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August 31 - September 06, 2012


 Coastweek   Kenya

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Hybrid maize varieties may
cure Kenyan maize virus

ministry of agriculture is currently in the process of
breeding varieties of seeds that are resistant to Maize
Chlorotic Mottle Virus and Sugar Mosaic Virus diseases

Ronald Njoroge and Christine Lagat

NAIROBI (Xinhua) -- Kenyan researchers have discovered maize seed hybrids that have shown a lot of promise against the maize virus that has ravaged the cereal growing areas of the country.

Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) Virologist Dr. Anne Wangui told journalists in Nairobi on Thursday that her institution is in the process of carrying out germ plasm screening in order to search for maize resistant strains.

"The most successful management protocol for the maize virus, Maize Lethal Necrosis disease, could be use of hybrid maize strains that contain some level of resistance," Wangui said during a media briefing by the Open Forum for Biotechnology in Africa.

The disease outbreak’s focal point was in Bomet County which is approximately 300 km northwest of Nairobi.

Since September 2011 when it was first noticed and reported, at least 75,000 hectares of maize crop has been affected.

The government is also encouraging affected farmers to plant alternative crops in order to break the virus transmission cycle.

"Depending on the areas, crops such as potatoes, cassava, cabbages, carrots and sweet potatoes can be planted in order to ensure Kenya has food security," the scientist added.

Experts said the east African nation will have a favorable maize availability despite a new disease that has affected yields in some areas, easing concerns of a new round of high food prices in the country.

Maize is the country’s staple food used to prepare variety of local dishes, making it highly vulnerable to supply and demand forces.

Drop in maize production often results into expensive imports that push the cost of food high resulting in higher inflation.

The overall national maize output is expected to be lower by up to 25 percent according to Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture because of relatively poor availability of inputs during planting, maize lethal necrosis disease (MLND) outbreaks, effects of flash floods in April and May, and the possibility of heightened pre- and post- harvest losses due to the enhanced short rains.

KARI said that by using molecular techniques they found out that the maize virus was caused by a combination of two diseases.

"The Sugarcane Mosaic Virus and the Maize Chloratic Virus have been identified with the latter accounting for 60 percent of yield loss," Wangui said.

The diseases lead to gradual withering of maize crops, which eventually die.

The viral diseases that affect different varieties of maize seeds have destroyed several acres of crops in various parts of the east African nation.

Notable among them are areas in Rift Valley, Western, Central, Eastern and Nyanza, Kenya’s breadbasket zones, where millions of people risk starvation due to the diseases.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture there could be inadequate planting material for the substitute crops.

Ministry of Agriculture Field Officer Mary Mugo said there is also resistance among farmers to move away the staple crop.

Other causes of the disease, according to the ministry, are mixing of several types of maize crops on one farm and failure by farmers to practice intercropping or crop rotation.

Agricultural experts noted planting, for instance, sweet pepper or onion with maize, kales or beans helps in pest control.

She noted the government constituted a multidisciplinary technical team in order to find a long-term solution to the virus.

The government official said field observations revealed the virus affects all maize varieties with farmers experiencing a loss of between 30 to 100 percent of all planted crop depending on the stage when the maize is affected.

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Cropping System Agronomist Fred Kanampiu said the government should establish maize closed seasons.

"Some of these areas plant maize throughout the year which is sustaining disease and vector cycle," Kanampiu said.

He added the disease is transmitted within a short period of time when the vectors jab into the plant.

"By the time the farmer realizes, the damage has already been done," he said.

The Seed Trade Association of Kenya (STAK) Executive Officers Dr Evans Sikinyi said it is prudent to remove all infected maize material from the field in order to prevent further soil contamination.

Sikinyi advised farmers to practice crop rotation schedules in order to improve soil health.

Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) Head of Plant Quarantine Francis Mwatuni said the government has still not confirmed how the virus ended up in Kenya.

"Comprehensive research is yet to be carried out and so farmers are asked to take precautions," he said.

The ministry of agriculture is currently in the process of breeding varieties of seeds that are resistant to Maize Chlorotic Mottle Virus and Sugar Mosaic Virus diseases.

However, they will certainly not be used by farmers this season, which puts Kenya at risk of being food insecure.

The east African nation doubled it maize imports from Uganda and Tanzania and expects to import over 600,000 90kg bags of maize by September this year.

The ministry in its latest food security report projected Kenya will harvest about 4 million bags of maize by September.

The outbreak of diseases is, however, expected to significantly reduce the forecast.


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