CFAES Increasing Agriculture Productivity in East Africa

Nov. 2, 2017
In Tanzania, more than three-quarters of the labor force works in agriculture, most of them farmers with 5 or fewer acres who weed by hand and strap pesticide tanks to their backs to stop the myriad insects from devouring their crops. Dirt roads far outnumber paved ones, and few own a car to bring what they harvest to large markets where they would earn more.
In the fields of Tanzania and the classrooms and labs in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), faculty and graduate students from the college have worked with Tanzanians to help them increase their agricultural productivity and reduce food insecurity. Tanzania’s population is expected to double by 2050, and yet a third of the population already grapples with malnutrition.
Since 2011, a $25.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development has funded graduate degrees for 135 Tanzanians, including 21 educated in CFAES. Four attained doctorate degrees in the college; 17 received master’s degrees.
Faculty in the college have helped strengthen the teaching, research and outreach capacity of Tanzania’s largest agriculture university as well as the government’s agriculture department. For seven years, CFAES faculty member David Kraybill lived in Tanzania. There, he and other faculty collaborated on research with Tanzanian scientists and trained others who play key roles in educating agriculture students and small farmers.
“It’s not sustainable for me to say, ‘I’m an expert,’ and go there for two weeks, train them and then come back. We’re working with their scientists and students to build their capacity to get the job done,” said Mark Erbaugh, CFAES director of international programs in agriculture. “No nation in the world that is agrarian has moved forward until the country’s agriculture was modernized to be more productive.”
Since faculty at CFAES began working in Tanzania, farmers there have adopted horticultural techniques including tomato grafting, new varieties of rice and tomatoes that fend off diseases common in East Africa, and improved pest management practices that have increased yields for small farmers.
Though the USAID grant-funded program recently ended, CFAES faculty continue to work with Tanzanians.
“We’re helping to strengthen their agricultural institutions to train the next generation so they can do the research to solve their own problems,” Erbaugh said. “They want to solve their own problems. Their farmers want to develop.”
Researching Viruses Killing Cornfields
Deogracious P. Massawe knew farmers who lost row after row of corn to a disease ravaging cornfields across northern Tanzania, a country where maize dominates the diet. He stood in cornfields peeling back husks only to find ears, dry and beige, or plants that had not even formed a cob.
In his graduate studies in CFAES, Massawe determines the genetic makeup of the viruses causing the disease killing swaths of cornfields in his native country: maize lethal necrosis. Part of what makes the disease so difficult to control is that it’s caused by a combination of two viruses that are tough to distinguish in the field, maize chlorotic mottle virus and one of the cereal viruses such as sugarcane mosaic virus, wheat streak mosaic virus or maize dwarf mosaic virus.
First reported in Kenya in 2011, maize lethal necrosis has spread through East Africa, contributing to the region’s malnutrition rate. Insects can transmit the viruses from plant to plant, field to field, carrying it by wind over long distances.
“We have to make sure we manage this disease so that it doesn’t spread to other regions,” Massawe said.
For his doctoral research in the Department of Plant Pathology, Massawe tracks the prevalence of the viruses causing maize lethal necrosis across Tanzania. Besides analyzing the genetic makeup of those viruses, he also identifies previously undiagnosed viruses that pose a threat to corn, and in turn, to Tanzanian small farmers’ already limited incomes. With the genetic information, Massawe and others can help develop tools to diagnose the viruses and create new corn varieties able to resist them.
Without access to sophisticated technology in the Department of Plant Pathology, Massawe said he would have been unable to distinguish the various strains of viruses associated with maize lethal necrosis.
“It has changed our way of thinking, our way of dealing with the problem,” Massawe said of his research at CFAES.
Beyond his current research on maize lethal necrosis disease, Massawe hopes to diagnose a range of other viruses affecting crops in his native country to improve the plight of Tanzania’s many small farmers and the nutrition of the nation as a whole.
Malnutrition Amid Food Waste
In Rita Mirondo’s native country of Tanzania, where a little more than one-third of the population struggles with malnutrition, fruits and vegetables rot in fields. Much of what farmers can’t eat or sell fresh goes to waste because there are so few processing plants that juice or can produce for use throughout the year. So, long after harvest, many go without enough nutritious food.
Mirondo came to Ohio State in 2012 to pursue a PhD and gain the research skills needed to help her country process and add value to the food grown that might otherwise rot. Her research in CFAES focused on improving the quality and safety of producing mango puree and tomato juice, keeping the peels on the two fruits. Besides adding antioxidants, leaving the peels on could potentially lower the cost of processing the fruits.
“Taking off the peel means we’re taking off nutrients,” Mirondo said. “I want to look at ways in which we can use the parts we consider waste — the peel, the roots, the leaves — to enrich the product.”
As a student in the Department of Food Science and Technology, Mirondo learned ways to pasteurize juices, a critical skill in Tanzania where farmers sometimes produce bottled juices high in bacteria because they either didn’t thoroughly sanitize the bottles or pasteurize the juice before bottling it. Food-related sicknesses are common, yet rarely documented.
“Someone might show symptoms of an illness, and that illness might even lead to death. In the U.S., there would be a recall and close surveillance, but that does not happen in Tanzania,” Mirondo said.
Mirondo hopes to help spur the food processing industry in Tanzania, increasing the country’s potential to process more fruits, vegetables and other crops so fewer will be wasted and more of the population will be sufficiently fed.
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Alayna DeMartini
Mark Erbaugh