The Star (Nairobi)

9 October 2013

Kenya: New KARI Centre Fights Lethal Maize Disease

In an effort to prevent the damage caused by the lethal disease that has wreaked havoc to maize crops in Kenya and other East African countries, a Sh100 million worth maize facility has been established in Naivasha.

According to researchers, Naivasha is ideal and is seen as a Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease hotspot. The disease has affected about 26,000 hectares of maize in the country, resulting in an estimated loss of 56,730 tonnes which are valued at approximately $23.5 million. The facility is aimed at taming future spread of the diseases in Kenya and other African countries.

Kenya Agricultural Research Institute director Dr Ephraim Mukisira said he is optimistic the menace will be contained once the facility is fully operational.

"The ultimate aim of the MLN screening facility in Kari-Naivasha is to enhance food security and improve livelihoods of the farming communities in eastern Africa by minimising or eliminating the risks and effects of the deadly MLN disease on maize production," he said.

The launch of the facility comes at a time when the maize seed industry in eastern Africa is under significant pressure to find a solution and establish a MLN resistant maize variety.

The Naivasha facility, according to Dr Mukisira, will be used to screen for germ plasma that are tolerant to the MLN disease which nearly wiped out the crop at the farm level in parts of Rift Valley.

Nearly 650,000 bags of maize valued at Sh2 billion were lost to the disease which affected several parts of the country including Kericho, Nandi, Uasin Gishu, Trans Nzoia, Turkana and West Pokot.

"Kari in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre have embarked on screening a large number of germplasm in an effort to identify lines with genetic resistance or tolerance to the disease," he said.

About 90 per cent of Kenya's population depends directly or indirectly on maize in terms of food, labour and income and the ministry of agriculture estimates that over 30 per cent of the maize produced is lost to pests and diseases.

Mukusira added that the screening would be a continuous activity aimed at ensuring that any maize varieties developed and released to the farmers should have high tolerance to the disease.

Kari in partnership with Global Maize Programme of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) identified some promising maize inbred lines and pre-commercial hybrids which could be resistant to MLN. Most of the commercial maize varieties in Kenya were found highly vulnerable to MLN.

CIMMYT director, Boddupalli Prasanna, said the facility will make it possible for the country to screen and identify the disease to effectively manage the risk it causes on maize production.

"This will be done by the public and private sector research partners in Africa in the hope that in the long run, livelihoods of farming communities in the continent will be made food secure," said Prasanna.

He added that the facility will help ensure a continuous flow of elite MLN resistant inbred lines, hybrids and improved open-pollinated varieties through rigorous screening of maize germplasm using optimised disease screening procedures.

The 20-hectare facility will have three large green houses, a laboratory-cum-office complex which will be used for working on MLN-causing viruses and field facilities to screen maize germplasm.

The MLN screening facility establishment as well as the development and delivery of MLN-resistant maize germplasm are being supported through a project led by CIMMYT, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

Under this project, Kari and CIMMYT scientists will work in close partnership to screen maize germplasm under controlled and reliable disease conditions.

Maize virologists from Kari, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and institutions in the USA will help in optimisation of disease screening and characterisation of maize viruses causing MLN in eastern Africa.

Trained personnel from CIMMYT and Kari will manage and operate the facility that will also serve as a hub for training young researchers and students in Africa on MLN disease screening and identification of MLN-resistant maize germplasm.

Dr Anne Wangai, a researcher from Kari who carried a survey of the disease origin in conjunction with the ministry of agriculture, traced the initial outbreak in lower parts of Longisa division of Bomet district.

The disease which was as a result of the combination of maize chlorotic mottle virus and sugarcane mosaic virus later spread rapidly in the country s' grain basket of the North Rift, parts of Eastern and Central provinces then later crossed into Tanzania.

Sugarcane mosaic virus had previously appeared in Kenya, but maize chloroplast mottle virus had not and there has not been known precedent for treating the disease according to researchers.

Meanwhile, a maize doubled haploid facility has also been established at Kari-Kiboko with the aim of improving food security in Africa through cutting-edge agricultural research for development.

Doubled haploid (DH) is a technology used by maize breeders to dramatically reduce the time spent in developing an improved variety as well as resources required for development of inbred lines or parental line of improved maize hybrids.

Unlike conventional breeding which takes at least 7-8 crop seasons to develop parental lines called "inbred" lines of maize hybrids, the DH lines are generated within just 2-3 seasons, saving significant time, labour and other resources.

The centre costs Sh80 million and will be used to develop fast tracking maize varieties that are tolerant to the disease and also to drought. Mukusira added that the screening would be a continuous activity aimed at ensuring that any maize varieties developed and released to the farmers should have high tolerance to the disease.

These facilities will be used by scientists and researchers within Pan-Africa and the 10 ASARECA regions among them Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea, DRC Congo, Madagascar and South Sudan.

The DH facility at Kiboko experimental station is set up on a 20 hectares land with infrastructure including a laboratory complex, reservoir to support an extensive drip irrigation system, greenhouse to grow maize seedlings and a research farm for DH line development.

"We hope that through these interventions and also setting aside of a section of the 1.5 million acres of irrigation land to seed production, we can make headway and meet our of ensuring food security in the region," Mukusira said.

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