By Steve Mbogo and Elizabeth Wanjiru, Business Daily, October 3, 2011
Kenya hopes to contain the wheat rust, which destroys about a tenth of the wheat crop, through introduction of two disease-resistant varieties next year.
The strains — Robin and Eagle 10 — will save farmers the costs incurred in intensive spraying of wheat fields to control the grain disease.
“We have two seed varieties that are disease resistant. The seeds are being multiplied and we expect farmers to have them by April next year,” said Peter Njau, a plant breeder at Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (Kari) in Njoro.
The disease has mainly affected small-scale farmers because most of them cannot afford to buy the pesticides, leading to up to 80 per cent of their crop being lost. It is estimated that up to 30,000 tonnes of wheat are lost to the rust annually.
The cost of spraying pesticide four times before the harvest is estimated to be Sh10,000 per hectare, or about 33 per cent of the cost of production.
“The small-scale farmers produce only 20 per cent of the wheat in Kenya but their crop is mostly affected by this disease,” said Dr Njau. “We expect the impact on production to be dramatic when they grow the new seed varieties.”
The research institution said that some farmers were growing the two seed varieties on pilot basis while the Kenya Seed Company had been given the contract to produce at least 10 tonnes of seeds for distribution to farmers next year.
The new varieties would help Kenya bridge the wheat deficit that is almost three times its total production. Kenya consumes 900,000 tonnes of wheat annually while annual production is estimated at 350,000 tonnes.
“The demand for wheat has been growing at five per cent per annum and this has not been matched by the production” said Agriculture assistant minister Gideon Ndambuki.
The deficit is met through imports, mainly from Egypt and Mauritius.
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The fungus that ravages wheat in Kenya is known as UG99, taking the name from its discovery in Uganda in 1999. Since then, the fungus, which causes wheat rust, has spread across to the southern Africa region and it is feared that it could extend in other continents.
The Kari Njoro centre is being used as a global research centre to develop wheat seed varieties that are resistance to stem rust.
Kenyan scientists at the centre are working with counterparts from US, Latin America, Middle East and Ethiopia.
The institution has set aside 12 hectares of land to establish international screening nurseries.
“We have already screened more than 200,000 wheat accession. The successful varieties are high yielding and early maturing,” said Kari director Ephraim Mukisira.