A success tale on improving two legume crops in Africa

Ousmane Boukar (o.boukar@cgiar.org), Tahirou Abdoulaye, Manuele Tamó, Hesham Agrama, Hailu Tefera, Christian Fatokun, and Steve Boahen
O. Boukar, Cowpea Breeder; T. Abdoulaye, Socioeconomist, IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria; M. Tamó, Legume Entomologist, IITA, Benin; H. Agrama and H. Tefera, Soybean Breeders, IITA, Malawi; C. Fatokun, Cowpea Breeder, IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria; S. Boahen, Legume Specialist/Agronomist, IITA, Mozambique

Cowpea and soybean are cultivated by poor and middle-income farmers as a sole crop or as intercrop with maize and other cereals for their protein-rich grains which are consumed in different forms. The haulms from plant residues and the dry pod walls of both crops are good sources of quality fodder for livestock.

Improved cowpea varieties being tested in a field trial. Photo by L. Kumar.
Improved cowpea varieties being tested in a field trial. Photo by L. Kumar.

The two crops contribute substantially to sustain crop production through their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, some of which is left behind in the soil after harvesting for subsequent crops. IITA and its partners have been involved in improving legume production systems for several decades. An overview of these efforts is presented in this article.

Cowpea―indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), is grown on about 14 million ha worldwide, with over 84% of this area in SSA. Between 1985 and 2007, the rate of growth was 4.5% in land area planted to cowpea, 4.5% in grain yields/ha, and 5.9% in quantity of cowpea produced. These data indicate that the increase in the quantity of grain produced over the period resulted mainly from an expansion in the land area and less from an improved yield/unit area. In well-managed experimental stations, yields of up to 2 t/ha can be obtained but globally the average yield is about 450 kg/ha.

Several abiotic and biotic factors keep the productivity of cowpea low in African farmers’ fields. Notable among these are drought, poor soil fertility, inappropriate agronomic practices, an array of fungal, viral, and bacterial diseases, and parasitic flowering plants (Striga and Alectra). Cowpea is particularly susceptible to infestation by several insects with devastating effects on plants in the field and seeds in storage.

Efforts in genetic improvement have been and are still being made to develop varieties with resistance to these various yield-limiting factors and in various research institutions across SSA, iIITA, and other advanced research institutions. Cowpea breeders from these various institutions meet regularly to share information and exchange ideas on the way forward.

Elite lines generated from IITA’s breeding nurseries are shared with interested colleagues from the national research institutions who evaluate these at their stations and in farmers’ fields. Those that perform well are recommended for release in the respective countries. For example, in Mali, a cowpea line IT99K-499-35 was recently adopted by many farmers in the Segou area and because of its superior performance and resistance to Striga, given a local name, Jinguiya which means ‘hope’.

Under the Tropical Legumes II (TL II) project, several new cowpea varieties [IT97K-499-35 (in 2008), IT89KD-288 and IT89KD-391 (in 2009), IT99K-573-1-1 and IT99K-573-2-1 (in 2011)] were released in Nigeria. Regional trials are being conduced for two cowpea lines (IT97K-1122 and IT00K-1263) identified through farmers’ participatory selection as part of the TL II project in Tanzania to facilitate their official release. In 2011, three IITA cowpea lines (IT97K-1069-6, IT00K-1263, and IT82E-16) were released in Mozambique; and IT99K-494-6 was released by Bunda College in Malawi as an Alectra-resistant variety in 2011.

Legume scientists in a disease resistance screening trial. Photo by L. Kumar.
Legume scientists in a disease resistance screening trial. Photo by L. Kumar.

Research into integrated pest management (IPM) for cowpea has resulted in the development and deployment of biopesticides including the use of entomopathogenic organisms combined with botanicals, and biological control agents such as hymenopteran parasitoids which attack and feed on some of the cowpea pests. An example is the mixture of a specific entomopathogenic virus capable of infecting and killing the legume pod borer Maruca vitrata with aqueous formulations of neem oil. This has proved to be as effective as the use of conventional insecticidal sprays. With regard to biological control, a small parasitic wasp which attacks the flower bud thrips, another major pest of flowering cowpea, has been introduced and established in most of Bénin and parts of Ghana, It has been reported to reduce the thrips population on wild alternative host plants by up to 40%.

The development of improved cowpea varieties has so far depended on conventional breeding methods. However, efforts are being made to apply molecular breeding tools to cowpea improvement. Fairly saturated genetic linkage maps of cowpea have been produced in several laboratories. The linkage maps have been used for the detection of DNA markers associated with resistance/tolerance to Striga, drought, macrophomina, and bacterial blight, and seed characteristics such as size. A few of the markers have been converted to user-friendly markers which will make them readily available for breeders in the national systems. Molecular markers are contributing to progress in variety development.

IITA is collaborating with Purdue University, USA, in implementing the Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS) project on the hermetic storage of cowpea grain in Nigeria, Bénin, Togo, and Cameroon. From 2008 to 2010, IITA and its partners disseminated hermetic triple-layer bags for storage in more than 13,500 villages in the cowpea-producing areas of Nigeria, Cameroon, Togo, and Bénin. This project addresses one of the most important constraints to cowpea production which is grain damage in storage. Furthermore, by not using any type of chemical, this hermetic storage method is protecting farming families and consumers from accidents from the mishandling of and poisoning by the chemicals used in cowpea storage. To date, farmers have purchased more than 30,000 PICS bags in these countries.

IITA is also collaborating in an adoption study that will provide information about the reach of the technology. Another study on analysis of the supply chain of the PICS bags in the same four countries will help to improve the farmers’ access to the PICS bags through a better distribution network.

Soybean is a fairly new crop in SSA and has few biotic constraints. Fewer than 400 ha were planted to soybean in SSA during the 1980s but this exceeded the 1-million ha mark by 2007. Grain yield/ha increased from about 900 kg/ha in the 1980s to >1000 kg/ha between 2005 and 2007. Initially most varieties grown in parts of SSA had the problem of seed longevity. Farmers could not store seeds successfully from one cropping season to the next. This problem has now been solved so that seeds of the newly developed varieties remain viable over a longer period. Another constraint to soybean production was pod shattering, which resulted in seeds being lost in the field. Farmers could not leave their crop to dry in the field before harvesting without losing some of the grain. The varieties that have been developed at IITA have tolerance to pod shattering, and resistance to rust─a fungus (Phakopsora pachyrhizi) that causes significant yield losses, especially in the moist savanna agroecology. Some genotypes of soybean are noted for their abilities to reduce the seed bank of Striga hermonthica, a parasitic weed which can cause serious damage to cereal crops.

Farmers admiring improved soybean varieties. Photo by IITA.
Farmers admiring improved soybean varieties. Photo by IITA.

Several elite lines from IITA’s breeding nursery have been evaluated in many countries in SSA and found to perform well in farmers’ fields. Some of these have been recommended for release in the different countries. For example, rust-resistant TGx1835-10E and TGx1987-62F have been released in Nigeria; TGx1740-2F was released in Malawi; TGx-1485-1D, TGx1740-2F, TGx1904-6F, TGx1908-8F, and TGx1937-1F were released in Mozambique in 2011. These were the first batch of varieties ever released in Mozambique. The development of improved varieties also involved farmers’ participation in selection, which made it possible for farmers to have some knowledge on performance of the lines being selected, thus facilitating rapid adoption and dissemination. IITA, in collaboration with Laval University in Canada, completed genotypic [using single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers] and phentotypic characterization of 300 soybean genotypes for rust resistance and symbiotic performance.

In addition to efforts on genetic improvement of soybean, major emphasis has been placed on promoting and using soybean to encourage consumption, and thus create markets for farmers to sell their produce. Recipes were developed to promote the use of soybean grain for food. This promotional activity was necessary because the crop was new in many parts of the region and people were not familiar with how it could be best used as food. Vegetable oil millers were also encouraged to accept soybean as a raw material from where good quality oil could be extracted.

Legumes fix atmospheric nitrogen in their root nodules through the symbiotic association between the crop and rhizobium, a free-living soil bacterium. Legume seeds are inoculated with the rhizobium before sowing to increase the number of rhizobium available to the plant for infection and nodule formation, and subsequently enhance the quantity of the nitrogen fixed. Soybean is one such crop that requires rhizobium inoculation if a good crop is to be established on soils with no existing rhizobia or inadequate number if rhizobia.

At IITA, some soybean varieties have been developed which are capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen using the native rhizobium present in the soil. These varieties which require no inoculation before sowing are characterized by promiscuous nodulation. Growing such varieties will save the farmers some expense and the time needed to purchase the inoculants with which the seeds are treated.

Decades of collaborative research efforts on genetic improvement of these two important legume crops involving scientists in the national agricultural research systems of different countries in SSA, IITA, and advanced research institutions in Europe and North America have resulted in the development and promotion of different improved varieties to meet the preferences of farmers and consumers. Improved varieties developed through this partnership have been released in over 70 countries around the world, which signifies the success of this partnership for legume crop improvement.

Further efforts will focus on use of innovative approaches to pyramid pest and disease resistance genes into improved lines and varieties; application of molecular markers to rapidly introduce genes for simply inherited desirable traits into popular varieties; and genetic modification using recombinant DNA technology to produce insect-resistant cowpea varieties (Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt cowpea for resistance to the Maruca pod borer). Efforts will be continued to address diseases, such as the need to develop improved cowpea and soybean lines with combined resistance to different fungal, bacterial, and viral pathogens. The factors that influence tolerance to drought in cowpea require further elucidation, as this would facilitate progress in developing new varieties with enhanced drought tolerance.

IAPSC: Protecting Africa’s plant health

Jean-Gerard Mezui M'ella, IAPSC
Jean-Gerard Mezui M'ella, IAPSC

Jean-Gerard Mezui M’ella is the Director of the Inter-African Phytosanitary Council (IAPSC), the African Plant Protection Organization with headquarters in Nlongkak, Yaounde, Cameroon. IAPSC is an intergovernmental organization with 53 members under the umbrella of the African Union. It coordinates plant protection procedures in Africa.

The IAPSC Director coordinates the activities of its four sections (Phytopathology; Entomology; Documentation, Information and Communication; Administration and Finance). He represents the African region in the Commission for Phytosanitary Measures of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC/FAO), promotes compliance with International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPMs), and represents the African Union Commission on diplomatic matters in Central Africa. In this interview, he talks about the important work of IAPSC.

Why is IAPSC important?
IAPSC is a technical office of the African Union/Directorate of Rural Economy and Agriculture. It is one of the 10 Regional Plant Protection Organizations of the IPPC. As the regional organization for Africa, it works in collaboration with the national plant protection organizations of the 53 countries of the AU.

IAPSC mostly implements its activities through the eight African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and sub-RECs. It addresses phytosanitary issues in Africa including the following:
– The vulnerability of African crop production systems to the impact of diseases, insect pests, and noxious weeds;
– Economic losses incurred through spoilage;
– Noncompliance with ISPMs, trade regulations, and equivalents;
– Dearth of phytosanitary data (Pests Risk Analysis, diagnostics, surveillance, etc.)

AU-IAPSC safeguards agriculture and natural resources from the risks associated with the entry and establishment or spread of pests of plants and plant products to ensure food safety and quality supply to intra-African and international markets.

How would you assess the state of plant protection in Africa?
Africa still has a lot of problems with plant protection. In fact, most African countries inherited an administration put in place before independence, which to a certain extent, has safeguarded the plant health of the different countries. There were departments of Agriculture and Divisions such as plant pathology, entomology, agricultural chemistry, and also plant quarantine. After independence, with the coming into force of the IPPC, adopted by the FAO Conference of 1951, the global approach and harmonization of phytosanitary measures started to take shape. For example, a common format for phytosanitary certificates was set up, common action was secured to prevent the spread of pests of plants and plant products, guidelines were provided regarding phytosanitary matters and the relevant actions to be taken by national governments in the implementation of plant quarantine.

IAPSC promotes cooperation among countries to prevent the movement of serious pests. It provides a forum for African countries to promote their views on plant health. In addition, quarantine structures in Africa differ from one region to another. In fact, some countries have operational quarantine stations but others do not. We at IAPSC encourage the creation of regional and subregional quarantine stations, although even those in existence find it difficult to comply with IPPC standards. It is our hope to have quarantine stations in each country.

Quarantine inspector reading about banana bunchy top. Photo by L. Kumar, IITA.
Quarantine inspector reading about banana bunchy top. Photo by L. Kumar, IITA.

Harmonizing phytosanitary regulations and policies in Africa must be quite challenging. How are you doing this?
Nontariff barriers such as SPS measures are often used as a disguised way to restrict trade. It is becoming essential, following the World Trade Organization‘s agreement on SPSMs for member countries of the WTO to ensure that the SPS measures they apply are in line with this agreement. To do so, the technical and organizational capacity of the various organizations at national, regional, or international levels have to be given the necessary tools to deal with the new challenges.

The 1995 WTO agreement was set up to remove unnecessary, unjustified, and arbitrary pressure on international trade in plants and plant products. This was a new situation for the various stakeholders, e.g., new themes such as transparency, scientific justification, notifications, inquiry points, risk analysis, and standards are now the guiding principles.

It is thus of the utmost importance for African countries, where phytosanitary capacity deficits are most severe, to begin a process of developing a strategy for capacity building to meet their obligations under the WTO rules.

In 2003, the RECs became the implementation arm of IAPSC whose technical programs are assessed by the RECs during the annual meetings of the Steering Committee and General Assembly.

IAPSC, much like AU, encourages regional common markets.

What are your major challenges?
Besides funding, the major challenges IAPSC faces on a daily basis include the entry of new pests on the African continent that annihilate the efforts of member countries; the proliferation of invasive pests; climate change that brings about new plant heath challenges; and a lack of scientists specialized in plant protection.

How do you ensure that regulations or policies are strictly implemented?
We endeavor to strengthen the capacities of countries so that they can prevent and control the introduction of plant pests in Africa. We encourage the setting up of Centers of Phytosanitary Excellence, the creation of phytosanitary networks, and the regular updating of pest lists in Africa.

IITA researchers conduct plant health tests in lab. Photo by L. Kumar, IITA.
IITA researchers conduct plant health tests in lab. Photo by L. Kumar, IITA.

What are you doing to improve the links and working relationships among NPPOs and networks in Africa?
We organize workshops and seminars on plant matters; we publish a quarterly phytosanitary news bulletin; and we enrich on a regular basis the phytosanitary information in the International Plant Protection Portal of FAO.

IAPSC provides information on quarantine pests on plants as well as for the protection of plant products for the AU member countries through both the paper and electronic media. Paper-based information systems include a scientific analysis, a phytosanitary situation in Africa, reports of service activities, and a collection of phytosanitary regulations and standards. Electronic information on compact discs covers a database of the meetings and phytosanitary regulations of member States. The Phytosanitary News bulletin of IAPSC is issued four times a year. It welcomes contributions and articles from National Plant Protection Organizations.

There is a web site for the worldwide dissemination of information (http://www.au-iapsc.org), and a library that hosts scientific books.

Our workshops and seminars aim at sharing information on the phytosanitary situation and on the findings in crop protection research.

We frequently conduct monitoring and evaluation exercises (country visits, exchange and information sharing among countries). All these activities help in networking among the partners in Africa.

What support do you need from the member countries? From partners? From clients?
To improve the prevailing situation concerning quarantine standards, regional cooperation and compliance with international regulations, the following priorities have been identified:
1. Ensuring that all African countries are parties to the IPPC;
2. Ensuring the harmonization of plant protection policies across RECs through capacity building;
3. Regularly updating pest lists and quarantine pests;
4. Harmonizing phytosanitary inspection systems; surveillance, emergency responses, risk analysis: procedures to analyze and reduce the risk of new pests entering a country;
5. Setting up a harmonized pesticide management system.

Describe your collaboration with IITA.
IAPSC-IITA cooperation is in the following key areas: Cassava pests’ diagnostics and control technique methods, Cassava germplasm and planting material exchange, Banana pests’ diagnostics and control technique methods, Banana germplasm and planting material exchange, and Harmonization of African countries’ phytosanitary systems.

What could international bodies such as IITA do to ensure that Africa’s agriculture is safeguarded?
IITA, like other bodies, should work with country structures through IAPSC, and collaborate with recognized subregional and regional structures of the public and private sectors in plant protection.

COMESA: Ensuring sanitary and phytosanitary standards in the region

Martha Byanyima, COMESA
Martha Byanyima, COMESA

Martha Byanyima is a food science and trade expert from Uganda. She has worked in the region on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) and agricultural trade programs, supporting countries to carry out the necessary policy and legal reforms and strengthening private sector/industry systems.

Currently, she is the Regional Process and Partnerships Facilitator of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) at the COMESA Secretariat. CAADP is the Africa Union Commission and the NEPAD Coordinating Agency (AUC/NPCA) continental program aimed at increasing agricultural productivity in Africa.

She supports development of the regional CAADP process and establishes partnerships for regional investments in key areas prioritized to address the challenges of food security and poverty in the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) region. She also leads COMESA’s SPS work program.

What is COMESA all about?
COMESA is a regional economic community (REC) of 19 countries. Our mandate is to create a vibrant and dynamic common market in which business will thrive and expand regionally. We improve the competitiveness of the farmers, entrepreneurs, and traders. In this regard, compliance with international standards, particularly SPS measures, which are a prerequisite for agriculture and agro-industry competitiveness and access to regional and global markets, becomes very important to us.

Why are SPS measures important?
SPS measures are mandatory requirements instituted by governments to protect human, animal, and plant health. These commonly take the form of legislation, inspection, and testing requirements and border controls. Measures similar to SPS had been in place for several decades; however, they became more important under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement in 1995, which recognized the right to protect the agricultural sector and biodiversity. These measures ensure that products produced domestically or imported conform with the regulations and standards of the territory.

The SPS agreement of WTO encourages countries to use common standards, guidelines, and recommendations as developed by the International Plant Protection Convention for plant protection, the Codex Alimentarius Commission for food safety, and the World Organization for Animal Health for pests and animal diseases and zoonoses.

How can compliance with SPS standards facilitate trading and marketing of agricultural goods?
Compliance with SPS standards promotes economic development and trade. SPS is a very important area as we deepen regional integration to reduce barriers to transacting business and to free the movement of agricultural and food products among member countries. COMESA has slowly progressed from a Preferential Trade Area with lower duties charged on goods originating from member countries to a Free Trade Area (FTA) in 2000 where no duty is charged on goods from member countries as long as they comply with the rules of origin and to a full Customs Union in 2009 where a common external tariff is applied to goods imported from outside the region.

How do you promote these standards?
While such a progression is based on tariff reduction and/or elimination to reduce the cost of transacting business, SPS barriers constitute an added cost to business that is not easily quantified, requiring scientific and technical capacity that is often lacking. In this regard, strengthening SPS infrastructure, such as laboratories, and the harmonization of SPS laws, regulations, procedures, and standards are essential for intra-regional trade and successful regional integration.

What is the Green Pass system?
It is the harmonization of SPS measures across COMESA countries and the establishment of equivalence through common certification schemes. The Green Pass system is intended to restore confidence among trade partners and remove SPS barriers to facilitate trade and the marketing of food and agricultural products within the region.

How can Green Pass help trade and markets in East and Southern Africa?
Since SPS is an important area for effective markets in the context of regional integration, COMESA has a regional work program aimed at mobilizing resources to address the critical gaps in the SPS systems of regional member countries. The work program has four result areas: (a) common certification schemes (standards), (b) monitoring, surveillance, and preparedness for emergencies, (c) improved exchange of SPS information between the public and private sectors, and (d) improved regional leadership and coordination.

Our activities include encouraging the adoption of regional standards, establishing regional SPS databases and information systems, establishing modalities and piloting mutually agreed certification schemes such as the Green Pass, awareness and training workshops, and strengthening SPS infrastructure, such as laboratories.

How are you implementing the Green Pass system?
The first step in creating awareness and motivating countries to step up harmonization efforts is the establishment of the SPS legal framework to guide countries on the necessary policy and legal reforms. At the heart of the legal framework is the Green Pass system.

Enforcing phytosanitary policies and regulations in the region would benefit  trade and commerce, and ultimately the farmers and consumers. Photo by IITA.
Enforcing phytosanitary policies and regulations in the region would benefit trade and commerce, and ultimately the farmers and consumers. Photo by IITA.

What can international organizations or networks do to help promote standards and the Green Pass system?
Currently we are developing proposals to pilot commercially driven Green Pass certification schemes. For example, we will support the member countries to develop common protocols to address the problem of fruitflies in banana, passion fruit, and avocado, or aflatoxins in maize. Such protocols, developed and piloted by the private sector and governments, with support from COMESA, will constitute the science to inform the Green Pass certification scheme. The protocols and related infrastructure, such as reference laboratories, are regional public goods that serve both the private and public sectors.

Who are your partners in implementing the system?
In piloting the Green Pass certification scheme, we envisage partnerships with the private sector, regional institutions with relevant expertise, such as IITA and governments. The decision to implement the Green Pass was endorsed by ministers of agriculture in July 2010, and thus all countries will be involved to the extent that the Green Pass is the viable option to resolve the existing SPS problem.

What are some of your challenges?
The greatest challenge is to create a common understanding of the Green Pass concept; there are variations in the way it is understood by experts, governments, the private sector, and other stakeholders.

Another challenge is traditional certification schemes that are based on international standards but may not respond to intraregional trade challenges. For example, South Africa (SA) demands a certificate of origin from Zambia honey exporters in addition to the animal health certificate issued by the Government. The Zambia market, however, has lots of food imports from China which treats bees with antibiotics. SA regulations restrict antibiotic residues in honey. Therefore, SA demands full proof that the honey originates from Zambia and not China, where the honey is not organic. In this case the Green Pass would come in handy to establish a certification scheme that includes traceability protocols and a certificate of origin in addition to the animal health certificate from the Government.

Of course, there are also constraints in both human and financial resources.

Food supplies being loaded on trucks for transportation to urban centers. Photo by IITA.
Food supplies being loaded on trucks for transportation to urban centers. Photo by IITA.

Why a common market for East and Southern African?
On 22 October 2008, heads of States and Governments of the 26 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa that have membership in COMESA, EAC, and SADC, made a landmark decision that the three RECs should immediately start working towards a merger into a single FTA to deepen regional integration. The three have a combined population of 565 million, and a gross domestic product of US$875 billion. These are 57% of Africa’s population and 59% of the GDP. The total land mass of the COMESA-EAC-SADC region is 14.8 million km² or 49% of Africa’s total land mass.

The decisions of the Tripartite Summit have far-reaching implications on the operations of the three RECs with regard to joint planning, programming, and implementation of the common agenda. In addition, there will be a need for development partners to rationalize and harmonize their support in the tripartite framework.

Since then, the Agreement to establish the Tripartite FTA has been developed and will be signed in mid-2011. The purpose of the Agreement is to enhance collaboration (through joint investments) and avoid the duplication of effort that has characterized the COMESA region as a result of multiple membership of the regional communities.

Annex 14 of the Agreement to establish the Tripartite FTA specifically addresses SPS, requiring Tripartite member countries to harmonize SPS measures and, where necessary, to implement joint programs.

What role do you envisage for IITA in COMESA?
IITA and other regional specialized scientific institutions have a huge role to play They can ensure that the best science informs agricultural planning and development, using the CAADP framework that has proved to be an effective instrument in harnessing knowledge and bringing it to sector planning processes at the national and regional levels. However, governments are responding slowly to the all-inclusive principle of CAADP; non-State actors such as IITA, farmers, and the private sector have not been engaged to the extent necessary to achieve the effective transfer of scientific knowledge and expertise.

What support do you need?
At this stage, it is important for all players to recognize the transformation taking place in the agricultural sector on this continent—the bumper harvests and the increased investments. This is largely driven by RECs through support to country CAADP processes and regional integration programs. Policy reforms and technical support are important elements of the transformation process that cannot be achieved by RECs acting alone; specialized institutions such as IITA and other nonstate actors need to fill this gap. It is, thus, important that development partners, donors, and other actors respond positively to the call by the African Union to align with regional priorities embedded in the RECs’ regional integration programs and in so doing support the transformation process currently taking place on this continent.

What is your vision for African agriculture, trade, and economy?
I look forward to deeper regional integration among the African countries. The Tripartite framework provides the best means to achieve this. By strengthening infrastructure on key trade corridors and facilitating the transport of goods while strengthening the countries’ SPS systems through the best science available, agricultural value chains will expand beyond the COMESA region. New opportunities will be opened for the private sector. At the same time, it is my hope that the Tripartite framework will encourage collaboration in scientific research and innovations to further strengthen value addition and trade in value-added food products.

Banana facts

In terms of production, bananas are the world’s 4th most important food crop, mostly grown and consumed in the tropical and subtropical zones. The crop is grown in more than 120 countries, with an annual world production of around 104 million tons; around a third each is produced in the African, Asia-Pacific, and Latin American and Caribbean regions.

About 87% of all the bananas grown worldwide is produced by small-scale farmers for local consumption as a food security crop, and for local markets than for international trade. They provide a staple food for millions of people, particularly in Africa.

Approximately 13% of worldwide banana production is destined for the export market. The banana fruit is extremely important as an export commodity especially in Latin America and Caribbean, which contribute over 83% of the total banana in the international market. The banana export industry is also the backbone of the economies of many Caribbean countries, and the crop plays a vital role in the social and political fabrics of the islands.

In Africa, only five countries namely, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Somalia, Ghana, and Cape Verde, export approximately 427,000 tons of banana and plantain. There are more than 500 banana varieties in the world, but the Cavendish is the most exported banana cultivar.
The banana’s ability to produce fruits all year round makes it an important food security crop and cash crop in the tropics.

Bananas and plantains supply more than 25% of the carbohydrate requirements for over 70 million people in Africa. East Africa is the largest banana-producing and consuming region in Africa with Uganda being the world’s second leading producer after India, with a total production of about 10.5 million tons. In some African countries such as Uganda the daily consumption of banana may exceed 1.6 kilogram per person, which is the highest in the world.

Nutritionally, fresh bananas contain 35% carbohydrates, 6-7% fiber, 1-2% protein and fat, and major elements such as potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B6, and C. Bananas are also used to manufacture beer, wine, and other products and form an important part of the cultural life of many people.

FAO Agriculture Data. 2002. http://www.fao.org./ag.
FAOSTAT Agriculture Data. 2001 and 2004. http://apps.fao.org.
Robinson, J.C. 1996. Bananas and Plantains, CABI Publishing, Wallingford, UK, 238 pp.
Tripathi, L., J.N. Tripathi, and Irie V.B. 2007. Bananas and plantains (Musa spp.): Transgenics and Biotechnology. Transgenic Plant Journal 1(1). pp 185-2001.

Thomas Dubois: Young scientist on the rise

Thomas Dubois, IITA
Thomas Dubois, IITA

Thomas Dubois joined IITA in 2003 to manage the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)-funded regional biocontrol project for banana, based in Uganda. This project has now made significant progress: banana infected with certain strains of endophytic fungi grow more vigorously and are better protected against pests and diseases. The development of this novel “bioprotection” is an exciting research theme that has the potential to revolutionize current thinking on biocontrol. Current focus of this project is to optimize inoculation techniques and scale up activities with commercial producers of tissue-cultured (TC) plants as part of a recently funded Eastern African Programme and Research Network for Biotechnology, Biosafety and Biotechnology Policy Development (BIO-EARN) project in Kenya and Uganda.

In 2006, Thomas received the prestigious CGIAR Young Scientist Award. At present he is heading a BMZ project on improving market pathways for TC banana centered on commercial TC producers and nursery distribution centers. He is also spearheading the 2008 International Banana Conference in Mombasa, Kenya, as Chair of the Organizing Committee.

How did you come to IITA?
I studied bio-engineering first and then some foreign exchanges spurred my international ambitions. After my studies, in 1998, I was placed with IITA in Onne, southeast Nigeria. I absolutely fell in love with the then cowboy attitudes: nothing beats eating goat head, listening to Afropop in between oilrigs and blown up tankers! I liked the applied work, screening banana plants for nematode resistance, working under the supervision of Abdou Tenkouano and the late Paul Speijer. While I was at Onne, I was accepted at Cornell University to do my PhD studies in Insect Pathology. As I told Lukas Brader, the DG at that time, “I will be back.” After my PhD studies I was quickly involved in a fairly high-profile project with the United States Department of Agriculture, combating a devastating invasive insect species in the northern US; I traveled to China every year for prolonged periods of time. I toyed with the idea of entering Business School and tried to get into private industry. I settled with management consulting firms, using the Ivy League degree as leverage. I tried to get back into the CGIAR system and landed an 8-month stint with IITA in Uganda in 2003. This was a short project related to the use of endophytes, with no job security but ideal to get my foot in the door. I have been at IITA ever since.

What are some of your memorable experiences in research in the field or in the lab?
I like the applied and hands-on work. You can get much more done with a large dedicated team of staff, sometimes with less access to good infrastructure and facilities. I had to play farm manager for more than a year, doing activities from supplying water, fuel, and satellite dishes to keep the station running, to chasing away cows from encroaching the research fields in my spare time.

What are your realizations on the job?
I have come to appreciate several important realizations. First of all comes focus. It is easy to be carried away and drift into the development aspect of things. We are first and foremost scientists, on the applied side of science, publishing our work through peer-reviewed journals. It should be up to partner organizations to feed high-tech science upstream or to implement the work downstream. So choosing the right partners is essential. Secondly, teamwork is important. I started to fully appreciate this fairly late. Competition is natural in low quantities but, by definition, has no place in an institution that aims to do Research to nourish Africa. By working synergistically as a team and sometimes reaching out to other “competitor” organizations you would be surprised at what can be achieved in a short time and how the relationship can be swiftly turned into fruitful collaboration. Thirdly, at IITA, the sky seems to be the limit but sometimes you have to let go. One person simply cannot run two large international projects, write some more, fly to DR Congo to help with restructuring the agricultural sector, correct PhD theses, be a webmaster, and run a massive conference at the same time. My workload is insane but it is partly my fault.

What are your future plans?
In the immediate future, I would focus on my project on improving market pathways for TC banana centered on commercial TC producers and nursery distribution centers. Also, commercialization of the technology with private enterprises—this is what the BIO-EARN project is trying to do. At some point later, I hope to leave science and secure a managerial position with more job security as well. Deep down I know I am not a scientist “pure sang”. Moving on to the bigger scheme of things can be anything, ranging from research management, policy, advocacy, consultancy to donor relations.

Dubois examining a banana plant. Photo by IITA
Dubois examining a banana plant. Photo by IITA

Any advice for colleagues?
I am among the youngest at IITA so I should be receiving advice from others! A strong focus has been on mentoring students and I would hope that some colleagues would train more students. I have been supervising over 25 students in the last 5 years, both those from within Africa and European-based MSc students who do their research at IITA-Uganda. Benefits are manifold for them and IITA. Secondly, I think IITA folk could benefit if they “sell” themselves a bit more, through radio, TV, websites, and the popular press. Benefits include changing donor conceptions and misconceptions, putting science in the forefront, and ultimately benefiting farmers. Thirdly, it has helped me to think a lot out of the box and be a generalist. I came as an entomologist with a title of “biocontrol specialist”. Now I am running a socioeconomic project entirely focused on market pathways for banana seed systems. One could look out of the box for good private sector players or partners. This is essential, in my opinion, for long-term sustainability.

What is your dream for Africa?
I hope Africa will, at some point, be weaned off the many donor agencies, volunteering organizations, and NGOs that seem to be becoming a sustainable big-bucket business rather than a means to an end. A conducive climate for private sector development, together with good governance, is what I wish for sub-Saharan Africa.

Leena Tripathi: Looking after the welfare of smallholder banana growers

Leena Tripathi was born and grew up in India. She gained a PhD in Plant Molecular Biology from the National Botanical Institute, Lucknow, after completing an MSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, India.

She joined IITA in 2000 and worked first in Nigeria and currently in Uganda where her primary research focuses on the development of transgenic Musa spp. with disease and pest resistance. She has established strong links with national and regional partners, and advanced labs. She is also Guest Faculty at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) for biosafety courses.

Please describe your research work.
Since 2000, I have been developing transgenic banana and plantain resistant to pests and diseases. Currently, I am leading projects on producing bananas resistant to Xanthomonas wilt using the transgenic approach. I am also involved in capacity building in biotechnology and biosafety. I have trained several African scientists in genetic transformation and tissue culture. I have assisted in building capacity on genetically modified organism (GMO) detection and biosafety in East Africa by training students and national scientists on banana transformation and molecular biology. And I would like to acknowledge the strong financial support from donors such as Gatsby Charitable Foundation, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), US Agency for International Development, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID); and IITA of course.

Why did you choose to work in Africa?
Africa has missed the Green Revolution but should not miss the Gene Revolution. For this it needs human capacity in biotechnology that will help to accomplish things that conventional plant breeding could never do. The public needs to be better informed about the importance of biotechnology in food production.

What is the importance of transgenic technologies in banana improvement?
Many pests and diseases significantly affect banana cultivation and cause crop losses worldwide. Development of disease-resistant banana by conventional breeding remains difficult for various technical reasons. Transgenic technologies are the most cost-effective approach. There are enormous potentials for genetic manipulation using appropriate transgenes from other plants to achieve objectives in a far shorter time. It may also be possible to incorporate other characteristics such as drought tolerance, thus extending the geographical spread of production.

How do you demystify or explain a concept like biotechnology to lay audiences?
People think that biotechnology is just genetic modification (GM) technology. Contrary to its name, biotechnology is not a single technology; it is a group of technologies that uses biological systems, living organisms, or their derivatives, to make or modify products or processes for specific use. This includes recombinant DNA technology, genetic engineering, GM foods, biopharmaceuticals, bioremediation, and more.

Biotechnology is not new; it has flourished since prehistoric times. When the first human beings realized that they could plant their own crops and breed their own animals, they learned to use biotechnology. The discovery that fruit juices fermented into wine, or that milk could be converted into cheese or yogurt, or that beer could be made by fermenting solutions of malt and hops, started the study of biotechnology. When the first bakers found that they could make soft, spongy bread rather than a firm, thin cracker, they were acting as fledgling biotechnologists.

“Modern” biotechnology derives from techniques discovered only in the last 20 years. These include the ability to cut and stitch DNA, to move DNA and genes from one organism to another, and to persuade the new gene in this new organism, that is to make new proteins. Genetic engineering technology is a branch of modern biotechnology and involves the transfer of gene(s) from one organism to another to create a new species of crops, animals, or microorganism. Modern biotechnology has offered opportunities to produce more nutritious and better tasting foods, higher crop yields, and plants that are naturally protected from disease and insects.

What have you learned on the job?
I joined IITA as a biotechnologist with plenty of experience in research but not in the field. Working at IITA has been overwhelmingly positive. I have gained experience in both research and administration. I have learned to appreciate the benefits of working in multidisciplinary and multicultural teams and of linking research to farmers in the field. I can now write successful project proposals, get funding, lead projects, and disseminate results to national partners and finally to farmers. Good communication skills are essential for successful research. One needs to be a good team worker and establish strong and successful partnerships as we are doing at IITA-Uganda. When I was relocated here, I realized the situation was very different. IITA in Ibadan has facilities but in Uganda, IITA facilities are based within a national partner, the National Agricultural Research Organization. I wanted to learn quickly from the experiences of others so I talked to colleagues about their work and successes and to national scientists about their expectations. I learned quickly.

Any advice for IITA colleagues?
IITA scientists should be committed to provide strong leadership in the key research areas to ensure scientific excellence and the quality of products. They should work applying “new science” to enhance food security and income generation for resource-poor farmers.

What are your future research plans?
I want to evaluate the disease resistance of banana varieties in the field, evaluate transgenic plants in the confined field for efficacy against Xanthomonas wilt disease, with the University of Leeds develop nematode-resistant plantains, and develop varieties with multiple disease resistance by integrating several genes with different targets or modes of action into the plant genome. I also want to train more national staff/students to build capacity in the region.

What is your formula for success?
The addition and sometimes multiplication of five key elements: vision, strategy, confidence, hard work, and learning. I am focused and have a clear vision for my research, based on project outputs. I frame strategy with clear goals. I follow the strategy with my group members and work hard to achieve the goals. At each step I identify problems and learn to solve or avoid them so that the group moves smoothly and fast to achieve the goals. I set the goals for my group at the start of each year. Everyone works extra hours to achieve group goals. I do not hesitate to seek advice and suggestions from experts, superiors, and collaborators to move things efficiently. Support is very important. I have benefited from support and encouragement from my superiors, higher IITA management, donors, collaborators, and from family. IITA nominated me for the CGIAR Young Scientist award in 2005 and gave me their Top Scientist award, based on my research achievements.

Increasing capacity for plant healthcare

Plants, like people, need healthcare. But in Africa, where agriculture is dominated by smallholders, farmers do not have access to reliable plant health advice and management services.

Many farmers rely on extension workers and researchers from national and international organizations for such needs. And such help is not always readily or quickly available.

Bunchy top virus-affected banana in Rusizi Valley, DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. Photo by IITA
Bunchy top virus-affected banana in Rusizi Valley, DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi. Photo by IITA

This is why IITA and its partners are developing the capacity of national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES) in research, disease surveillance, diagnostics, and deployment of control options. A good example is in banana: when national partners at the L’Institut des Sciences Agronomiques du Burundi (ISABU) in Central Africa needed help in diagnosing and culturing the pathogen that was attacking banana, they turned to IITA for assistance. ISABU wanted to develop local capacity to independently make diagnoses, culture Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) from diseased banana plant samples, and provide treatment advice.

At that time, IITA was already working on BXW in Burundi under the Crop Crisis Control Project (C3P), managed by the Catholic Relief Services (CRS). IITA and CRS liaised closely to develop a regional training course, for national partners from Burundi, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to learn new techniques, while encouraging greater collaboration among scientists.

Thus, IITA and partners that include CABI UK, Central Science Laboratory (CSL), CRS, and the Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) conducted a Training Course on Surveillance and Vigilance for Plant Diseases in Burundi early this year. It is a pilot effort to kick-start a series of capacity building initiatives in the banana-growing countries in the region.

The training was attended by participants from extension and research, universities, and a regional organization. Trainers came from IITA, CABI and Global Plant Clinic (GPC, see box), and Central Science Laboratory (CSL).

Training covered new methods for surveillance and vigilance of all banana diseases. Feedback from the participants highlighted the need for sustained training and the importance of introducing a system of mobile plant clinics to effectively link farmers and transfer knowledge.

The mobile plant clinics initiative was developed by CABI UK as part of GPC, led by Eric Boa and has been tried and tested across the world. Under the umbrella of Mobile Plant Clinics and GPC, IITA had collaborated on initiating clinics in Rwanda, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, and Benin and providing training in diagnostics and surveillance in Uganda, DRC, and Burundi.

“Training, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. It is important to consolidate capacity building in diagnostic techniques and to ensure that people adopt new methods with confidence and then use them regularly,” said Fen Beed, IITA’s plant pathologist based in Uganda. “Isolating and identifying plant bacteria require practice as does the conduct of participatory disease surveys. When such methods are reliably deployed, the national programs could significantly improve the reliable detection of BXW and other disease outbreaks.”

Training participants look at Banana Xanthomonas Wilt chart. Photo by IITA

Knowing where a disease occurs allows extension staff to target particular areas and plan control programs. This requires careful organization and marshalling of resources. Although IITA already has effective recommendations for managing BXW, it lacks mechanisms for presenting them to farmers and monitoring their uptake. Further effort is needed to implement training that emphasizes direct action to help farmers.

In their after-training report, Beed and colleagues said that “Effective extension depends on sound intelligence about disease distribution and the damage it causes. National governments need to understand the risks posed to new areas and the actions required to control disease through sound research planning and identification of best management strategies.”

Beed and colleagues forwarded this blueprint for managing risk and reducing banana disease losses to ensure success of a plant healthcare service managed by national programs.

It is important to undertake systematic and comprehensive surveys of banana growing areas to get an update on the distribution of BXW and control strategies being used by growers. The surveys provide the opportunity to determine spread and identify reasons why control strategies may not have been adopted. Where control methods have been deployed their socioeconomic impact can be quantified.

The extensive surveys will assess incidence and severity of BXW and other banana pests and diseases.
Systematic and quantitative surveillance of banana-growing areas begin with participatory surveys, a promising technique for assessing large numbers of growers quickly. Survey results can identify sites where permanent sample plots (PSP) would be established for more intensive assessments. PSP sites should be regularly monitored for disease incidence, severity, and efficacy of control methods. Data produced can determine disease spread and help to evaluate socioeconomic impact and deployment of control options.

The C3P project made huge strides towards developing databases on the spread of BXW and the influence of farmers’ practices to control this disease. These databases can be further updated with information from the surveys and with data generated from pilot sites.

The databases could be linked to regional databases of climate, growing conditions, topography, farmer demographics, and agricultural practices (e.g., produced by the CIALCA project and many others). This allows use of the databases for predicting spread and risk due to disease at various geographic scales.

The next step is to establish and operate an extensive system of mobile plant clinics in targeted areas. Training courses for plant doctors are available and both DR Congo and Rwanda already have some experience in running clinics. The clinics concentrate on giving advice and gathering “intelligence” about banana problems, providing information on disease control, and offering services for other crops and diseases. This is important since farmers rarely grow bananas in isolation of other crops.

Once clinics are established and their benefits realized they can be self-sustaining and can provide a routine service to farmers and extension officers.

Upgrading facilities
There is a need to ensure that participating laboratories can isolate and confirm the presence of pathogens that cause BXW and other diseases of banana. Field staff should learn how to collect diseased plant samples for sending to diagnostic centers. Diagnostic centers will be established in the region and linkages developed with advanced research institutes (ARI) to provide technical backstopping for disease diagnostics using, for example, molecular techniques.

Banana field trials in Rwanda. Photo by IITA
Banana field trials in Rwanda. Photo by IITA

In addition, for BXW, rapid diagnostic field-based kits will be fully tested for accuracy to confirm the presence of the disease. Standard operating procedures for laboratory methods should be introduced to ensure consistent results and interpretation of results. The responsibilities of staff from national, regional, and ARI laboratories should be identified and links among them strengthened to create and nurture a network of expertise available to all.

Awareness raising
Data produced from the three activities can be used to publish new disease reports and develop pest risk analysis (PRA) documents for each banana disease in the region. PRA documents are crucial as they summarize all current information and increase awareness of disease recognition, distribution, control and risks. They must be routinely updated with new information and shared across the region to alert stakeholders of potential risks. This can lead to the deployment of preemptive disease control strategies before a disease epidemic breaks out.

Monitoring and evaluation
Detailed assessment of the progress and linkages should be undertaken. The increased capacity in laboratory and field techniques should be shared by project members through training. The support of IITA and the GPC in diagnostics, surveillance, and vigilance techniques encourages national and regional cooperation and use of new methodologies. Empowering scientists and extension staff and making them accountable for their actions is a powerful way to encourage sustainable development and to promote trade.

The benefit of creating a knowledge network for banana diseases in the region is clear. This network can be expanded through linkages with scientists and the private sector and key extension, research, and government staff from Burundi, DRC, Rwanda, and regional organizations.

The International Plant Diagnostic Network (IPDN) was set up in response to NARES’ surveys that highlighted the lack of diagnostic capacity in much of Africa and in recognition that this directly hindered the adoption of appropriate and effective integrated pest management programs and therefore international trade. IPDN has been established in collaboration with IITA in East and West Africa to increase communication and data sharing. Software for digital imaging and diagnosis, information management, and access to disease management recommendations provides a platform for enhanced diagnosis and communication between laboratory staff and experts across the world. Improved diagnostics tools and protocols have been developed and tested. This has been combined with training programs to enhance technical capacity and increase networking among diagnosticians in East and West Africa.

Initiatives such as IPDN can benefit by collaboration with similar internet-based initiatives in Africa such as the East Africa Phytosanitary Information Committee (EAPIC). EAPIC is linked to FAO’s International Plant Portal to provide posting of plant pests for each respective country, which now includes Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. The plant pest list helps in developing harmonized border inspection protocols, which support capacity building efforts in plant pest survey, identification, and communication systems, such as IPDN.

A follow-on project with these components that combines good science, effective surveillance, and proven advisory services could strengthen the contribution of extension and research to increase food security, income generation, and improved trade in Africa. It also highlights support required from national and regional organizations, governments, and donors. These include local training for diagnostic techniques and expansion of participatory disease surveys and strengthening of disease vigilance through the establishment of mobile plant clinics.

Figure 1. Disease management scenario (fire fighting vs. preemptive control)
Figure 1. Disease management scenario (fire fighting vs. preemptive control)

”Addressing all these considerations will contribute significantly towards providing a service to support farmers and trade that would move away from the current scenario of ‘fire-fighting’ diseases to providing preemptive control (see Figure 1),” concluded Beed.

Global Plant Clinics

The CABI Bioscience Global Plant Clinic (GPC) provides a comprehensive diagnostic and advisory service for disease problems on all tropical crops. The Service is unique in its global operation and the range of plant diseases it handles. CABI Bioscience has been identifying plant diseases for over 90 years and other key partners in GPC include Rothamstead Research and Central Science Laboratories. The Global Plant Clinic gives expert advice on the interpretation and application of diagnostic results drawing on extensive international experience in a wide range of crops and information from CAB International’s award-winning Crop Protection Compendium.

Mobile plant clinic in Butembo, DR Congo. Photo by IITA

The GPC has initiated a series of mobile plant health clinics that offer regular and reliable advice on all plant health problems affecting any crop. These clinics are run by plant “doctors”, many of whom are agronomists or extension workers, who work for existing, grassroots organizations.

The clinics are not a technology but an advisory service. They link diagnostic labs with extension workers (plant doctors) and provide regulatory bodies in plant health with up-to-date information on current priorities by clinic ‘area of influence’. Such clinics have little direct expense. In the long term they need public investment and private support (from farmers or input suppliers such as those responsible for improved varieties or even fertilizer).

According to GPC head Dr Eric Boa, “Farmers benefit from advice at clinics: they preempt new problems and avert losses by quick action; reduce pesticide use; and reduce losses and save money by giving good or better recommendations for managing a problem. On vigilance/surveillance, clinics identify current problems affecting priority problems in an area.”

In banana, the most recent disease outbreak due to banana Xanthomonas wilt (BXW) was first reported to move from Ethiopia to Uganda by regional scientists and was subsequently confirmed by the GPC in Uganda in 2001. As the disease spread within Uganda and relentlessly across the region research programs led by CRS, IITA, and other national scientists tracked its movement into Burundi, DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and the causal agent was confirmed by GPC.

BXW is one of several damaging diseases in East Africa and the demand for better surveillance and vigilance through mobile plant clinics has been widely expressed. The deployment of control options through clinics was based upon methods used to control a similar disease of banana caused by another bacterium. These primarily consist of the use of disease-free planting material and farmers tools and the removal of male flower buds to prevent infection from insect vectors.

Ticket out of poverty

Market in Nigeria. Photo by IITA
A market in Nigeria. photo by IITA

The world’s food supply has for the last few decades worked well but now new dynamics, as reflected by the recent food crisis, call for change. The current system, based on large-scale production in the developed world, is efficient and responsive to market dictates though distorted by subsidies. It could be stabilized when complemented with a more significant system from the developing world. Such a two-tiered system would also protect poor regions of the world from extreme food scenarios.

Today’s world food situation has been well aired in the media. But what is not fully appreciated is the opportunity it also brings for Africa. As the most food-deprived region of the world, Africa needs a more robust agricultural growth. This food crisis, albeit temporary, could be used to trigger an agricultural turn-around. African countries are food importers and thus affected by international prices of traded food commodities, but have untapped assets to exploit for the immediate and longer term.

The African food basket is, in many countries, complex and its commodities are affected differently by international food prices. For example, while maize prices in Tanzania were dragged up with the world prices, the effect on sorghum, cassava, and plantain was much less. This allows some immediate substitution and underscores the need for focusing on local production, helps reduce foreign currency needs that limit a country’s purchasing power, and stimulates rural economies to benefit both the rural and urban poor.1

Food commodities also allow for substitution in agroprocessing. If rice is used to produce starch, it can be replaced with other crops such as millet/sorghum or roots and tubers. Bread does not have to be 100% wheat. Tef, banana, sweetpotato, millet, sorghum, and a mix can be used that includes cassava, and yam. This richness needs to be more appreciated and encouraged.2

For the less immediate term Africa just needs to produce more (see Figure 1). Its food output is extremely low. But its diversity of ecologies, altitudes, and cultures, is a powerful asset. Africa can produce more food by expanding acreage, unlike Asia. But other things need to happen before the potential of ample arable lands can be realized. Immediate needs would be rural feeder roads, access to credit and inputs, and a stimulated processing sector. The latter is increasingly important as the growing urban migration means more consumers are far from production zones and food shelf-life and convenience are major concerns.

Figure 1. Index of total agricultural output per capita by region (index 1961-2005). Adapted from FAOSTAT 2006. Source: Hazel and Woods.
Figure 1. Index of total agricultural output per capita by region (index 1961-2005). Adapted from FAOSTAT 2006. Source: Hazel and Woods.

For the medium term, Africa has to increase yields. For most food crops of sub-Saharan Africa3 yields can be increased by 150-300% immediately, because varieties already exist with this potential4.

To benefit more from what it grows, Africa also needs a parallel effort to reduce huge (postharvest) losses, ranging from 18 to 40% depending on the crop. Investments in food processing and transformation, energy, and roads are needed.

This processing and transformation capacity is also critical to address the rural-to-urban migration, which is itself a major challenge. Not long ago, 80-90% of Africans were rural; today most are urban. Wars have accelerated rural-to-urban migration. Africa must increase production even more, because it is not one to one in feeding the urban versus the rural poor. As production systems function today there is tremendous waste at all levels, rural and urban.

A holistic approach to the sector is essential and includes the now well-rehearsed list of needs and problems—infrastructure, finance, taxation, corruption, communication, soils, inputs, productivity, and numerous postharvest technologies and processes. As these elements are developed and constraints cleared away, the approach has to adjust. Underinvestment in infrastructure is costly in many ways. Transport difficulties, for example, give Malawi’s (2007/8) maize surpluses few outlets so that farmers do not fully gain from favorable global prices.

Family eating banana
Family eating banana

It is not uncommon to have food shortages in one part of a country, when another has food surpluses. Poor information and transport systems, plus the short shelf-life of many commodities prevent Africa from benefiting fully from its harvest. In Ethiopia, widespread drought (2003) in some parts of the country put at risk over 12 million people, while in other parts, prices collapsed due to a bumper crop of cereals (Borlaug and Natios). Zambians (2004) were suffering from a shortage of cassava, when Nigeria had abundant surpluses.

Small producers are one group that needs special attention. While they are the key to Africa’s food self-sufficiency, it is hard for them to respond effectively to increased food needs on their own. One way to support them is to encourage the movement of their produce into alternative uses within the food chain.1 Again, this means investments in the agroprocessing sectors and a slew of processed food products. Farmers take all the risks but rarely benefit long from any gains.

Conclusion: The full use of Africa’s assets—arable land, different ecologies, altitudes, cultural differences, and eating habits—gives Africa resources more powerful than oil. Emphasizing and then benefiting from the agricultural sector has positive repercussions that reach far into all segments of an economy, in particular in increasing employment at all levels and with it, purchasing power.

1 Hartmann. 2004. An Approach to Hunger and Poverty. IITA.
2 Cereal imports in the last couple of years have increased by a factor of three to five times.
3 Rice is the exception where the yield gap is around 67%.
4 For example, IITA varieties of these crops already have this potential built into their genetic codes.

30 years R4D in soybean: what’s next?

Forty years ago, only a handful of farmers in Benue State, middle belt of Nigeria were growing soybean. The crop was generally thought more suitable for large-scale commercial growing and industrial processing. But not anymore.

This golden bean is grown in the farms of resource-poor smallholders in the Guinea savannas of Nigeria and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

“In the 1970s, there was little interest and effort in Africa to grow and improve soybean because of extremely low yields and seed viability, poor nodulation, high shattering rate, and limited postharvest use,” reported Dr Hailu Tefera, soybean breeder and OIC of IITA-Malawi, on 30 years of IITA soybean breeding work.

Breeding gains

When IITA started improvement research in 1974, the average yield per hectare in Africa was 660 kg/ha. Total production was only 0.2 million tons. Thirty years later, using IITA-developed varieties, the average yield in West African countries increased by more than 50%, and 67% in the whole of Africa, equivalent to 1.1 t/ha over 20 years of breeding effort. That is a genetic gain of more than 2% per year in grain yield.

Twenty-one African countries now produce soybean. Nigeria has the highest 6-year (2000-05) average production of 486,000 tons on an area of 553,260 hectares, followed by South Africa with 205,270 tons from 122,870 hectares, and Uganda with 155,500 tons from 139,500 hectares.

Soybean production increased dramatically, Tefera said, as locally adapted tropical germplasm was developed and distributed to other African countries. In Nigeria, the soybean industry quickly advanced. Integrated processing, use, and marketing aspects followed efforts to develop improved cultivars. This is a testament to IITA’s research for development (R4D) in soybean that produced high-yielding and stable varieties, tolerant or resistant to biotic and abiotic constraints, and promoted processing and use.

Community impact

In 1985, to improve nutrition and to create demand, IITA began the development of small-scale and home-level food processing technologies. A study funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Canada with the Institute for Agricultural Research and Training (IART), Ibadan, Nigeria, after 3 years found that soybean had been successfully used to increase the protein content of traditional foods. New products—flour, milk, baby food—had been developed and introduced. Small-scale processing machines were introduced. Over 25,000 people in the rural areas were trained, with training project sites increasing from 3 to 27. The number of farmers growing soybean in target villages increased by 35%. Sales of grain and flour soybean increased in Nigerian markets.

Phase 2 of the project covered all Nigeria with several national institutions such as IART; National Cereals Research Institute, Badeggi; National Agricultural Extension Research and Liaison Services, Zaria; and the University of Nigeria at Nsukka. An assessment of four states in 1992 showed wide commercialization.

Markets had increased from 2 in 1987 to 42 in 1993. The number of retailers ballooned from 4 in 1987 to 824 in 1993. In Benue State, more women were involved in soybean production. New IITA varieties were widely adopted and grown by 9% of farmers in 1989 to 75% in 1997 on 30% of the area planted to soybean in the state.

So far, Tefera reports, some 17 IITA-bred tropical soybean varieties have been released by national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES) of several West and Central African countries (Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Togo),  and Uganda. These show considerable increases in grain and fodder yields, improving soil fertility in the savannas and enhancing the yields of subsequent crops such as maize and sorghum. Since 2000, however, support for soybean research among the NARES has declined. On-farm variety testing and releases is at a standstill, except for MAKSOY 1N, an early maturing variety resistant to rust, a destructive foliar disease, in Uganda.

Potential for expansion

Soybean growing suitability map. IITA
Soybean growing suitability map. IITA

IITA recently expanded breeding of its West Africa-bred varieties to Southern Africa, where cultivation by small-scale farmers is rising because of less susceptibility to pests and disease, better grain storage quality compared with other legumes, large leaf biomass, and a secure commercial market. Commercial soybean farms are now found in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.

In South Africa, the Agricultural Research Council develops cultivars with better adaptation and seed quality, high yield, resistance to nematodes and rust, and tolerance to low night temperatures. It is also developing genetically modified drought-tolerant soybean—the first soybean GMO in South Africa. Twenty-one members of the South African National Seed Organization produced 2,879 tons of soybean seed in 2006-07.

SeedCo in Zimbabwe breeds varieties for the local market and other countries in the region; these are resistant to red leaf blotch and frogeye disease. It produces inoculants that go with the varieties. The Zambia Seed Company produces, processes, and markets seeds of various crops including soybean and is considering testing IITA-developed varieties under Zambian conditions.

“Soybean improvement efforts in the past focused on helping subsistence farming,” said Tefera. “Currently many African countries are practicing market-oriented agriculture to increase farmers’ income and reduce poverty. Soybean improvement work at IITA should consider technologies for use by farmers of different capacities.”

According to FAO, Africa spent US$1 billion in 2004 to import soybean and soy oil. Of this, US$752 million was for soybean oil and US$254 million was for soybean grain/meal. Countries such as South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Zambia in aggregate produce 33.4% of Africa’s total production.

Producing enough in the region and adding value can save millions spent on imports for other development activities, he further added. There are also export possibilities to Europe and Japan as soybean grown in Africa is mostly non-GMO.
Favorable government policies are needed to develop the soybean industry in Africa. In Brazil and Argentina in the 1990s, economic reforms created favorable conditions for agricultural investment, production, and exports. Research alone was not the driving force for the soybean industry’s impressive growth there.

Market-oriented policy changes included elimination of export taxes, lifted restrictions on import of agricultural inputs, privatization of marketing and transportation infrastructure including state-owned grain elevators, port facilities, and railroads. Farmers also invested heavily in new technologies that improve yields, accelerate planting and harvesting, and facilitate delivery.

“Achieving these targets requires the efforts of various players in research, production, and marketing,” Tefera concluded, “and should consider technological, institutional, and organizational interventions in both the supply and demand sides.”

Organic bananas from Africa?

Organic agriculture provides significant market opportunities for commercial agriculture globally.

Organic food markets grew at tremendous rates during the 1990s, encouraging organic food production throughout the world. Although this growth rate has slowed down a bit, and the niche market for organic food is less than 4% of the European or North American food markets, the prospects of high prices and a stable demand still make organic food markets attractive for producers.

Commercial and certified organic farming is not uncommon in Africa that has 19% of the world’s organic farms. Main organic products include fruits and vegetables, cotton, coffee, tea, and herbs and spices.

Bananas are the most widely traded fruits worldwide. Recent trends in organic food demand in developed countries have made organic bananas an attractive crop in developing countries. In fact, trade in organic bananas increased during the late 1990s and early 2000s at a quite significant rate, from about 30,000 tons in 1998 to about 150,000 tons in 2003. Even so, organic bananas represent only a small share (1%) in the world banana trade.

About two-thirds of the organic bananas are traded to the European Union (EU), where they constitute about 2.5% of the banana market, a significantly larger percentage than on the world market. The other main target is North America, and, to a much lesser extent, Japan.

The entire trade in organic bananas comes from countries in Latin America. Africa and Asia are geographically closer to the EU and Japan but this does not seem to be relevant to organic banana trade.

Conventionally grown bananas are mainly traded from Latin America onto the world market, with minor shares coming from West and Central Africa (WCA) and Asia. North America sources its banana supply exclusively from Latin America. Europe imports bananas from Latin America, WCA (Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon). Japan imports bananas from Latin America and Asia (Philippines and China).

Market stall in Tanzania showing range of local banana types. Photo by IITA
Market stall in Tanzania showing range of local banana types. Photo by IITA

East and Central Africa—in particular Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, as one of the largest banana-producing regions worldwide—does not feature to any significant extent in these statistics.

Suppliers of organic bananas are basically the same as those of conventional bananas, Latin American countries. Organic banana production and trade follow conventional production and trade, with suppliers such as the African or Asian producers lagging behind.

Although this is a large market, bananas, in particular conventionally grown bananas, seem to have had the peak of their market growth during the 1990s. Significant volume growth is expected to occur only in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Elsewhere, volume growths are expected only to follow population developments, to a lesser extent increases in income and falling prices. While volume growths reached on average 4% in the 90s, they will reach only about 2.5% annually until 2010. Prices are expected to decline with increased liberalization of banana markets, in particular the EU. Overall, markets are considered saturated.

Africa has not been able to take up production and trade opportunities on the global banana market, with a few exceptions such as Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire. However, more recently, there are efforts under way to try and enter the global banana markets in both the conventional and niche segments.

Conventionally grown banana production in Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi is hardly competitive with that from other regions because of its small scale and low-input production. These lead to relatively low yields and consequently high production costs. Scattered small-scale production makes assembly and packaging a long and costly effort, with high postharvest losses as a consequence.

Transport routes are long and road and sea transport to possible final destinations often take longer than the shelf-life of bananas, so that the freight will decay before reaching markets in Europe or Asia.

Consequently, the only exports of conventionally grown bananas from East Africa to Europe go by airfreight, often as by-cargo with higher value products. In Europe they supply only specialty markets, such as cooking bananas or plantain for African expatriates, who do not make up a significant market share. The problem can be quantified by comparing production and trade costs of conventionally grown bananas from Latin America and Uganda (Table 1).

The reasons for Uganda’s disadvantages on the European market are obvious: High raw material costs. Land and labor-intensive small-scale production, losses from pests and diseases, and the lack of fertilizer already affect primary production adversely. Gathering, packaging, and transport from the small farms through many intermediaries impose a large amount of additional costs.

The transport of the material to the seaports (the nearest is Mombasa in Kenya) and the long distance to Europe add further disadvantages. Normally, the distance from production to market in terms of days would exceed even the 20-day shelf-life of fresh bananas.

Organic bananas from Uganda are cheaper at the farmgate than Ecuadorian bananas (Table 1), and although handling costs and airfreight are still high, and the final margins in retail are lower than those from Ecuadorian bananas, there is still a significant profit margin at the retail level. This makes the export of organic bananas from Uganda to the EU by airfreight far more attractive than the export of conventional bananas by sea—if the latter becomes technically possible.

This opportunity should be the same for more Central African countries, such as Rwanda and Burundi, but also for West African countries such as Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire. What mainly contributes to this opportunity is the high value of organic bananas on the European markets, and the opportunities arising from this to export these high-value fruits to Europe by plane.

However, even if organic bananas (or any other organic fruit or agricultural product) represent an opportunity, some challenges exist which have to be considered. Poor quality and badly maintained roads, vehicles, rail links, and rolling stock all pose problems for transportation. Lack of refrigeration, erratic power supplies, poor communications, underdeveloped banking and credit systems, and, sometimes, political and economic instability, all raise serious and often insuperable problems.

In addition, the lack of local certification bodies imposes significant constraints and risks to organic agriculture in Africa. Certifiers have to be flown in and they increase the costs of organic production. So far, only Tunisia has its own European-standard certification bodies. The costs of certification have to be seen as investment costs and hence risks. If the investment costs are not amortized by the revenues, e.g., in the case of harvest failures or a sudden shortfall of market outlets, investments in certification are lost and hence, the farmers are liable to a significant investment risk. Similar constraints apply to the establishment and sustainability of commercial organic agriculture elsewhere in Africa, and also to the production and trade in organic bananas.

In summary, these constraints are:
•    Lack of experience in intensive organic production
•    Lack of experience in handling and exporting fresh produce
•    Lack of professional management
•    Diseconomies of scale in exporting small quantities, e.g., for test exports
•    Poor communication between foreign importers and exporters
•    Poor negotiation skills and judgment of exporters
•    Lack of familiarity with international markets, including knowledge of the organic market place overseas
•    Lack of governmental support for exports

Selling bananas in the local market. Photo by IITA

Organic banana production has its advantages, in particular for some Central and Eastern African producers, as markets are high value and stable in Europe and the US, while conventional banana markets are stagnating. Yet it is clear that there are a number of prerequisites for entry to the markets. Good marketing linkages and marketing skills for producers and marketers are at the top. Investments in certification have to be facilitated, in particular for small producers or producer groups.

Both physical infrastructure (roads) and political frameworks in Africa have to be favorable if organic production and exports are to be sustainable. Markets, although attractive at the moment, are competitive, probably limited, and probably highly income-elastic and thus sensitive to economic distortions on the demand side. This also means that oversupply has to be avoided and in the long run, cost reduction will be necessary to successfully compete in organic markets.

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