Kenyan lab upgrades pave way for faster delivery of roots, tubers and bananas in East Africa

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At KEPHIS Plant Quarantine and Biosecurity Station in Muguga, Kenya, CGIAR is developing a germplasm exchange laboratory. This facility will ease the testing, cleaning, and multiplication processes for improved roots, tubers, and bananas, facilitating their rapid dissemination throughout East Africa.

In a computer room at the KEPHIS RTB tissue culture lab, we meet Rosemary Gatimu, Research Assistant for the International Potato Center (CIP), who’s been working there for 13 years.

Gatimu’s role involves testing, cleaning, and multiplying potato and sweet potato seeds from across sub-Saharan Africa. Her germplasm samples are preserved in KEPHIS’ glasshouses, housing over 300 sweetpotato landraces.

They are also dispatched to CIP’s Genebank in Peru. Gatimu’s work is tedious and crucial – yet, the research assistant faces many challenges.

Rosemary Gatimu,Research Assistant for CIP. Credit: BRS

“KEPHIS RTB tissue culture lab is housed in a former private residence, not built for purpose and it’s over 40 years old,” Gatimu explains. ” We don’t have enough space to do all our work and our equipment is outdated. We have a few laminar flows, and currently only one that is operational, which makes our job extremely hard. Earlier this year, I had to handle 900 samples for CIP, and because of that, my colleagues couldn’t work for three weeks in a row!”.

As Gatimu speaks, she points to one of the laminar flows that’s no longer functional, showing how sterilization of apparatus using the spirit lamp can be dangerous during inoculations. Half of the grid is burnt.

With fundings from the government of Germany, through the Crops to End Hunger (CtEH) program funded by GIZ, the RTB tissue culture lab will be rebuilt from scratch, starting in April. The new facility, named “RTB-EAGEL”, for “Roots, Tubers and Bananas – East Africa Germplasm Exchange Laboratory”, will be equipped with the machines and protocols, and welcome technicians with the necessary skills, to clean, certify and multiply the varieties needed by farmers in East Africa and beyond, much faster than before.

As we walk around the lab, we get stuck in a storage room for long seconds before the door finally opens.

“Currently, safety is clearly a concern. We use plastic jars for culturing some of the plants, needing sterilization between each experiment or process. Since the plastics jars can’t be autoclaved, we manually bleach them in a cramped room with no ventilation. The vapour poses health risks, and the bleach requires a two-day wait before reusing the jars, taking up valuable research time. Even so, contamination cannot be completely avoided. In the new research facility, we will transition to glass test tubes and jars, facilitating proper cleaning and sterilization.”

Maureen Mwangangi, Principal Plant Inspector, who also coordinates the tissues culture laboratory at KEPHIS, intervenes: “There is only one autoclave machine available for disposing of contaminated material, which is also used for sterilization.

Often time, we must prioritize between the two tasks. Another of our struggles is the quality of water, which impacts both our experiment results and the functionality of our machines. Distillers frequently malfunction, delaying our work.”

The new lab will address this by being equipped with clean borehole water, water distillers and autoclaves.

In such a facility, light is also key. Mwangangi elaborates: “We need 16 hours of light daily, along with stable temperatures, to ensure rapid growth of our plantlets. But when there is a power outage, we struggle to keep the plants alive, and so, our research” she says. “The new lab will be equipped with solar panels; with that, no need to worry about losing our work!”

CtEH, funding the renovation project, has conducted thorough assessments of the lab processes and will implement changes to streamline the workflow. Mwangangi highlights that the team underwent training in Peru to acquire new protocols for disease management and virus elimination, before transitioning to the new lab later this year. “We’re getting better and better at what we do and will continue to do so”, she says.

The KEPHIS tissue culture lab is set to become a premier facility for seed cleaning and multiplication. It will also serve as a regional training center, welcoming trainees from across Sub-Saharan Africa. And researchers will be able to use the lab for their projects.

“We will be operating in significantly improved conditions across the board,” adds Maureen. “The majority of our team members are women, and up until now, we lacked separate restroom facilities. The new lab will feature amenities that are more sensitive to gender differences.”

Maureen Mwangangi,
KEPHIS Principal Plant Inspector. Credit: BRS

With the new equipment, RTB cleaning and multiplication requests will be swiftly handled, at a lower cost. Streamlined workflows will enhance work efficiency, resulting in less losses due to contamination. The new facility will enable the team, which envisions hiring additional staff, to deliver faster, more efficiently, and competitively. Ultimately, this will benefit seed companies and farmers across East Africa, supporting food security across the region.

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Crops to End Hunger (CtEH)” is a multi-funder initiative that aims to accelerate and modernize the development, delivery and wide-scale use of new crop varieties that are better adapted to climate change and that address gender equity, nutrition, food security and poverty. We extend our heartfelt appreciation to all the generous supporters of this initiative, with special recognition to GIZ. We also express our gratitude to the CGIAR research funders for their invaluable contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund. Main image: A technical worker at KEPHIS tissue culture lab in Muguga, Kenya. Credit: Breeding and Research Services. Written by Julie Puech.

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