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Programme to Benefit African Farmers, Enhance Research Capabilities

03 August 2012

AFRICA - Africa is the only continent that cannot feed itself. Food production per person is about the same as it was in 1960. One of the reasons is the prevalence of African witchweed, also known as Striga, a root parasite of staple cereal crops such as maize, sorghum, rice and millet.

Striga causes estimated global annual losses of US$7 billion and adversely affects food security for more than 100M people mostly in sub-Saharan Africa; in fact there is a near perfect overlap between areas of Striga infestation and subsistence agriculture where hunger prevails.

Striga is considered the major biological constraint to crop production in sub-Saharan Africa, and the prize for controlling it is progress for the food security, economic development and wellbeing of millions of people living on the African continent.

So researchers in the UK, India and Africa have been collaborating through the SARID programme to develop research capabilities in Africa and use new methods to look for Striga-resistant varieties of crops.

Two species of Striga, the purple-flowered Striga hermonthica and the red-flowered S. asiatica are the most destructive to host crop plants. Both are hardy enemies. Each Striga flower spike produces more than 50,000 seeds which can remain viable in soil for up to 20 years. An estimated 100M hectares of land are infested with Striga seed and yield losses of 20-100% are common, leading some farmers to abandon cultivating infected crops.

Mr Boubacar Kountche, a PhD student at ICRISAT, Niger, spent three months with Scholes at the University of Sheffield learning to use the rhizotron system to investigate resistance in pearl millet. He says that the visit was "a great success" and he found that, like rice, natural resistance to Striga varies widely between the 16 millet cultivars he tested – meaning that as for rice, millet contains resistance genes that will be useful for breeding programmes.

As a result of this visit, Mr Boubacar has taken this expertise back to Niger where the technology is now being used to enhance regional research capabilities. "Discussions are undergoing regarding the establishment of the rhizotron system at the ICRISAT-Center in Niger for further and deep screening of diverse millet populations for post-attachment resistance mechanisms," he says, adding that resistant varieties are being tested in farmers' fields under multi-location trials.

Further Reading

You can view the full study report by clicking here.

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