Zimbabwe: Young Zim Plant Breeder Wins International Award

7 October 2021

Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovation

A young Zimbabwean scientist, Prince Matova has been honoured by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture for developing Zimbabwe's first cowpea variety using a nuclear technique called mutation breeding.

Matova, a research and agronomy manager, maize and legumes breeder from the Crop Breeding Institute at the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development collaborated with other researchers in Zimbabwe to evaluate the potential of using gamma rays to improve crops.

He won the IAEA and FAO Young Scientist award for his innovative use of ion beams in mutation breeding.

Matova was honoured at the 65th IAEA General Conference where a side event recognised the contributions to plant mutation breeding from 28 researchers and research teams of institutions from across 20 countries - honouring them with awards for outstanding achievements.

"I am happy to see that after having developed elite maize and cowpea varieties, training local and external researchers and modernising our breeding programmes, we have made plant mutation breeding effective and visible in Zimbabwe," he said.

He released Zimbabwe's first cowpea variety developed with a nuclear technique that can be grown in regions with very little annual rainfall.

This first mutant variety in Zimbabwe, the cowpea variety CBC5, that is drought tolerant, has 10% seed size advantage over its parent CBC1 and performs 20% better in terms of grain yield potential compared to most farmer varieties in the country.

The variety was released in 2017 and commercialised 2018.

Given that climate change and food security are among the biggest challenges facing the global community, the IAEA and FAO were engaged in various programmes to help scientists find solutions to improve food security and crop adaptation to climate change.

Scientists in many countries were looking to nuclear techniques to develop new and improved crop varieties for cultivation.

The global agencies were doing this to also support with irradiating seeds or other plant material in order to develop plant varieties with superior characteristics, such as drought tolerance or increased yields.

Experts say this process, called plant mutation breeding, uses the plant's own natural genetic resources to mimic the spontaneous process of mutation in the evolution of plants.

They say it increases the pace of genetic change and allows plant breeders to select the most desirable ones from many mutant lines.

"The positive impacts of improved cultivars on food security and nutrition at local, national and regional levels are ensuring more stable crop production in stress conditions due to the climate crisis. As well as sustaining farmer's livelihoods and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals," said director general of FAO, Qu Dongyu at a ceremony which was held recently to honour the plant breeders in Vienna, Austria.

"With the technical support provided by the Joint Centre, plant breeders in many countries have achieved substantial improvement through mutation breeding in a wide range of crops."

Meanwhile, Tinovonga Gonhi, another young plant breeder was awarded the In-Country/In-Region DAAD Scholarship from Germany to further pursue his studies in plant breeding at PhD level.

He conduction his research at the Makerere University Regional Centre for Crop Improvement (MaRCCI) in Uganda.

Gonhi was also selected and honoured by the JR Biotek Foundation in their "Reach and Teach Science in Africa" flagship programme in collaboration with University of Cambridge (UK) to be among the top 20 post graduate young agricultural researchers from East and Southern African countries to attend the Plant Molecular Bio-Laboratory Hands-on Training Workshop hosted by Masinde Muliro University of science and Technology (MMUST) in Kenya.

The workshop aims to tackle food and nutrition insecurity through fostering Research and Innovation and capacity building to present and future young African scientists so as to transform Africa's agricultural sector into a productive, effective and efficient sector.

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