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Researchers target finger millet variety resistant to witch weed              

Mwangi Mumero @PeopleDailyKe

Researchers in Western Kenya are using wild relatives of finger millet to develop a variety resistant to witch weed (Striga hermonthica), a nasty parasitic weed of cereal crops, as well as the blast disease, a fungal disease.

At the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) Kisii Centre, which deals with food crops, researchers are working to increase finger millet yields through the introduction of beneficial traits from wild relatives.

According to Dr Chrispus Oduori, some wild relatives of finger millet are showing resistance to Striga – a weed that inhabits many Kenyan farmers west of the Rift Valley. The weed is also called purple witch weed, ekeyongo (ekegusii), emoto (Ateso), hayongo (Luo) and kituha (Sukuma).

Researchers say Striga infestation in farms can lead to total crop loss as the weed sucks sap from cereal crops–diminishing their nutrient uptake. “Our initial evaluations under controlled conditions showed that some of these wild relatives performed well and showed resistance to blast and Striga,” Oduori said.

Field officers and researchers have noted that some of the improved varieties –that have been distributed to farmers in recent years–are still susceptible to blast diseases and the Striga weed.

Climate change is expected to create bigger outbreaks of pests and diseases. Thus means researchers need to develop more resistant crops that will cope with emerging weather patterns.

Known for its ability to withstand drought conditions as well as having high levels of essential amino acids and micronutrients, finger millet does well in areas below 2,000m above sea level.

Increasingly, however, the popularity of finger millet has declined as farmers took to maize and sorghum farming. Researchers hope that the crop will make a comeback in Kenya where it has been used to make ugali and a local fermented brew, busaa.

“It is extremely nutritious and can grow well in a wide range of locations including marginal areas. Farmers are now recognising its potential and are planting it again,” noted Dr Oduori in the research project supported by the government of Norway through the Crop Wild Relatives (CWR) initiative. 

The research is being conducted in collaboration with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat). It involves sequencing the genome of the crop wild relatives and identifying molecular markers, or specific snippets of genome, to help breeders.

The scientists will then breed the required varieties using the Striga and blast resistance traits from the wild finger millet. These will be merged with traits such as high yield, a grain colour that’s acceptable to consumers, erect stems, shatter resistance, and early maturation.

“We need to introduce the desirable traits from the crop wild relatives into the farmer-preferred varieties,” observed Dr Damaris Odeny, a scientist with the Icrisat.

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