Scientists to create disease-resistant Ethiopian enset

Farmer intercropping cabbage and Enset, Sidama, Ethiopia
Copyright: Flikr/Kettema Yilma, ILRI,

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  • Enset, a banana-like crop, supports livelihoods of 20 million Ethiopian farmers
  • A US$2.59 million project aims to create disease-resistant varieties of the crop
  • An expert welcomes the project and says other neglected crops should be targeted

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[ADDIS ABABA] A research project for developing varieties of enset, a traditional Ethiopian crop which resembles the banana plant, resistant to the deadly bacterial wilt disease has been launched. 
The project launched last month (16 December) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is expected to address the perennial problem of the bacterial wilt disease that has remained a nightmare for scientists and farmers in the country.
The disease is caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. musacearum, and results in total crop wilt.

“Bacterial wilt is the major threat to enset, which supports the livelihoods of nearly 20 million smallholder farmers.”

Adugna Wakjira, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR)

Adugna Wakjira, the deputy director of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), tells SciDev.Net: “Bacterial wilt is the major threat to enset, which supports the livelihoods of nearly 20 million smallholder farmers,” adding that lack of research capacity has partly contributed to inability to control the disease.   
Wakjira explains: “Since the disease is contagious, the farmers have been washing their tools such as knives, digging hoes and their hands when they come in touch with the crop to avoid passing the disease over to other enset plants”.
But these, he says, have little success, and the new varieties will completely replace the “sanitary measures”.
According to Wakjira, the crop is tolerant to drought and can cushion smallholder farmers against the effects of climate change.
Leena Tripathi, plant biotechnologist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Kenya, who will lead the project, says IITA scientists have made major strides in banana transformation to develop varieties resistant to the disease using genes from sweet pepper.
 “We will have one PhD student working on the project, which will be used to assist policymakers to formulate favourable policy to guide biotechnology research in the country,” she says.
The project, a partnership between IITA, EIAR and Biosciences eastern and central Africa– International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub, will also help build Ethiopia’s human and infrastructure capacity to conduct biotechnology research on enset.
The Kenya-based BecA-ILRI will provide tools, technologies and chemicals to be used in the project.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the four-year project for US$2.59 million.
Skills learnt from the project will be used to handle similar problems in wheat, rice and potatoes in Ethiopia, according to Wakjira.
“[The project] will be an avenue for our scientist[s] to hone their skills in biotechnology research to solve other problems affecting crops,” says Wakjira
Maurice Bolo, the director of Nairobi-based Scinnovent Centre, which focuses on science and innovation, tells SciDev.Net that using modern biotechnology tools to improve enset in Ethiopia must be seen within the broader context of other traditional African crops that have long been neglected by research but which support millions of livelihoods in Africa.
“[That] funding agencies and international research organisations are beginning to focus on such neglected crops is most welcome,” he says.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.