15 March 2014

Tanzania: Mara Leaders Excited With Mikocheni Hybrid Cassava As Disease Ravage Crop

Musoma — MARA region is under siege. Thousands of hectares of cassava farms are in yellow, brownish pale green colour; uproot the tuber, it's either an emaciated slender tuber or medium size partly damaged tuber.

"When we get a partly damaged tuber, we harvest it, cut off the rotten part and use the remainder," said Yohana Lugweya a resident of Kisamene village in Butiama district, the birth place of the country's founding father, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

Butiama district like several other districts in Mara region is badly affected by Cassava Mosaic and Brown Streak Diseases which have depleted whole farmers and impoverished many farmers here.

"Up to 90 per cent of the cassava crop which is a staple for most people here, has been destroyed by diseases," said Butiama District Commissioner, Angeline Mabula who is struggling to find a lasting solution to her people's perennial problem.

"I am tired of begging for food every year," a beleaguered Ms Mabula said, adding that poor harvests have been common in her district not only because of pests and disease attacks but also fluctuating rainfall seasons.

Mabula has already requested for food handouts this year from the Prime Minister's Office because there is no hope of a better season so far. In Rorya district, the situation is just as bad and cassava, maize and sorghum farmers here are distressed because their whole farms are destroyed by diseases and pests.

Pisila Peter Mwita, a mother of nine said normally she harvests the partly destroyed crop.

"I remove the damaged part and use their better part as food, it's bitter but I have no option," said Ms Mwita while showing Mikocheni Agriculture Research Institute (MARI) cassava researching guru, Dr Joseph Ndunguru her one hectare farm.

Last season, she managed to harvest less than five bags of bad cassava from between eight and 10 bags in the recent past.

Although researchers at Ukiriguru Agriculture Research Institute (UARI) have developed a much better disease resistant variety of cassava called Mkombozi, it's ability to withstand the viruses causing CMD (Cassava Mosaic Disease) and Cassava Brown Streak Virus (CBSV) "It's a disaster we are all getting used to know but have no crudest idea of what alternative crop to cultivate," said Mr Lugweye, a father of five who has lost the whole crop in Butiama.

An extension/field officer for Butuguli ward which has over 11,000 residents and included Kisamene village, Alex Neligwa said the situation was pathetic.

Echoing Butiama District Commissioner, Angeline Mabula's plea to have emergency relief food supply to residents of the district, Mr Neligwa said most people have harvested and milled cassava unfit for human consumption.

"We urgently need hybrid cassava planting materials which can withstand disease attacks which in this case are Cassava Mosaic and Brown Streak Virus diseases," he noted.

In the entire region, the sad story of bad harvests, pests and disease attacks against cassava the staple but also other alternatives like maize, sorghum which are also under attack from lethal maize necrosis and leaf bright diseases.

Many farmers who decided to spread the risk by planting other types of crops have found themselves not so much advantaged because even the alternative crops have come under attack.

Mara Regional Agriculture Development Officer, Samuel Sassi said between 30 and 70 per cent of cassava has been destroyed in the region while alternative crops such as maize are also badly being affected.

Dr Ndunguru told Mara Regional Commissioner, John Tupa that his region has the most strains in the country hence needs a special programme to eradicate them especially those involving, cassava, the staple.

"That's why even Mkombozi is now under attack because it's being exposed to different strains not meant for it," Dr Ndunguru added. Having done research work with several traditional cassava varieties found in different parts of the country, which have since been improved to withstand different strains, Dr Ndunguru will soon embark on distribution of such planting materials reproduced through tissue culture.

The Regional Commissioner was overwhelmed by Dr Ndunguru's revelations and urged the researcher to speed up distributing the hybrid cassava varieties to his region's farmers.

"I must say that I am very happy this morning because you have brought me good news," Mr Tupa said.

Tupa said the two cassava diseases have completely destroyed the tuber, which is a staple food for the majority of regions for many years. "I welcome this initiative and would like to know when exactly will you start field trials here," Tupa inquired emotionally as his farmers struggle to eke a living out of destroyed tubers.

Presenting findings of the research done at MARI, Dr Ndunguru said several local cassava varieties were collected from all over the country and through conventional breeding managed to develop disease resistant hybrids.

"This is work done by our own researchers at Mikocheni and not imported from abroad as many of you may think," said Dr Ndunguru who has promised to start field trials for the hybrid plantlets this year.

Apart from replanting diseased materials which only help to further spread diseases, farmers in Mara region also don't adhere to better crop husbandry practices.

"During the field trials, we will also train farmers on how to handle hybrid planting materials and make sure that only clean materials are used," noted Dr Ndunguru.

Asked if the hybrid cassava varieties to be distributed will include genetically engineered organisms, Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Coordinator, Philbert Nyinondi said it's not possible because of existence of a strict liability clause in the 2004 National Environmental Management Act.

"Unless the strict liability clause is amended, scientists and their partners will not engage in field trials of genetically engineered crops," Mr Nyinondi said.

But RC Tupa who feels besieged by a myriad of viruses ravaging his region's staple crops, feels GMOs should be introduced in his region if they are to solve the crisis which he has faced for several years.

"I believed it's just the fear by some people, for me what is important is finding a solution to my region's food crisis," Tupa noted as his region awaits another shipment of relief maize for distribution to farmers who are struggling to survive for the past two decades.

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