Kenya partners with CIP, IITA to launch $2M roots, tuber and banana crops lab to expedite testing and release of planting materials

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From left: Dr Morag Ferguson, Project Manager from IITA, Kephis Managing Director Theophilus Mutui, and Elly Otieno, a scientist from CIP, during the media briefing on the upcoming launch of the root, tubers and bananas laboratory. Photo by Wangari Ndirangu

Farmers in Kenya and across East Africa will soon gain from a USD 2 million (Ksh260 million) roots, tuber and banana crops laboratory to be launched in the next two weeks by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) in partnership with the International Potato Centre (CIP) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

According to Prof. Theophilus Mutui, KEPHIS Managing Director, the new state-of-the-art facility is expected to expedite the process of testing and release of planting materials of new varieties from between 10 years and 13 years under conventional procedures to less than five years.

“The Roots, Tubers, and Bananas-East Africa Germplasm Exchange Laboratory (RTB-EAGEL) strives to transform agricultural practices in the region, preserving and enhancing crop genetic diversity for food security and sustainable development,” said Mutui.

He added that the laboratory will facilitate the transfer of RTB germplasm—sweet potato, potato, cassava, yams, and bananas—between CGIAR breeding programs and regional national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES) partners for assessment.

“The establishment of this laboratory will boost our capabilities and partnerships, enabling us to improve our capacity in tissue culture techniques. This advancement will result in accelerated multiplication of planting materials and enhanced cleaning processes.”

Bolster productivity

Mutui highlighted that the EAGEL lab aims to address three main interventions to bolster productivity: speeding up the testing and approval of new varieties across various countries, effectively managing pests and diseases, and supplying high-quality nucleus seeds to the seed system.

“The lab will provide a range of services, including receiving germplasm from breeding programs, conducting internationally accredited diagnostics, eliminating pathogens, performing genotyping, and facilitating regional distribution,” said the professor.

He expressed gratitude for the support from the Kenyan government and the sponsor GIZ, who generously donated funds for the construction of the RTB-EAGEL lab as part of the Crops to End Hunger (CtEH) program.

KEPHIS is fully committed to supporting the project and will provide assistance as needed. The newly established laboratory, equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, will not only bolster our infrastructure and equipment capabilities but also facilitate training for personnel to effectively carry out their duties, he said.

Facilitate safe movement of roots, tubers, and bananas

Dr. Morag Ferguson, representing IITA and serving as the project manager, emphasized that the primary goal of the lab is to facilitate the safe movement of roots, tubers, and bananas, which can harbor pests and diseases in their planting material.

This will enable their regional distribution to various countries and programs, similar to KALRO in the region and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. By doing so, breeders will be empowered to develop improved varieties and deliver them to farmers more rapidly than conventional timelines allow.

“Frequently, significant obstacles arise when attempting to transfer newly developed varieties from their breeding sites to other nations. Our aim is to streamline this process, ensuring a much quicker dissemination of materials to farmers, addressing the urgency of their needs,” said Ferguson.

She clarified their objective: to provide National Agricultural Research Services (NARS) with a broader selection of preliminary varieties. These varieties can then be evaluated and chosen by local experts within their respective countries and conditions. Subsequently, they will be multiplied and swiftly distributed to farmers.

Growing demand for Root Tuber crops and bananas

On the other hand, Elly Otieno, a scientist from the CIP said the demand for Root Tuber crops and bananas is currently growing so much because it is a high calorie crop and the need for the crop is also quite high.

Considering the future implications of climate change and the ongoing challenge of poverty, he emphasized the potential of tuber crops to alleviate some of these issues and enhance food security and nutrition.

He highlighted the significant challenge the country faces regarding seeds, particularly due to their vegetative propagation, which makes them susceptible to disease transfer. Additionally, farmers encounter difficulties in obtaining clean planting materials.

“Through this project, our aim is to expedite the cleaning process of these materials, ensuring they are readily available to farmers in a high-quality state for improved production,” stated Otieno.

He further explained that data management has been a significant issue. The project aims to address this by establishing a centralized database. This database will enable breeders from different countries to access germplasm developed by various breeders, facilitating collaboration and resource sharing across borders.

Breeding

Many breeders focus on various traits, such as drought tolerance, disease resistance, or nutritional content. With a centralized database, breeders from different countries can access germplasm with specific traits, like drought tolerance, to improve their crops.

Otieno highlighted Kenya’s suboptimal tuber crop production, citing potatoes currently yielding between six and 10 tons per hectare, far below their potential of over 30 tons per hectare.

The laboratory, located at the KEPHIS Plant Quarantine and Biosecurity Station in Muguga, will serve as a center of excellence. On average, KEPHIS’s tissue culture lab handles 11,000 to 12,000 samples annually for diagnostic purposes.