Rose Kamau believes she has made some breakthroughs even before she finishes her master’s degree in management practices for pests affecting cassava in Kenya’s coastal region.
She’s figured out what farmers know about the common Cassava mosaic disease and what they don’t know about rare and deadly diseases like the deadly Cassava brown streak disease.
The University of Nairobi student worked with farmers in Kenya’s Taita-Taveta and Kilifi counties and discovered that farmers rarely actively manage pests that affect their crops, owing to a lack of understanding of the role of vermin in the transmission of plant diseases.
She has also detected the presence of the White peach scale, a deadly but rare disease transmitter present in one of the two regions.
“It’s information that will be useful in the control of the pest, as it will help map its prevalence and factors favouring the spread,” says the MSc in crop protection student.
Kamau also works in the crop protection directorate of Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture. She is among the seven MSc students and one PhD candidate who have won scholarships under the Community Action Research Programme Plus (CARP+) programme by the Mastercard Foundation and the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM).
One of the initiatives of the programme is a US$35,000 project over three-and-a-half years, that aims to build capacity for the micro-propagation and certification of cassava planting materials to enhance productivity, incomes and food security and nutrition for smallholder farmers in coastal Kenya.
The project is led by Professor Agnes Mwang’ombe of the College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Nairobi.
Among its objectives is to train 1,000 farmers in seed business and marketing, nursery management and quality control of planting materials, production and value addition.
This is besides training 50 Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) students from the target region to develop various technologies critical to the value of the crop.
It also aims to train extension workers, produce disease-free cultivars for farmers and train them in disease and pest management for increased productivity.
It is also supposed to develop methods for preserving root crops and processing them into flour and to find ways of using cassava leaves as vegetables and turning peels into animal feed.
“In a country like Kenya, which is 80% arid and semi-arid, cassava is an important crop to help meet the demand for starch and ease pressure on the staple maize crop,” Mwang’ombe says.
Despite cassava being drought tolerant and thus ‘climate-smart, production levels in Kenya are low in a country that is struggling to attain food security.
Constraints include disease and low yields due to poor management practices.
“We came in because we want to understand what is constraining production, and to work with farmers along the value chain to address the problems.”
A micro-propagation and business incubation centre have been set up at the college together with other infrastructure that is already in use.
As part of the project, a technique called minisett is also being used to propagate yam planting material and to clean and produce clean cassava seedlings, said Dr Dora Kilalo, a senior lecturer and researcher at the University of Nairobi.
This technology involves cleaning plant cuttings by dipping them in a protective chemical solution to kill disease-causing organisms.
Thanks to this technique, Kilalo says, they can multiply seedlings more rapidly, thereby ensuring quality cultivars which will mean more yields for farmers.