Bold for change: fighting potato late blight disease in Africa

Vivian Atakos

Anne Njoroge at a biotech potato confined trial site in Uganda. Photo: G. Baguma (NARO-KaZARDI)

In recognition of International Women’s Day 2017, celebrated every year on March 8, we bring you the story of our Research Associate, confident of her ability to contribute towards a solution to one of Africa’s devastating crop diseases. She has been bold enough—in line with this year’s theme—stepping out and embracing opportunities that allow her to make a difference in a male dominated field .

Meet Anne Njoroge, a molecular pathologist working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), based in Nairobi, Kenya.  Anne uses molecular techniques to study organisms and environmental conditions that cause diseases in plants. Her current focus is on potato. Since 2012, she has been studying the highly destructive pathogen Phytophthora Infestans, responsible for causing the potato late blight disease, the cause of the famous Irish famine in the 1840’s. In SSA, potato late blight causes losses amounting to 2.75 billion USD per year, and Anne is helping find a solution to this problem.

Her strategy is twofold. The first is build her capacity as an African scientist working in Africa. In late 2016, Anne received a one year Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellowship through the Biosciences eastern and central Africa – International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub located in Nairobi, Kenya. This means she now has access to the state of the art research facilities at BecA-ILRI Hub and a chance to interact with other renowned scientists, from Africa, hosted at the facility.

“I employ molecular techniques to study pathogen populations, from East and Central Africa. The aim is to generate data to aid the design of better control strategies for late blight,” says Anne.  Better control strategies will lead to improved food security and livelihoods for farmers in the region as a result of improved management of the disease, she explains further.

From her work at BecA-ILRI, Anne hopes to build a community of practice (CoP) of African scientists working on Phytophthora diseases. Ultimately, a centralized data management system through the CoP will create a platform for knowledge exchange between late blight networks and African research communities.

The second strategy is to continue availing information on the pathogen population in East Africa to different research groups.  At the moment, she is part of the lateblight resistant biotech potato team at CIP which has engineered a genetically modified potato. This potato, with 3R genes, has been tested in Uganda for a period of two years in collaboration with the National Agricultural Research Organization’s (NARO) Kachwekano Zonal Research and Development Institute (KaZARDI), near Kabale in Southwestern Uganda. This work is supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the 2 Blades Foundation.

Presenting findings on pathogen resistance of biotech potato in Dar es Salaam

During the confined field evaluations of the biotech potato in Uganda, Anne generated data showing the pathogen population in East Africa is unable to overcome the resistance in the biotech potato.  She presented these findings at the 13th International Symposium for Tropical Root Crops – Africa Branch (ISTRC-AB) happening between 6 – 10th March in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania under the theme ‘Expanding Collaboration, Catalyzing Innovation of Root Crops for Accelerating Africa’s Economic Growth”.

Anne recognizes that the journey is never easy for a woman scientist working in a male dominated field. “We have already made great progress. The future is late-blight free; it’s bright,” she concludes.

Further reading:

Studying a New Threat to the Potato Farmers of East Africa

Towards an early warning system for late blight in East Africa

potato, Uganda