MSI Crop Science: A New Strategy in the Fight Against Banana Diseases

by Alan Anderson
3 August 2010
James Ssebuliba of the Makerere University Department of Crop Science is proud of the work MSI has allowed his group to do, and emphasizes its importance to the country. A major focus is the East African highland banana, the number one crop in Uganda. Bananas are eaten by virtually everyone, and provide an essential dietary staple for the poor. The banana is threatened worldwide by various diseases, such as black cigatoka (a fungal disease named after a valley in Fiji where it was first identified 40 years ago), which can reduce banana yields by 50 percent or more. The work of Drs. Ssebuliba and Settumba Mukasa (the project PI) and three graduate students is part of a major effort to combat this disease in Uganda.
Because the banana trees are difficult to reproduce from seed, farmers traditionally plant new trees from suckers cut from existing trees. This vegetative technique brings with it the traits of the parent plant, including its diseases. Current worries, in addition to black cigatoka, include a bacterial wilt and a fungal wilt disease. Dr. Ssebuliba’s group began a decade ago to develop a protocol for producing “clean” (disease-free) banana trees by growing various genetic variants from cell culture. A good protocol was developed by one of his graduate students, but some of the cultures still had bacterial or viral contaminants. Now the group is taking advantage of the MSI support to try to create a protocol that is 100 percent disease-free.
Much of the research work for Dr. Ssebuliba’s project is done at NCRRI, the large National Crop Resources Research Institute in Namulonge, 16 miles north of Kampala. NCRRI was originally established in 1949 by the Empire Cotton Growing Corporation of Britain to investigate cotton production issues of British Africa. Now, under Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), it applies biotechnology to increase productivity and disease resistance of crops and livestock. Several dozen MSI students are working there on several projects. They also work in partnership with the Agro-Genetic Technologies (AGT), a private firm working on banana diseases.
Sadik Kassim, the PhD student working on the banana project, partners with MSc students: Alex Ssamula, who is developing less expensive growth media for banana tissue cultures; and Geoffrey Kasozi, who is developing techniques to screen tissue culture for viral contaminants before new trees go to the field.
Sadik’s job includes speeding up the current protocols so that they can propagate more bananas and experiment with more different variants in search of disease resistance. He tried doing this when we was an MSc student at NACCRI in 2002-03, but the time was too short to finish. After that he found work as an extension worker for two years, then worked for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture as associate breeder of bananas, doing conventional breeding. Then he took still another job, with the National Agricultural Advisory Services, in northern Uganda. Still, he was unable to find support to do his PhD.
Then on the Makerere University website he saw the announcement for the MSI and applied. He interviewed with faculty from the Department of Crop Science and convinced them that he was the right person for the position.
He started his work at NACCRI in July 2008, but had two challenges. The first was the MSI design for a three-year PhD, which included a year of coursework at the outset. Then when he was ready to begin his research, procurement problems delayed arrival of the lab chemicals he needed until March 2010. So he has been fully operational for only four months.
Dr. Ssebuliba added several points about the MSI. “This project has helped us carry out major functions: training, research, and outreach. When the call for the MSI came, we were stimulated to think about doing this challenging project. There are few sources of support like the MSI. Other donors may just give tuition, but the MSI is a full scholarship: a stipend of $300 a month, fees of $2000 a year, research funds. This has actually put student work at the forefront.”
He also noted the importance of the theme of value addition. For example, his groups works closely with the Department of Food Science, using banana flour to make cakes and bread for the supermarket. Also, sweet potatoes, which are rich in beta carotene, a vitamin A precursor, are also processed into vitamin A-rich flour or fruit juice. In some districts, virtually all children are vitamin A-deficient.

Several years ago, the World Bank financed a major Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) program to help strengthen science and technology capacity in Uganda. Approximately half of this investment, the Bank's largest S&T commitment to date, supports a competitive grants program for a variety of university research projects. The financing supports stipends and fees for graduate students, faculty salary supplements, research equipment, and infrastructure. Another major portion is dedicated to transferring technical knowledge to the private sector through academic-business linkages and educational activities for farmers, health workers, and small-business people. The MSI program resembles RISE in providing full support for MSc and PhD students, which is extremely difficult to secure in Africa. The August 2010 blog post series illustrates some of the activities supported by the MSI.