Better grass for better smallholder dairying in East Africa

The tuft of grass minor, by Albrecht Durer (via Wikipaintings).

The Tuft of Grass Minor, watercolour by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1521) (image via Wikipaintings).

An impact case study on Getting superior Napier grass to dairy farmers in East Africa was published on 1 Mar 2013 by the European Initiative for Agricultural Research for Development (EIARD), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Kenya Agricultural Research institute (KARI). Excerpts follow.

To meet demand for high-yielding, disease resistant fodder from smallholder dairy farmers in East Africa, scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) worked together to select and distribute smut-resistant varieties of Napier grass.

‘Napier grass has become the most important fodder crop in Kenya, but 20 years ago head smut disease began to have a devastating impact, turning valuable fodder into thin, shrivelled stems. With the cost of disease control using systemic fungicide beyond the means of most smallholder dairy farmers, KARI began work to select smut-resistant varieties.

‘With access to Napier grass germplasm from ILRI’s genebank, KARI developed two resistant varieties — Kakamega I and Kakamega II. Favourable laboratory results were confirmed in farmer’s fields and work began to multiply planting material. Within a year, cuttings were distributed to over 10,000 smallholder farmers. The new varieties are not quite as productive as the best of Kenya’s local Napier grass varieties, but have still proven popular in smut-affected areas. By 2007, 13 per cent of farmers were using Kakamega I for zero grazing systems in smut prone areas.

‘The chance of head smut resistance breaking down in the new varieties is high, so KARI is screening more materials from ILRI, which is continuing to build its Napier grass collection to have germplasm available to screen for new resistant varieties. In 2012, ILRI provided the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, Embrapa, with Kakamega I and II to enable researchers to use them to develop higher yielding and more nutritious resistant varieties. . . .

Background
‘Dairy farming, Kenya’s leading livestock sector activity, is vital for the livelihoods and food security of millions of Kenyans. More than 80 per cent of milk produced and sold in Kenya comes from smallholder farmers, typically raising just one or two dairy cows on small plots of land. Women perform half of all dairy related activities in Kenya, which improves household welfare, primarily through increased household income and milk consumption.

‘With a growing population and shrinking areas for pasture, cattle are increasingly being fed on crop residues, cultivated fodder and some concentrates. Ninety per cent of farmers now produce on-farm feeds. Being able to provide enough good quality fodder is by far the most important factor in achieving high milk quality and yield, with a well fed animal producing two or three times more milk than an averagely fed one.

‘The high yielding fodder, Napier grass — Pennisetum purpureum — has become by far the most important due to its wide adaptation to different regions, high yield and ease of propagation and management. Napier grass constitutes between 40–80 per cent of the forage for more than 0.6 million smallholder dairy farms. With fodder in high demand, selling Napier grass as a business has good potential for improving smallholder livelihoods. According to a recent survey, up to 58 per cent of Kenyan smallholder farmers already sell fodder, including crop residues, straw or grass.

‘However, in the early 1990s, head smut disease, caused by the fungus Ustilago kamerunensis, began to have a devastating impact on Napier grass. Spread rapidly by wind and infected plant material, smut turned valuable Napier grass into thin, shrivelled stems and reduced yields by 25–46 per cent. For smallholder farmers, the threat was very serious.

‘Disease control using systemic fungicide in fodder crops is very expensive and therefore beyond the means of most smallholders. Using tolerant high yielding varieties is a cost effective solution and avoids the additional costs of moving to a different feeding system. ILRI maintains an international collection of forage germplasm under the auspices of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The state of the art genebank, based in Ethiopia, holds over 19,000 forage accessions, including 60 genotypes of Napier grass. . . .’

Funding
ILRI received direct funding from the European Union, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom to support their forage diversity work and forage genebank in addition to funding from CGIAR.

For further information
Getting superior Napier grass to dairy farmers in East Africa, impacts case study by EIARD, ILRI and KARI, Mar 2013
Visit ILRI’s forage diversity website
Visit the project site: Napier Grass Stunt and Smut Project
Saving animal feed plants to preserve livelihoods, 2007 (ILRI film, run-time: 11 minutes)
Putting ILRI’s genebank to work, 2007 (ILRI film: run-time: 14 minutes)
Contact: Alexandra Jorge, ILRI Genebank Manager: a.jorge [at] cgiar.org

KARI agricultural innovations big hit with young smart business farmers: ‘Those are OUR people’

13th Biennial Scientific Conference at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Nairobi

 A few of the tents on the exhibit grounds at the 13th Biennial Scientific Conference held at KARI in Nairobi from 22–26 Oct 2012 (photo by ILRI/Alexandra Jorge).

The 13th Biennial Scientific Conference and Exhibition at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) took place last week at KARI’s headquarters in Nairobi’s leafy suburb of Loresho.

This correspondent—enamoured of the sea of white tents erected across KARI’s rolling green lawns to showcase hundreds of exhibitors of ‘Agricultural Products, Technologies & Innovations’—never actually made it to the proceedings of the conference itself. But if the conference was anything like the exhibits, it must have been a great success.

My organization, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), tried to distinguish its exhibit on livestock forage research and capacity building from the hundreds of other tents just like it with decorations of African artefacts—wooden bowls, woven baskets and traditional cloths and the like—as well as safari chairs inviting passersby to come inside for a conversation. So successful were we that many people upon entering the ILRI tent promptly asked to buy some of the display items (and were promptly disappointed when we told them they weren’t for sale.) The big cattle and camel bells were also a big hit, with the visitors having to explain to ILRI staff the difference between the bell sounds appropriate for cows and those for bulls!

We were at KARI to promote opportunities for young Kenyan scientists to train at ILRI, the headquarters of which are located just a 15-minute drive from KARI. And we showcased our collaborative research with KARI scientists, including Solomon Mwendia, on disease-resistant varieties of Napier grass, aka ‘elephant grass’, on which so many Kenyan smallholder farmers depend for feeding their milk cows.

ILRI forage seed display at KARI event

Forage seed display at the ILRI booth (photo by ILRI/Alexandra Jorge).

Visitors showed great interest in ILRI printed materials about improved forages and feeds (lab lab, oats, vetch), seed samples and Napier grass cuttings and leaves, and a research-based feed assessment tool for selecting appropriate feeds for different regions.

13th Biennial Scientific Conference at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Nairobi

Alexandra Jorge, head of ILRI’s Forage Genebank, in Addis Abba, Ethiopia, talks to a visitor in ILRI’s booth on the exhibit grounds at the week-long KARI scientific conference; in the basket are varieties of disease-resistant Napier from the genebank (photo by ILRI/Paul Karaimu).

‘The demand for information was huge’, says Alexandra Jorge, who heads ILRI’s Forage Genebank, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and came down to Nairobi to answer questions and provide expertise at KARI’s week-long event. ‘We had questions about the best feeds for dairy goats, how to maximize forage production for feeding dairy cows, the best methods for raising pigs, the best breeds of chickens to keep, how to transition to stall-fed (‘zero grazed’) dairy animals, how to start hydroponic and screen-house forage production, and what climate change is likely to change in Kenyan agriculture—and what livestock farmers can do now to cope with it.’

‘I really enjoyed participating in this exhibit,’ Jorge says ‘having real contact with our users and clients and chatting about their challenges and projects. It made me think hard about what we researchers do and the impact and benefits we can bring to farmers. It also made me realize how little I know about the work that many colleagues are doing and that we should make this information much more available.’

‘It was amazing to see the amount of interesting and innovative work KARI and many Kenyan universities are doing. Many people had stories to share, or tasty food, like the amazing sorghum sausages that taste just like meat!’

Sausages for sale at KARI event

Sausages for sale at the KARI event (photo by ILRI/Alexandra Jorge).

ILRI research manager Sandra Rwese was most impressed with the number of young entrepreneurs at this event looking for agricultural innovations and good ideas. ‘Scores of youth finding few jobs in urban areas appear to be calling city life quits and heading to rural farming villages. The numbers of these young new farmers that I met at the KARI event are much larger than I’d expected. This young generation is clearly keen on taking agriculture and livestock farming to the next level.’

Jane Gitau, a communications officer at ILRI, agrees. ‘Many of the visitors to ILRI’s tent inquiring about better methods of livestock keeping appeared to be in their thirties and early forties. They wanted information to take away with them; they wanted to learn more efficient methods of farming. It was refreshing to witness this drive to make agriculture a knowledge-based business.’

KARI display of range grass seed at KARI event

KARI display of range grass seed at KARI event (photo by ILRI/Alexandra Jorge).

‘Walking from booth to booth’, Gitau said, ‘I was amazed to see all that KARI had to offer from its 22 centres countrywide, from Kibos to Kiboko, Muguga to Thika, each with a different mandate in agricultural research. Staff from KARI’s Kiboko Research Station, located about 150 km southeast of Nairobi and the institute’s drylands station, exhibited various imported and hybrid rangeland grasses they are trialing. KARI’s Muguga Station was exhibiting some of Kenya’s important plant and livestock genetic resources. And an improved rice variety grown under irrigation at Kibos, in western Kenya, was on display, along with rice flour, rice cakes, rice doughnuts and rice cookies!’

Selling traditional Kamba baskets at KARI event

Traditional Taita woven baskets for sale at the KARI event (photo by ILRI/Alexandra Jorge).

Finally, Gitau remarked on the close connections KARI has to its constituency. ‘Those of us manning the ILRI booth often directed visitors to the many KARI booths to get their specific farming and livestock keeping questions answered. These people sought practical help and region-specific recommendations we didn’t have’, Gitau said. ‘When I asked people if they knew where to find KARI, I several times got the reply, ‘Hao ni watu wetu’, colloquial Swahili for, “Those are our people”.

 

ILRI genebank manager elected ‘Fellow’ of the prestigious Society of Biology

Alexandra Jorge ILRI genebank manager

Alexandra Jorge, the genebank manager at the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), is one of four Africa-based scientists elected, this past December, to join the Society of Biology, a leading professional body that represents individuals committed to biology from academia, industry, education and research.

With over 80,000 members, the Society of Biology promotes advances in biological science across the world and awards fellowships to individuals who make ‘contribution to the advancement of biological sciences, and who have over five years experience in positions of senior responsibility’. The society is a particular supporter of work done by scientists in developing countries.

Jorge, a plant physiologist, works under the People, Livestock and Environment theme at ILRI, where she is managing the study, documentation and conservation of forage seeds in a forage genebank located at ILRI’s campus in Addis Ababa. The genebank, together with Ethiopian field sites in Soddo, Ziway and Debre Zeit, contains over 20,000 types of tropical grasses, legumes and tree forages, which are routinely tested to ensure they remain healthy and viable for use in farms.

‘To be invited to become a Fellow of the Society of Biology is a great honour to any scientist and I am very proud of this achievement,’ says Jorge, ‘I thank the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) program for nominating me for this fellowship and I look forward to working with the large network of scientists in the Society.’

Other Fellows elected to the Society of Biology in December 2010 are Stella Asuming-Brempong, Waceke Wanjohi and Sheila Okoth. These four women are also fellows of AWARD, a Gender and Diversity Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

For African women scientists, such recognition is significant.

‘It can be a struggle for scientists from the developing world to network successfully and maximize the benefits of international collaboration due to geographical and financial reasons,’ said Vicki Wilde, director of the Gender and Diversity Program and AWARD, ‘These scientist’s voices—and the unheard voices of millions of farmers, particularly women, in sub-Saharan Africa—will now be heard and their work taken seriously.’

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For more information see the following article: http://www.societyofbiology.org/newsandevents/news/view/210

Read about ILRI’s work in managing forage diversity on http://www.ilri.org/ForageDiversity and http://mahider.ilri.org/handle/10568/228

For more on crop genebanks and forages visit: http://cropgenebank.sgrp.cgiar.org/ and http://www.tropicalforages.info/

Inauguration of a new forage diversity lab at the International Livestock Research Institute in Ethiopia

A new forage diversity lab was inaugurated yesterday afternoon, Monday 12th April 2010, at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the presence of the ILRI board members, the forage diversity staff and guests. Jean Hanson, forage diversity leader, looked pleased at the result, and with emotion she spoke of the lab achievement. “It is an ILRI Ethiopia lab” she said, “it will give us and students much more space to work and has now allowed all the equipment that was previously scattered to be centralised. This will also help us and our National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) partners to be cost effective.” The construction work started in December 2008 and the building was actually ready for the board meeting which took place in Addis in November 2009. The finishing touches, supervised by Jean Hanson, were added and the spotless lab is now ready to use. Prior to the visit to the lab by participants of the inauguration, was a very symbolic planting of two Acacia Tortilis trees which will, in a few years, give shade to the molecular lab. The Chairman of the board, Knut Hove, put on his gardening gloves and efficiently planted this indigenous, dry land tree, commenting that it was “the best possible tree we could have for this lab”. Dr Hanson then emphasized that the genebank not only works on conservation of forage diversity but also on improved use of diversity for better forages which requires more molecular work with newer techniques. “The lab will allow us to work more with our sister centers of the CGIAR”, she stated, “and the nicest thing would be to bring a group of students together, who will energize the group, emulate each other, share and learn, because a major role of CG centers is capacity building.” According to Dr Ananda Ponniah, in charge of capacity strengthening at ILRI, “there is now space for more students and therefore we can also diversify students, have them coming from Ethiopia but other countries as well.” After the official cutting of the ribbon by Knut Hove and applause, the visit was led by Janice Proud, Project coordinator of the Napier grass smut and stunt resistance project, and Alexandra Jorge, Global Public Goods Project Coordinator (SGRP/CGIAR). Janice Proud explained how the new lab would help the work on Napier grass diseases, smut and stunt, which cause feed loss in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. “The new facility will allow us to use PCR techniques in real time. We also have some students looking at milk proteins. The beauty of a molecular lab is that you can use it for different projects”, she concluded. Alexandra Jorge talked about tissue culture and how the space would now allow the Centre “to have one dedicated area for tissue culture and therefore avoid contamination”. She also feels that the new lab will help to link better with ongoing projects such as the Napier grass project because “vegetatively-propagated crops like Napier grass can greatly benefit from production of clean plants and distribution of in vitro materials”. “We hope that a lot of publications will follow!” added the Chairman of the board. Mr Traoré, board member, also expressed that “the lab nicely complements BeCA (Biosciences eastern and central Africa) in Nairobi. Students in Ethiopia will be able to do the preliminaries here then go to BecA to make use of more sophisticated equipment.” As a final word, the board Chair summed up the achievement by stating that “the whole building smelled of a brand new lab which is exciting for new students to come and work, get their hands dirty and green!”