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

Kephis’ Ksh260M crops lab to cut testing and planting time by half

Farmers across the country are set to benefit from a newly-opened Ksh260 million (USD 2 million) roots and tuber crops laboratory by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis).

The lab is poised to cut testing and release of new plant varieties by half, from 10-13 years under conventional procedures to less than five years.

According to Prof Theophilus Mutui, Kephis Managing Director, the new facility will be launched in the next two weeks, in partnership with the International Potato Centre (CIP) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

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

He added that the lab will facilitate the transfer of RTB germplasm — sweet potato, potato, cassava, yam, and banana — between CGIAR breeding programmes and regional national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES).

“This will boost our capabilities and partnerships, enabling us to

improve our capacity in tissue culture techniques. It will also lead to accelerated multiplication of planting materials and enhanced cleaning processes,” he said.

Bolster productivity

Mutui added that the EAGEL lab will address three main interventions to bolster productivity: speeding up the testing and approval of new varieties, managing pests and diseases, and supplying high-quality nucleus seeds to farmers.

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

He thanked the Kenyan government and GIZ for funding the construction of the lab as part of the Crops to End Hunger programme.

“The lab will not only bolster our infrastructure and equipment capabilities but also facilitate training of personnel”, he said.

Safe movement of crops

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

This will enable their distribution to various countries and programmes, similar to the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) mandate.

By doing so, breeders will be able to develop improved varieties and deliver them to farmers more rapidly than conventional timelines allow.

“Frequently, significant obstacles arise when transferring newly-developed varieties from their breeding sites to other countries. Our aim is to streamline this process, ensuring a much quicker

dissemination of materials to farmers,” said Ferguson.

She clarified their objective as: 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 distributed to farmers.

Growing demand for tubers

Elly Otieno, a scientist from CIP, said the demand for root tubers and bananas is high since they are high-calorie crops.

Considering the future implications of climate change and high poverty levels, he emphasised the potential of tubers to alleviate these problems 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 good planting materials.

“Through this project, we will 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 centralised database from which breeders from different countries can access germplasm.

Specific germplasm traits

Many breeders focus on various plant traits, such as drought and disease tolerance, as well as the nutritional content. With a centralised database, breeders can access germplasm with specific characteristics, like drought tolerance.

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

The laboratory is located at the Kephis Plant Quarantine and Biosecurity Station in Muguga. On average, the Kephis tissue culture lab handles 11,000 to 12,000 samples annually for diagnosis.

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