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[ZOMBA, MALAWI] Researchers in Malawi have developed tea clones able to withstand the worst droughts in the country in recent years, a meeting on natural product development has heard.

Chris Kamlongera, principal of Chancellor College, University of Malawi, said the Tea Research Foundation of Central Africa, whose members are Malawi and Zimbabwe, used genetic biomarkers to develop the drought-resistant cultivars.

He told a meeting organised by Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products (SABINA) on 24 July at the university that the research is part of a project that is building capacity in natural product development through training MSc and PhD students. Biological resources — plants and fungi — have applications in medicine, health promotion and agriculture, he said.

"The objective of implementing a postgraduate programme in biochemistry of natural products is consistent with the institutional agenda of building the capacity of young men and women," said Kamlongera.

Programme manager of SABINA, Frank Ngonda, told SciDev.Net that the project is demonstrating the enormous potential of local plants for the development of herbal medicines and dietary supplements for improving nutrition.

The Tea Research Foundation for Central Africa is a participant in SABINA, along with the universities of Dar es Salaam, Malawi, Namibia, Pretoria and Witwatersrand, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa.

SABINA has been training scientists in programmes such as tea breeding to produce cultivars adapted for climate change. In Malawi, scientists have so far released 39 cultivars.

Natural products such as tea are important cash crops in many African countries. According to the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the tea sector accounted for 7.9 per cent of the country's foreign exchange earnings in 2007, and employs about 40,000 people.

Judith Kamoto, senior lecturer in forestry at Lilongwe University of Natural Resources and Agriculture, said: "If the new cultivars are indeed drought resistant then it's a breakthrough which will help Malawi not lose foreign exchange earnings from tea in extreme weather events that may affect the current cultivars."

SABINA is funded by the Regional Initiative in Science and Education(RISE), which aims to strengthen higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This article has been produced by our Sub-Saharan Africa desk.