Africa could feed the future with homegrown cassava

16Oct 2020
The Guardian
Africa could feed the future with homegrown cassava

The United States African Development Foundation (USADF) is celebrating a decade of its Feed the Future campaign, which enables partner organisations to target the root causes of poverty and hunger. Its work has been focused on the most marginalised communities,-

-where there are concentrations of poverty and hunger - with all the attendant social and health problems, including 'stunting', when children who are undernourished before their fifth birthdays will never be able to achieve their full mental or physical potential.  

THE International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in collaboration with the Pennsylvania State University based in the United States of America USA, have launched Nuru (Swahili for Light), an artificial intelligence (AI), phone-based disease diagnostic application to tackle the challenge of diagnosing the plants being affected by viral diseases.

The technology recognises leaves damaged by the disease known as cassava mosaic disease (CMD), the cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) and by green and red mites. The cassava part of this app was developed here in Tanzania to control the cassava diseases, and since Tanzania is a country where cassava diseases are very important, it has been a focus country for efforts to popularize Nuru.

This has been done through working with farmers and extension staff in Mkuranga District, as well as training farmers, extensions and seed inspection officers in different parts of the country, as well as through demonstrations of the technology at NaneNane exhibitions.

The team has made many improvements in the performance and accuracy of NuruAI in detecting the diseases and pests. In this regard, NuruAI has been found to outperform trained extension officers in diagnosing cassava diseases.

NuruAI has been used to monitor cassava diseases in 19 African countries with Tanzania, Kenya, and Ivory Coast as hotspots.

An important feature of Nuru is that its advice section provides a link to the SeedTracker application through which farmers can identify the nearest source of healthy planting material of improved cassava varieties.

There are currently more than 400 cassava seed entrepreneurs in Tanzania who are part of this network, and this number is set to increase to more than 1,000 in the next few years.

Planting resistant varieties is the best way to control diseases of cassava, and Nuru and SeedTracker working together provide Tanzanian farmers with the tools to identify the diseases and access the resistant varieties to control them.

The efforts of the virus team are being complemented by the cassava breeding team that has been developing new, improved cassava varieties that are resistant to the viral diseases and are high-yielding and retain the traits treasured by their users such as taste, texture, and color.

In addition, the agronomy team is developing the best recommendations for growing cassava. These include identifying the best planting dates, fertilizer combination, and which crops to best intercrop.

With all these efforts in place, the cassava farming community is assured of flattening the cassava virus curve.

Researchers at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and their partners have been working on many angles to find innovative solutions to sustainably control the spread of the two major virus diseases, cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), to save the crop and the food and income of millions of farmers in Africa and even in Asia.

Leading the efforts is James Legg, plant virologist at IITA- Tanzania, who recently shared the progress and successes of these efforts in a virtual seminar titled "Teams, Whiteflies, Viruses, and More” held at IITA Eastern Africa Hub, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Cassava Brown streak Disease (CBSD) and Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) pose an enormous threat to the food security of 135 million people in Central and East Africa. Nearly all the varieties grown by the farmers are susceptible to the diseases. Efforts to control any diseases start with a proper understanding of how the diseases are transmitted.

The cassava whitefly, Bemisia tabaci, is the vector that transmits the viruses that cause CMD and CBSD.The Whitefly team is therefore working on developing simpler but sensitive diagnostic tools geared towards identifying the various sub-groups of the cassava whitefly and their distribution in the region.

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