Opportunities from crises

Growing vegetables is hard work - from preparing the land to watering the plants twice a day. Photo by Arnstein Staverlokk, Bioforsk.
Growing vegetables is hard work - from preparing the land to watering the plants twice a day. We are continuously finding ways to make life easier and better for African farmers. Photo by Arnstein Staverlokk, Bioforsk.

In 2009, most of the world was still on unstable footing due to the lingering effects of the double-whammy–the global financial breakdown and the food price crisis–that hit the previous year. For millions of African farmers and their families, the negative impacts of these crises were still strongly felt. As if these were not enough, the third threat of climate change resulting in shifting weather patterns is making agricultural production much more unpredictable and volatile, making the lives of growers even harder.

However, these crises presented us with terrific opportunities to demonstrate the effectiveness of our research-for-development (R4D) strategy. Working closely with partners and with the support of our investors, we developed viable options to help African farmers mitigate and cope with the effects of these threats.

Below is a summary of our R4D highlights and achievements in sub-Saharan Africa for 2009. Details of these highlights and achievements are presented in the “Research Highlights” section of this annual report:

To address vitamin A deficiency especially among women and children in Africa, we gave tropical maize a boost of the nutrient by combining it with maize from the temperate zones containing high levels of beta-carotene and pro-vitamin A. The result was maize that is not only more nutritious but is also well-adapted to the tropical conditions of sub-Saharan Africa.

We were also able to produce a fungus-based biocontrol product against aflatoxin contamination in major African food crops. Called aflasafe, the product has been proven to significantly reduce aflatoxin contamination in maize in our field trials in Nigeria. The product has been granted a provisional registration by the Nigerian government, allowing us to further test it in more areas. We are also trying to develop a similar product for application in Burkina Faso and Senegal.

Mid-year, we sent our second shipment of seeds of African crops to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This comprised of about 5000 seed samples of soybean, maize, bambara nut, cowpea, and African yam bean. Through our Genetic Resources Unit, we are continuing efforts to expand our germplasm collection to help ensure the security and future of Africa’s agrobiodiversity.

We developed new diagnostic tools to help check the spread of crop disease-causing pathogens. Called ‘DNA Barcoding’, this new initiative could genetically characterize pathogen populations and recognize unique stretches of sequences. The DNA ‘barcodes’ could then be used as markers to diagnose pathogens and pests affecting African food crops.

In the face of the rapid onslaught of two deadly diseases of bananas and plantains in Africa – Banana Xanthomonas Wilt and Banana Bunchy Top Disease – that is threatening to wipe-out the crops from the continent, we engaged in a number of complementary disease-management research. These include conducting diagnostic assays, regional disease surveillance, developing management tools, and studying host-plant resistance.

We also undertook studies to delve deeper into the dynamics of Musa production in Africa. This included research that looked at relationships between and among pests and diseases, biotic and abiotic stresses, and farmers’ preferences. All of these to establish the underlying causes of the present state of Musa production in Africa, and enable us to plot a more effective course for our R4D work on bananas and plantains in the continent.

Further to our work on developing a biocontrol product against aflatoxin contamination in food crops, we also developed six new aflatoxin-resistant maize inbred lines with our US-based partners. These maize lines, which have been released to farmers, are also well-adapted to the lowlands.

Our work on improved double-purpose cowpea has resulted in significant increases in the incomes of farmers in northern Nigeria. Cowpea growers in that part of the country have seen their farm profits jump by as much as 55 percent from using the improved varieties compared to local ones.

On soybeans, we developed a new variety that is resistant to the deadly Asian rust – a disease that causes as much as 80 percent crop loss in infested fields. Tagged TGx 1835-10E, the new rust-resistant variety is also high-yielding, bringing an average of 1655 kg/ha of grain and 2210 kg/ha of fodder. It also possesses other traits sought after by soybean farmers.

Our project on “Promoting Sustainable Agriculture in Borno State” (PROSAB), which ended it five-year run this year, showcased the effectiveness of our R4D approach. Our post-project socioeconomic analysis have shown that the poverty levels of about 17,000 households, or more than 100,000 participating farmers, have dropped by an average of 14 percent, while food security improved by about 17 percent – due mainly to PROSAB’s R4D interventions.

Our Sustainable Tree Crops Program (STCP) was tapped as one of five technical partners of a global, multi-sector consortium to implement the US$40 million, 5-year Cocoa Livelihoods Program (CLP). The program is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and 14 chocolate industry companies. STCP will lead the CLP’s site selection, develop and validate training approaches for cocoa farm rehabilitation, produce appropriate training materials, establish a community-level distribution system for improved planting materials, conduct market opportunity and product diversification studies, and manage the program’s Performance Coordination Unit.

A study on the impact of agricultural research on productivity and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa that we completed this year has shown that agricultural research has a direct positive impact on poverty, reducing the number of poor people in the region by as much as 2.3 million annually. In view of the long-term research investments and demonstrated successes in the region, our own R4D work is helping uplift the lives of about 500,000 to one million poor people in sub-Saharan Africa annually.

This year, we moved even closer to developing cassava that has dual resistance to two of the crop’s deadliest diseases – Cassava Mosaic Disease and Cassava Brown Streak Disease. We are currently conducting further disease-stress tests and breeding on candidate cultivars that have shown promise. We are also ensuring that traits sought after by farmers – such as cooking taste, texture, and yield – are addressed.

Yam farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have been traditionally beset by high production costs. We developed a novel way of propagating yam that does away with using tubers as seeds, saving farmers as much as 25 to 30 percent in production expenses. The innovative technique involves using vine cuttings grown in inexpensive carbonized rice husks to produce mini-tubers, which are then used as the planting material in the fields. Aside from reducing costs, this new yam propagation technique could also address the need for faster and wider distribution of disease-free and improved varieties to farmers.

For years, cabbage farms in West Africa have been suffering from the damage inflicted by the Diamondback Moth (DBM), affecting farmers’ incomes and market prices of the high-value crop. This year, we developed a biopesticide based on a fungus– Beauveria bassiana – that effectively controls DBM. Used in integrated pest management, the biopesticide offers a cost-effective and ecologically-friendly alternative to inorganic pesticides, which are not only expensive but also poses health risks to humans and the environment. The B. bassiana-based biopesticide has been tested and proven effective in a number of field tests in the Benin Republic.

We carried out advanced studies in the biological control of the cowpea pod borer, Maruca vitrata. We further evaluated the effectiveness of a previously identified natural enemy of the pod borer, the parasitoid Apanteles taragamae. We also continued host-range studies of the Multi-Nucleopolyhedrosis Virus, another promising biocontrol against Maruca vitrata, which was found through collaborative studies with the World Vegetable Center.

To service more African farmers, we established our Southern Africa Administrative Hub in Zambia to backstop our R4D efforts in that part of the continent. The hub will cater to the agricultural research support needs of Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and, as needed, the DR Congo. With the establishment of our Southern Africa hub, our administrative support system now have three focal points: West Africa (covered by IITA-Nigeria), East Africa (serviced by IITA-Tanzania), and Southern Africa (covered by IITA-Zambia).

Our 2009 audited financial statements reflect the institute’s sustained financial health and stability, and the prudent management of resources. Our liquidity and reserve levels are above those recommended by the CGIAR, indicating our continued ability to meet short- and long-term obligations. Please see the “Financial Information” section of this report for details.