Africa’s collaborative biotech research bears fruit

By Christopher Bendana

July 25, 2018

Dr. Priver Namanya adjusted her view in the microscope, trying to get a better image of the banana cells. Then a smile lit her face. After spending the day trying to ascertain that she had incorporated a vitamin A gene into the banana cells, she had achieved success.

Namanya, a plant biotechnologist at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories (NARL) in Kawanda, Uganda, has been doing this kind of work for the last 10 years, thanks to the training she received in Australia.

She’s one of hundreds of African scientists, and assorted scientific research projects, to benefit from international collaborations in the highly specialized field of agricultural biotechnology. These partnerships have greatly advanced public sector work on such important food crops as maize, cassava, rice and in the case of Namayana, an East African highland banana known locally as matooke.

Namayana pursued her doctorate in plant biotechnology at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia from 2005 -2010 under a collaboration between the National Agricultural Research Organization and QUT.

Since then, Namanya and her colleagues at Kawanda, the leading banana research institute in Uganda, have been using genetic engineering to address several challenges affecting the country’s banana production. She said that biotechnology allows them to be more precise in the plant breeding process.

It also allows researchers to do things more efficiently than would be possible with conventional breeding plant methods, such as successfully adding a gene from a wild banana to the matooke to increase its vitamin A content. The research, conducted in collaboration with QUT, is intended to help prevent the many diseases associated with vitamin A deficiency by improving the nutritional value of a food that Ugandan women and children typically eat on a daily basis.

Namanya told the Alliance for Science that her stint in Queens was a game changer in her career, given the fact that biotechnology was new to Uganda and skills using genetic engineering were badly needed. “It exposed me to advanced technology,” she revealed. “We had just started biotechnology two years prior.”

President Museveni opened the first biotechnology lab in the country at Kawanda in 2003.

Biotechnology collaboration in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has been facilitated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which is based in Nairobi, Kenya. AATF performs many services, including negotiating with biotech companies for the use of royalty-free genes by national agricultural institutes.

AATF runs two notable projects in several Africa countries: Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) and Nitrogen-Use Efficient, Water-Use Efficient and Salt-Tolerant (NEWEST) rice.

WEMA project

WEMA, a collaboration between philanthropic interests, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and several countries in Eastern and Southern Africa, is developing both conventional and genetically modified maize varieties that offer drought tolerance and insect pest resistance. The GM seeds are sold under the TELA brand and are currently commercialized only in South Africa. Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania also are participating in WEMA research.

AATF has supported WEMA because maize is a staple food for 300 million Africans, and improved varieties can help improve food security and reduce poverty, especially among small-holder farmers. The work is especially important now that climate change is increasing the incidence of drought and new insect pests like the fall armyworm are attacking maize.

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has highlighted biotechnology as a tool useful for improving drought and pest tolerance in maize, with each county assessing the new varieties under its own biotech regulatory system.

NaCRRI Director Dr. Godfrey Asea, the contact person for WEMA in Uganda, said that genetic engineering offers better options than conventional breeding because of its precision. He noted that NaCRRI had benefitted from getting royalty-free germplasm from both Monsanto and CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

The VIRCA project

Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa (VIRCA) is another project where several nations are collaborating on biotech research to improve a staple food crop. Partners include NaCRRI in Uganda, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, the National Roots Crops Research Institute in Nigeria, the Danforth Center in the United States, Tanzania researchers and others.

VIRCA scientists are working to control cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), a virulent virus that destroys the edible roots, and cassava mosaic disease (CMD), which can stunt or kill plants outright. The Bio Cassava Plus Project is aimed at improving the nutritional value of the cassava.

Nigeria is the world’s leading producer of cassava, which is a key food for the rapidly growing population. Last year, Chief Audu Ogbeh, Nigeria’s minister for rural development, said the cassava crop was very important in fighting poverty in the country. He said Nigeria is looking to export cassava and its bi-products to the tune of $5 billion dollars annually, according to Punchng.com, a Nigerian newspaper.

Dr. Titus Alicai, the NaCRRI-based VIRCA Plus chief scientist for Uganda, told the Alliance for Science that collaboration in projects like VIRCA have given NaCRRI an edge.

Arguing for the benefits of collaboration, Alicai said there are advantages to sharing results. He noted that NaCRRI is using Nigeria’s indigenous cassava varieties to test their response to CBSD. In Uganda, cassava is the third most important food staple, after banana and maize.

The NaCRRI team also has been able to do trials at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in Thika, where the conditions are more favorable. “Thika was better than Namulonge because the virus incidence there is low,” he explained. “The ground provides excellent conditions for maximum flowering to help in breeding.”

The NEWEST project

The Nitrogen-Use Efficient, Water-Use Efficient and Salt-Tolerant (NEWEST) rice project is another example of coordinated biotech research under way in several African countries. It is a collaboration between Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria funded by USAID. The project aims to breed rice varieties that use water and nitrogen efficiently.

AATF explained the urgency to increase rice production, which is currently at 12 million tons in SSA — well below the consumption of 24 million tons. AATF argues that the gap is due to low productivity of 2.2 tonnes per hectare in SSA, compared to the global average of 3.4t/ha.

Dr. Jimmy Lamo, head of the rice section at NaCRRI, said collaboration allows researchers to compare notes and learn from each other during their reviews, which are done annually on a rotational basis.

He argued that though scientists are doing the same work, there are always variations, hence a need to share research results. “We learn from each other about policies and share expertise,” he said.

It should also be noted that collaborations are not limited to biotechnology. Agricultural research in Uganda and other African nations depends greatly on international partnerships. About half of NARO’s budget comes from foreign funders, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.