of Malawi’s Polytechnic. Others are in secondary schools.

Tchalison vouches for Bt cotton as the best so far but pleads for improved extension work. He says at this stage farmers need close supervision because of their unfamiliarity with the new technology, which he believes is a game-changer if well handled.

Another cotton farmer, Mwayi Joseph Chirwa, a primary school teacher in Salima, Central of Malawi, 120 kilometers from the Capital Lilongwe, attests to the scientific claim that Bt cotton significantly reduces the cost of production and has a high yield. She estimates that from her piece of land she has been able to harvest double the usual yield.

“I followed instructions throughout, based on leaflets that I was given and also the advice from the extension workers but I could have missed a step or two…because it is new. I think if one follows the guidelines to the letter they can get more than double,” said Chirwa.

Malawi is among new entrants in a growing list of countries that have commercialized cotton in Africa which include South Africa, Ethiopia and Sudan are other examples. Kenya is yet to get its first harvest and so is Nigeria though they have commercialized the crop too. According to the Seed Trade Association of Malawi, 20,000 Malawian farmers planted the Bt cotton seed last season which just ended last month. 

Cotton is one of the strategic crops in the national export strategy and if well managed, the genetically modified variety can significantly improve productivity, which has dropped at an alarming rate due to lack of investment.

With an allocation of K1.6 billion (USD2.2 million) in the 2011/12 financial year, Malawi was able to produce a record of 100,000 metric tonnes that year. Over the years,  this figure has drastically dropped;  the Cotton Council of Malawi estimates that on average the country is now producing about 15,000 MT per year, which rakes in K10 billion (USD13.5 million) against a ginning capacity of 600,000 metric tonnes. With the adoption of the new technology in Malawi, it is estimated that the country will soon produce nearly 40,000 MT. 

According to the Chairman of STAM, Mr. John Lungu, stakeholders are now putting their heads together to ensure that the market for the bumper harvest is secured to ensure that farmers benefit wholly from their sweat.

“We hope the government may consider subsidizing the seeds just to boost cotton farming in Malawi. With this new variety which has shown that it has a higher yield, we expect more farmers to come on board and adopt it. So my appeal to government is to liaise with the seed making company to make the seeds available at an affordable price,” pleaded Rodgers Manjawira another farmer from Salima.

The African Institute of Corporate Citizenship (AICC), an NGO which has been pushing for improved cotton in Malawi, equally thinks one way of helping farmers is to have the seeds for Bt cotton subsidized and also strengthen extension work so that farmers have up to date information on Bt cotton.  

AICC Chief Executive Officer, Felix Lombe, said: “We need to improve cotton production because it is a strategic crop for exports. The economy stands to benefit from cotton which has a ready market locally and internationally.”  


Glimmer of hope as scientists batle lethal potato nematodes Glimmer of hope as scientists battle lethal potato nematodes

  By Christine Ochogo I christawine@gmail.com

Every season, Margaret Kenzi, a potato farmer in Kenya’s Rift Valley, tirelessly works in her potato farm with hopes of a bumper harvest. 

To her dismay, her efforts of three years have hardly yielded as she does not use certified potato seeds. She attributes this sorry state to the high cost of certified seeds, which has driven her to use regenerated seeds every planting season that are prone to attacks by pests and diseases. 

“I depend on recycled seeds because certified seeds cost Sh3,000 (U$30) per bag of 50kg which I cannot afford due to the hard economy. And after harvesting, we are forced to sell our produce at a throwaway price to middlemen and brokers who invade our farms with ready cash. A 50kg bag of potatoes goes for between Sh1,500 (U$15) and Sh2,000 (U$20) while a 2kg package sells at Sh100 (U$1),” decries Kenzi. 

Researchers put it that only maize is grown in more countries than potato, with Africa producing about seven percent of global potato output, mainly in Egypt and South Africa. The crop is popular and valuable for both food security and income generation, competing well with maize in the subtropical climates at higher altitudes. 

Under these conditions, year-round production can be possible, often with at least two seasons per annum. In recent years, however, yields have shown notable declining trends, mainly attributed to major disease outbreaks, inappropriate cropping practices by farmers, substandard seed quality, and lack of organized market infrastructure for produce. 

Emerging markets for processed potatoes (such as chips, crisps, starch) have increasingly focused attention on the crop, with rising demand from the fast-food industry and processing for added economic value. Processed potatoes, however, also demand high levels of quality, which can be difficult to sustain in the face of high pest and disease pressures. 

In Kenya, according to Farming Success with Potatoes in Kenya, a publication by the International Centre of Potato (CIP), potato is the second most important staple food crop after maize and is valued at nearly $500 million (Sh50 billion) annually.

About 800,000 Kenyans directly benefit from potato production, while across the whole value chain about 2.5 million people receive income from potato. However, in Kenya, yields have declined and currently average 9-10 tonnes per hectare, much below the potential of 20–40 t/ha, and this is reflected across the region. 

As if Mother Nature is adding insult to injury, farmers like Ms. Kenzi’s woes are not helped by the emergence of new pests and diseases, such as the recently detected potato cyst nematodes (PCNs), Globodera rostochiensis and G. pallida, a key threat to potato production in eastern Africa, according to an article published recently in the Frontiers in Plant Science journal by International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe); International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA); North Carolina State University, USA; and Kenyatta University, Kenya.

The occurrence of PCN presents a key threat to potato production in Kenya, as well as to the entire East Africa region where potato features prominently as a food security or income generation crop for millions of smallholder farmers. The good news, states the study in its conclusion, is that it may be possible to manage the nematodes by inducing ‘suicidal hatching’ of the pests using naturally occurring chemicals in crop roots. 

Nematodes are tiny microscopic worms, with some soil-dwelling species infecting and adversely affecting most, if not all, cultivated crops. Potato cyst nematodes (PCNs) are invasive nematode pests that were first reported in Kenya in 2015 and have since been confirmed from other countries in eastern Africa. 

Studies by icipe and partners have shown that these nematodes cause up to 80 percent yield loss in potatoes. 

“The management of the nematodes understudy is particularly challenging due to the pest’s ability to survive in the soil as tiny protective cysts. These cysts can contain up to 600 eggs but are able to remain dormant in the absence of a host plant for up to 20 years. Once they infest a field, it is impossible to eradicate. Therefore, a possible effective approach is to avoid the build-up and spread of the pest,” says Prof Baldwyn Torto, Head of Behavioural and Chemical Ecology Unit at icipe. 

In over 100 countries, this has been achieved by strict quarantine regulations because they are globally considered as the most important pests threatening potato production but are all too often overlooked in less developed countries. 

The recent studies by icipe and partners aimed to manage their spread by exploring several known facts about potato cyst nematodes. First, is the fact that potato cyst nematodes eggs hatch only in the presence of suitable host plants such as potato, tomato, and African nightshade, which scientists refer to as the Solanaceae family.

Once hatched, the infective juvenile nematodes that emerge from the cyst seek host crop roots to invade and feed upon. The developing female nematodes swell and eventually become a new cyst full of eggs. These eggs hatch only once triggered by chemical signals produced by the roots of the host plant. The aim of the research was to identify these signals, and whether they can be exploited to induce hatch of the potato cyst nematodes juveniles in the absence of host crops and thus lead to their eventual death; or rather the ‘suicidal hatch’ of the nematodes. 

“We noted that most juvenile PCN that hatched in response to some chemical signals, known as steroidal glycoalkaloids (SGAs) and steroidal alkaloids (SAs), remained encysted. In other words, they did not leave the cyst to invade crop roots but remained encapsulated in the cyst,” noted a Kenyan scientist, Juliet Ochola, who was involved in the research as part of her MSc studies, based at icipe and registered at Kenyatta University. 

Prof Danny Coyne, a soil health scientist at IITA, explains that the SGAs and SAs could be used in synthetic forms to stimulate suicidal hatch of PCN in infested fields before farmers plant potatoes.

Alternatively, plants that produce the chemicals but are not usually infected by PCN could be incorporated in a crop rotation system to stimulate PCN hatch, thereby reducing populations of the pest. 

“Blends of the compounds obtained from crude material of such plants may be used to treat potato fields as organic soil amendments. This approach would be environmentally attractive and better than using nematicides, which can be hazardous, and due to their dependence on single compounds, are prone to pest resistance,” says Prof Coyne. 

The study presents the results of a countrywide survey undertaken to determine the distribution of PCN and the potential damage it is causing in the major potato growing regions of Kenya. 

Additionally, the study team examined farmers’ potato production practices and how these will need to be taken into consideration for the implementation of future pest management strategies.

It is hoped that the information provided in the study will serve as a wakeup call that should further help policymakers and regional stakeholders to make informed decisions related to PCN containment and mitigation.



Report pesticide use responsibly, journalists urged

Experts have urged journalists to report responsibly on the use of pesticides in Africa.
While addressing science journalists from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda Ethiopia and Malawi gathered in Mombasa last week, Dr Paul Ngaruiya and Dr Dorah Kilalo noted that media have been made to believe that pesticides are only harmful to human beings.
Dr Ngaruiya who works at the Pest Control Products Board said that every government has an obligation to ensure the safety of its citizens, animals, plants
and the environment and would never allow anything that harms its citizens to be sold by merchants.
He reminded the journalists that the primary purpose of using pesticides is to control pests in crops and animals in order to reduce yield losses. He noted
that science writers must be aware of the fact that there is possibility of ineffective products eg counterfeits.

This, he observed calls for strict risk assessment, management and mitigation to ensure human and environmental protection. He said
that the Kenya government is vigilant on any pesticides that might harm her people and so were the governments from the region. He pointed out that internationally, States are governed by various international instruments to which African governments have adhered to. He urged journalists to interrogate these instruments and if in doubt of any lapse by the government, report such cases to the Board.

On her part, Dr Kilalo said that whereas pesticides are not manufactured in Africa, governments
in the region have stringent laws that govern them. She said that though all
African countries import pesticides, science has been the measure
used by governments to allow the commodities reach the shelves.

In Africa, only South Africa has the capacity to do so but they do not manufacture them to a large extent. Since the introduction of pesticides in Africa, she noted, the quantities used have continued to increase.

Africa she said accounts for only 2-4% of the global pesticide market of about $ 40 billion and the continent uses the least active per hectare < 2kg a.i/ha compared to 7 and 3 in Latin America and Asia.

She urged journalists to be on the look-out for improper use of pesticides which she said has been responsible for negative effects on non-target organisms, such as fish, birds, beneficial organisms such as bees, earthworms and plants and on human beings.

The two experts said that the choice of pesticides depends on farmers’ perception of their efficacy on pests, type and intensity of pests, crops growth stage and availability of pests, crops growth and the availability of pesticide.

Replacing old rice varieties

Breeders in Kenya plan to replace rice varieties that farmers have been using for the last three decades.

Dr John Kimani, a rice breeder and the Mwea Centre Director at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation says some rice varieties were developed 32 years ago, yet farmers are still using them to date.

Some of the rice varieties in earmarked for replacement are ITA 310, BW 196, IR 2793-80-1, Basmati 217 and Basmati 370.

He said the continued use of old varieties could be blamed for the drop in production over the years. The national rice production is currently at 150,000 metric tonnes against an annual consumption of 650,000 metric tonnes.

Dr Kimani said rice is an important crop in Kenya and it is one of the main focus crops under the government’s Big Four Agenda on food and nutrition security.

Other crops include maize, potatoes, sorghum, millet, cassava, sugar and cotton.

Rice is mainly produced by small-scale farmers in Mwea in Central, Bunyala in Western, Tana Delta at the Coast and Ahero, West Kano, Migori and Kuria in the Nyanza province. About 300,000 rice farmers provide labour and also earn their livelihood from producing the crop.

Dr Kimani said KALRO, in partnership with the Korean Government, are developing high yielding rice varieties through introgression of high yielding traits from Korean germplasm to the local varieties.

“We are currently developing product profiles so that we understand why farmers and consumers have been clinging to these varieties for many years. This will help to ensure that the new varieties that will replace the old ones have those traits that are preferred by farmers and consumers,” he explained.


Want to keep fruits fresh? Try these Malian innovations

The sight of rotting mangoes in a few weeks’ time will be awash in the country. Mangoes, a second fruit crop in Kenya, is a seasonal crop with high and low seasons. In most counties the seasons start from December and peaks in January to February.

Interestingly, this scenario predisposes fruit farmers, especially small-scale farmers from Makueni, Kitui, Kilifi,

Pot-in-pot evaporative cooling

Murang’a and Embu counties in Kenya to exploitation by traders who offer very low prices for their produce.

Post-harvest experts estimate that 40-50 per cent of fruits and vegetables produced in Kenya are lost or wasted along the value chain. In Kenya alone, 80 per cent of the mangoes are eaten while still fresh, hence the need to increase their shelf life. The losses are majorly caused by lack of access to affordable and appropriate technologies for handling and storage of the highly perishable commodities. However, these ugly scenarios will soon be averted through the use of simple technologies that fruit and vegetable farmers can adapt and use in the farm to curb the losses of agricultural produce hence supporting livelihoods and food security.

Adopting low-tech post-harvest innovations for storing fruits and vegetables could save Kenyan farmers unnecessary wastes by prolonging the shelf life of their fresh farm produce, adds the experts.

Evaporative cooling technologies for improved fruit and vegetable storage from Mali would be most effective in helping farmers increase farm produces’ shelf life in Kenya and other countries. The low-cost technology will enable farmers attain the quality, quantity and consistency required by mango traders hence the ability to increase profits by negotiating for better prices.

Unlike Kenya, Mali farmers have explored widespread use of brick, straw and sack evaporative cooling chambers (ECC) and pot-in-pot, round pot-in-dish and cylinder pot-in-dish clay pot coolers. A survey on evaluation of various low-cost vegetable cooling and storage technologies in Mali that looked at the impact of evaporative cooling on vegetables shelf life, painted a promising picture on its benefits to farmers.

Conducted between May and July 2017, the study was led by Dr EricVerploegen of the D-Lab and Dr Ousmane Sanogo and Dr Takemore Chagomoka former World Vegetable Center-Mali scientists among farmer groups in Sikasso and Mopti regions in Mali. The study titled “Evaporative Cooling Technologies for Improved Vegetable Storage in Mali” looked at the seasonal temperatures and humidity profiles of the two regions in Mali and how it affected the shelf life of vegetables including eggplant and tomatoes.

Cylinder pot-indish evaporative cooling chambers suitable for fruits and vegetables

To gain insight into evaporative cooling device use and preferences, the team conducted interviews in Mali with users of the cooling and storage systems and with stakeholders along the vegetable supply chain. They also deployed automatic sensors to monitor product performance parameters.

According to results from 80 respondents involved in the study, the shelf life of eggplants and tomatoes were significantly longer in Sikasso than Mopti for all vegetables. This difference, says the authors, is likely due to the significant variations in climate conditions between the two regions, which affect the storage conditions experienced by the vegetables in the ECCs.

The eggplants and tomatoes in the straw and sack ECCs in Sikasso were stored in conditions that were an average of over 2 °C lower and 20 percent higher humidity than the vegetables in the straw and sack ECCs in Mopti. “Similarly, the average ambient conditions throughout the study period were more favourable for vegetable storage in Sikasso than in Mopti, as Sikasso is situated in the Sudan-Savanna zone while Mopti is part of the hotter and dryer Sahel-Saharan zone in Mali,” reads the study.

Straw evaporative cooling chambers

Just like Mali, intermittent power supplies and lack of proper storage facilities mean that a lot of farm produce often goes to waste before it arrives in the market in Kenya. But the researchers, now think, that by exploring such ecofriendly off-grid innovations farmers can manage without electricity. In potin-pot technology, a small clay pot is inserted into a large one leaving space between the two. The cavity is then filled with sand, which serves as a medium for holding water for the evaporative cooling. The innovation, adds the authors, is also best suited for household use because of the small volume of produce storable.

However, warns Dr Sanogo, one of the authors of the report, evaporative cooling devices are not appropriate for all settings. He adds, “It is best suited to communities where there is access to water and fruits and vegetable storage needed during hot and dry weather.”

Automatic data sensors used in the study revealed that users were more inclined to water the cooling devices in the dry season and reduce the usage of the devices as the rainy season started.

The decrease in the temperature, along with the increased humidity and protection from pests provided by the devices, resulted in significant increases in shelf life for commonly stored vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, cabbage, and hot peppers.

Low-cost evaporative cooling innovations used in Mali to increase shelf life of fruits and vegetables

As Kenya gears up for another mango fruit glut and other successive vegetable seasons, the Mali experience is quite an eye opener and potential in aiding small-scale farmers address many of the challenges that face rural households and farmers in need of improved post-harvest vegetable storage.


Farmers in Eastern Kenya to earn USD40m from exports of green grams

The locals here call it ndegu. Globally it is simply green grams. This crop, especially in Kenya, has had its own share of setbacks.

For a very long time, farmers have been complaining of the rapid reduction in green grams yields. But now, farmers in Eastern Kenya’s Kitui County, will soon be smiling all the way to the bank, due to a timely intervention by the Kenya Red Cross Society.

Most parts of Kitui County are favorable for growing green grams which thrive best at an altitude of 0 -1600m above sea level well adapted to sandy loam and clay soils at pH range of 5.5 -7.5. They are drought tolerant with rain fall requirement range between 350 – 700mm per annum. Heavy rain fall results to increased vegetative growth with reduced pod setting and development.

Indigenous green grams have small seeds with the plants maturing at different times. Most of the time they mature late. Consumers complain that such varieties have a lot of stony seeds, which makes a green gram meal difficult to eat.

In an effort to make farming of ndegu more profitable, the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) has embarked on an ambitious intervention that will see the county export all its produce to international markets. All this will be realized through a partnership with the county government that is expected to fetch a whooping Sh4 billion (USD40m) for local farmers a season.

The strategy of this intervention is seen as a major boost to plans by the country government to increase agricultural productivity through promotion of uptake of planting green grams, a drought tolerant crop.

Last month, the humanitarian agency donated the first consignment of 200 tons of certified green gram seeds which appropriate for Kitui County, an area with erratic rainfall and poor market access worth Sh50 million (USD5m) for distribution to 200,000 households with the county.

Speaking at Mutomo market in Kitui South Constituency during a ceremony to distribute the seeds, Secretary General Dr Abass Gulet said the agency had set aside Sh500 million (USD5m) to buy the produce from local farmers to shield them from exploitation by middle men.

Dr Gulet who was accompanied by Kitui Governor, Charity Ngilu said the demand for Kenyan green grams in Asian countries including India, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan among others was inexhaustible and that farmers should strive to produce more of the crop.

“We’ll walk with Kitui people in this journey of actualizing the Ndegu revolution and we are willing to give more financial support in providing linkages with better paying international markets,” said Dr Gulet who believes the initiative is real and achievable because the county is endowed with plenty of arable land with very good soils and terrain.

In the partnership, the Kenya Red Cross and the county government have pooled 400 tons of seeds worth Sh108 million (USD108,000) for distribution to farmers in the county.

Mrs Ngilu said the targeted households will each get 2kg of free seeds as part of the startup investment. This will be an addition to what the farmers will buy depending on their farm sizes. “If each kilo of seeds yields a bare minimum of 100 kilo produce, this will give our county 40,000 tons of green grams,” Mrs Ngilu said adding that if the harvest was sold at a conservative price of Sh100 (USD10) per kilo it will earn the county an estimated Sh4 billion (USD40m) in one season.

The Governor urged the county assembly to enact strict legislation to protect farmers from brokers who exploit them with poor prices saying her administration had secured good overseas market for the anticipated harvest.

Mrs Ngilu said her government mooted the Ndegu revolution because the county has the best soils for growing the crop which does not require a lot of rainfall. She believes the initiative will eradicate perennial hunger in the county as well as improve livelihoods of residents and reduce poverty. “Never before in the history of our county have we seen so many Red Cross trucks, not bringing relief food but seeds for planting. Today, we declare the days of government relief food over,” she said.

The Governor urged other partners and donors to support the revolution by giving farmers more seeds, farm equipment, technologies on water harvesting and training of farmers on post harvest management.

She said whereas the seeds would have cost a farmer Sh500 (USD5), the county government will subsidize the cost by paying Sh250 (USD2.5) for each farmer while KRCS will top up the balance of the other Sh250 (USD2.5).

Besides the seed support, the county government will assist farmers to access agricultural extension services and technical advice from agricultural experts.

The partnership will further see KRC rehabilitate 20 boreholes, water pipeline and water points as part of the emergency interventions to enable communities in Kitui to access water as they wait for recharge of surface water sources in the short rains.

Green grams are said to have health benefits which are they fight breast cancer, weight control, diabetic friendly, protein source, controls blood pressure and they are also a source of protein.

In Kenya, seeds can be obtained from Kenya Seed Company, Dry Land Seed Ltd, Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organization (KALRO) Katumani and KALRO Kitale.