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Stunt resistant grass to the rescue of East African farmers

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Over 50,000 farmers from Kenya and Uganda are set to benefit from a new breed of Napier grass that is resistant to Napier Stunt Disease which has threatened extinction of the vital forage for farmers at a time when over 80 percent of small holder dairy farmers rely on it as the main source fodder.

Farmers in western Kenya have already started planting the disease resistant variety of Napier grass in a drive aimed at reversing the drastic cut in fodder production due to the disease which was first discovered in 1990s. The new Napier grass varieties have been identified by scientists from the International center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in partnership with Rothamsted Research, UK, and national institutes in East Africa.

Napier Stunt Disease was first identified in western Kenya in 1997 by ICIPE and its partner Rothamsted Research. These two organizations, funded by the US-based McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program, have led research over the last decade to combat the disease. Together with national research institutes in East Africa, scientists identified the cause of the disease, a pytoplasma bacterium, and the insect transmitting it among plants: the Maiestas banda species of leafhopper. Napier Stunt Disease is a virulent disease, sometimes killing off entire fields of the fodder crop.

According to Professor Zeyaur Khan, icipe Principal Scientist and coordinator of the project to combat Napier Stunt Disease, the trials and testing of the two new disease resistant varieties is complete and they are now focusing to their next target. “The two disease-resistant varieties, Ouma 2 and South Africa, have already been tested in selected farmers’ fields in western Kenya.” The team of scientists plans to use farmers to help multiply the seedlings and help in distribution and adoption of the breeds in the rural families. “Our goal now is to work with these farmers to propagate the grass to others, for instance through farmers’ groups. We are also training 50 trainers of trainers, who will in turn train farmers in the fields, so they know how to care for the new varieties and how to best incorporate the new grasses into their cropping systems,” added Prof Khan.

In East Africa, Napier grass is an important crop, with over 80 percent of smallholder dairy systems relying on it as the main source of cattle fodder in Kenya. In Uganda, it provides about 90 percent of fodder for smallholder dairies. In addition, Napier is a key component of ICIPE’S push-pull technology, which involves planting Napier grass typically around the perimeter of plantings of cereal crops, such as maize and sorghum, which are easily infested by stem borers, an insect pest. The Napier grass emits a chemical that draws (or pulls) stem borers away from food crops to what the stem borers sense will be a more inviting meal. Napier grass also helps protect soil from erosion, and is a valuable source of income for smallholder farmers in East Africa.

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