After 142 years of dark days for cassava farmers in Tanzania and the rest of Sub Saharan Africa, finally a local researcher has led East African team to a ‘historic breakthrough’, The Guardian on Sunday can reveal today.
In August, this year, Dr Joseph Nduguru (pictured above) from the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute (MARI) and his colleagues from Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa announced their historical discovery of a distinct species (genotype) of the white fly, Bemisia tabaci, which carries the virus that causes two major pests destroying cassava harvests across the region – cassava ‘mosaic’ and ‘brown streak’ viral diseases.
This landmark science breakthrough, whose four-year study was coordinated by Dr Ndunguru, brings a fresh breath of relief to 200 million people who live on a diet of cassava in sub-Saharan Africa – and another 500 million across the third world, the Guardian on Sunday can reveal.
On a larger canvass, the discovery could also spell an end to needless misery from ‘cassava mosaic’ and ‘cassava brown streak’ diseases – both known to have decimated whole crop harvests within a year – and opens opportunities to the region’s scientists to apply state-of-the-art molecular techniques to resolve field problems facing resource-poor farmers.
The Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, which funded the study under the aegis of the Regional Cassava Virus Disease Diagnostic Project, has billed Dr Ndunguru and his team as “part of a new generation of African scientists building up the capacity to do innovative science in Africa.”
To his singular credit, Joseph Ndunguru has turned down high-paying job offers from labs in South Africa, Europe and the United States, choosing instead to keep working for the Tanzania national programme.
“I asked him why, and he replied that the work that he was doing with the national program(me) was the best way he could connect state-of-the-art science with the needs of the local farmers,” says Bill Gates in his Annual Letter 2012.
Other scientists who took part in the study are: H. Mugerwa1, M. E. C. Rey, T. Alicai, E. Ateka, H. Atuncha, & P. Sseruwagi.
The lead national institutions in this novel project include the National Crops Resources Research Institute, Kampala, Uganda; Department of Horticulture, Jomo Kenyatta University of Technology and Agriculture, Nairobi, Kenya; Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute, Eastern Zone, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; School of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of the Witwatersrand, BraamFontein, Johannesburg, South Africa.
A German scientist first documented B. tabaci in 1870, three centuries after Portuguese sailors introduced the crop to East Africa and Madagascar in the 16th century. Hitherto, cassava was native to Latin America.
The current study, “Genetic diversity and geographic distribution of Bemisia tabaci (Gennadius) (Hemiptera: Aleyrodidae) genotypes associated with cassava in East Africa” is arguably the first major regional undertaking by an all-Africa team of experts.
Dr Joseph Ndunguru: Translating ‘science fiction’ into food – and cash -- for the poor.
He grew up on a diet of cassava, the staple food for 700 million people across the third world. He also went through school and university on an income from cassava chips which his mother sold for a living – often walking as far as 30 kilometres to get to her customers. He is Dr Joseph Ndunguru, quote, himself a product of cassava.
On a larger canvass, Dr Ndunguru shares fundamental parallels on development thinking with one of the world’s richest men, Bill Gates, both of whom carry an enduring empathy for the poor bordering on religious faith. While Bill and his wife, Belinda, spend millions of personal wealth in philanthropy, Joseph, a renown plant virologist, literally lives and breathes cassava – on which he now dedicates quality time researching extensively on the crop’s two major infections – ‘cassava mosaic virus’ and ‘cassava brown streak’ diseases.
“If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture,” Bill Gates said earlier this year, addressing himself to the international Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
Those sentiments seem to echo what could arguably be termed ‘reverse’ philanthropy – and what could have possibly defined Dr Joseph Ndunguru’s element over the years. He has since turned down lucrative job offers from South Africa, Europe, and the United States to stay home and help more farmers – like his mother – who are out to also give their children a lease of life.
In a way, Bill and Joseph ‘discovered’ each other under situations brewed in crisis; the first man refusing to sit pretty in sequestered wealth in the midst of abject misery across the world, and the other an embodiment of poverty but refusing to seize opportunities join the club of the affluent.
But it was during a real crisis on the ground – the emergence of the first severe spread of cassava diseases across East Africa and Madagascar in 1998 – that sheer providence was to provide a future opportunity for them to forge a meeting of minds.
Spearheaded by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Kampala, Uganda, scientists then faced a two-pronged challenge; working to track and contain the spread of the diseases and training farmers on how to manage the crisis in their backyard plots, often having to tell them what they didn’t want to hear: to get rid of their diseased crop.
Dr Ndunguru last week recalled the collective frustration among scientists across the region at an exclusive interview granted to The Guardian on Sunday, thus:
“When we told farmers to rid their plots of infected plants … at a time when entire harvests could suffer … losses of up to 100 percent were quite common … they asked us, ‘what shall we eat instead? “So we had to give them (near-home) alternatives … yam and sweet potatoes … as we worked on a lasting solution.”
To start with, the farmers didn’t know that they had “sick” harvests in their midst. “They often attributed the symptoms of these diseases to either ‘excessive sunshine’ or some other natural occurrences such as ‘too much water’ … they never suspected any ‘infestation,’” he recalls.
Until then unknown to each other, Bill Gates and Dr Ndunguru were to meet for the first time at a global conference called specifically to address the threat of cassava mosaic and brown streak diseases at a rather unlikely place, Bellagio in Italy, where an equally ‘unlikely’ resolution was moved: the need to form a crop disease diagnostic network in African – with funds managed from Australia!
All the big names in science and the development set (read donors) were there, Dr Ndunguru recalls. After several presentations on call, he also made his mark – arguing that Africa had the expertise and the knowledge to stem the tide. Bill Gates took note and asked him to slate another meeting for Zanzibar later in 2007– where he also made a ‘well received’ presentation.
This was to prove a turning point; for Tanzania and the larger East African region, Australia was effectively shelved as a ‘hub’ for a continental network. A year later (2008), Bill Gates asked Dr Ndunguru to prepare a five-page ‘Concept Note’ which, in development-speak, means a bid nod from a potential donor.
As things stand now, the name ‘Joe’ is quite arguably the toast of the town in Seattle, seat of the Gates’ foundation. In his annual letter this year, Bill Gates describes Dr Ndunguru as “part of a new generation of African scientists building up the capacity to do innovative science in Africa.”
Then he confirmed what many know precious little about this soft-spoken man. “Dr Ndunguru was offered a high-paying job in South Africa, but he chose to keep working for the Tanzania national programme,” Bill Gates says, adding: “I asked him why, and he replied that the work he wa doing with the national programme was the best way he could connect state-of-the-art science with the needs of local farmers.”
“When I talk about innovation, it can be abstract for some people. But the direct link between the challenges Christina faces when her crop is destroyed and the solutions that Dr Ndunguru is working on every day makes it very concrete. Disease-resistant cassava is an answer to Christina’s prayers, and I look forward to the day when Dr. Ndunguru’s work is done and I can go back to Tanzania and see Christina’s field thick with healthy cassava plants. That is why I say that innovation has been and will continue to be the key to improving the world,” Bill Gates says.