A new germplasm exchange facility in Kenya is set to boost East Africa food security via roots, tubers and bananas

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In Muguga, on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kenya, stands a group of greenhouses, nestled in the middle of a forest of century-old trees.

This is home to a Plant Quarantine and Biosecurity station run by KEPHIS, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service.

As we enter the botanical enclave, Ephraim Wachira, the deputy director overseeing the station, welcomes us warmly and explains the facility’s crucial role in the region.

“A plant health inspectorate service acts as a bulwark for a country’s agricultural sector,” he elucidates. “It serves as a shield against the incursion of diseases and pests that can be introduced by foreign plant material or new seeds. In Kenya, KEPHIS officers stationed at different ports of entry: airports, land borders or harbours, analyse plant material consignments entering the country. They guarantee the seeds and plant materials are free of pathogens and comply with the import conditions outlined in our National Plant Protection Act.”

In Muguga, KEPHIS’ tissue culture lab, specifically takes care of roots, tubers, and bananas (RTB) crops coming into Kenya.

Ephraim Wachira, KEPHIS Deputy Director. Credit: BRS

“When a company wants to bring in RTB material to Kenya, we test them here for various pathogens including bacteria, fungi, nematodes and viruses,” explains Wachira. “Materials infected with viruses are cleaned up and multiplied for wider distribution across the region. As such, we are a true germplasm exchange hub for Africa.”

RTB crops are crucial for the region’s food security. KEPHIS laboratory technicians work on improved varieties, which are selected, crossed, and released for their high yield, nutritional value and resistance to diseases and pests.

Cassava, which is resilient to climate change and gives high yields even in droughts, is one example. Sweetpotatoes, which breeders are working on to make richer in iron and provitamin A, , are part of the same group. Potatoes and cooking bananas with specific disease and pest resistance are also included.

These improved crops are vital for smallholder farmers and seed companies in the region, as they help fight poverty, malnutrition, and the effects of climate change.

KEPHIS Plant Quarantine and Biosafety Station in Muguga, Kenya. Credit: BRS

But KEPHIS’ RTB-screening capacity is limited; the lab is too small, and the demand too high.

“At the moment, when we receive a high-yielding variety of orange-fleshed sweet potato for instance, that farmers in western Kenya want to grow, it takes us up to eight months to eliminate the virus, test and multiply the variety,” says Wachira. “That’s two planting seasons for farmers, as much as a lifetime. The demand is high, but we have limited capacity and space, which ultimately compromises the harvests of thousands of farmers in the region.”

With fundings from the government of Germany, through the Crops to End Hunger (CtEH) program funded by GIZ, the RTB lab will be rebuilt from scratch, starting in April.

Technical workers at KEPHIS Muguga station in Kenya. Credit: BRS

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.

In the new laboratory, it is expected that requests will be processed more quickly than currently. The exact timeframes for this varies according to crop, but will ultimately result in increased productivity.

“The quicker we can test, clean, approve, and multiply RTB varieties, the faster we can distribute them to farmers who need them urgently,” adds Wachira. “It’s about survival. These new crops are the future, and they must reach smallholder farmers across East Africa as soon as possible today, to ensure there’s a tomorrow.”

The new lab will be completed by December 2024. By cleaning and multiplying seeds originating from many neighbouring countries, and distributing them across the region, RTB-EAGEL is set to have an impact for years to come in East Africa and beyond, benefiting millions of smallholder farmers and end-consumers.

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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 working on cassava cuttings at KEPHIS PQSB in Muguga, Kenya. Credit: Breeding and Research Services. Written by Julie Puech.

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