In COVID-19–Hit Africa, Agricultural Research Feels the Pinch
The pandemic and accompanying lockdowns have meant missing growing seasons and losing out on key data. As restrictions are partially lifted, researchers are adjusting to the new normal.
It is strangely quiet at the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Namulonge, Uganda. Seventy percent of its 400 staff members have not reported for work since the country instituted a lockdown in March due to a partial furlough and government policies brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have to work harder to implement our work plans to minimize the disruption of COVID-19 while adhering to the Ministry of Health guidelines and standard operating procedures,” says Godfrey Asea, NaCRRI’s director. The limited staffing has affected harvesting and planting activities, especially for cereals and pulses (beans, lentils, and other seeds that grow in pods).
Although Uganda’s lockdown measures have been among the strictest in Africa, NaCRRI is far from alone. Other agricultural research institutes in Africa are also finding their work curtailed by the pandemic, with potential near-term consequences for farmers in the region.
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Research slows down
As one of Uganda’s 16 agricultural research institutes under the National Agricultural Research Organisation, NaCCRI specializes in developing legumes, maize, rice, horticultural crops, and oil palm varieties adapted to the country’s climate, as well as pesticides and herbicides. It also offers quality control testing of consumer products related to agriculture. During the pandemic, it has suspended some research activities, such as stakeholder surveys, and its trainings and tours.
Planting season begins in March in Uganda, and some of the institute’s planned field experiments have either started late or aren’t being monitored as closely as usual due to disrupted working hours and reduced labor, says Asea.
To stop COVID-19’s spread, Uganda initially banned both private and public transport, so organizations had to provide means of travel for their essential workers. Although those restrictions have eased, many organizatons, including NaCCRI, are still providing transportation for staff members. A nightly curfew from 7:00 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. continues. “Moving staff to and from work is now expensive, while curfew restrictions have forced staff to work fewer hours,” says Asea. Sixteen of its graduate students have been forced to stop their research altogether, he adds; only the seven students who live at the institute have been able to continue. According to Asea, the changes “might disrupt timelines for near-release technologies such as new crop varieties for cassava, maize, and rice.”
Even as NaCCRI continues to offer limited quality control services for consumer products such as packed flour, milk, and soil, this work faces challenges, says Asea. In addition to the limitations posed by staffing shortages, “the lockdown on business has made it hard to access laboratory consumables. Reagents are getting depleted with no foreseeable opportunity to restock.”
On a positive note, he says, “the extra desk time created by the pandemic has also enabled scientists to engage more in scientific writing of journal articles and proposals.” And some laboratory work has continued. For instance, the nutrition and bioanalytical lab has maintained experiments on samples that were already collected in the field before the shutdown that are aimed at developing new crop strains including cassava, sweet potato, and sorghum, and food products such as maize flour, rice, and beans.
Scientists cut off from farms
In neighboring Tanzania, COVID-19 came during the rainy season. The resulting lockdown imposed by the government left researchers at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a nonprofit based in the capital city of Dar es Salaam, counting their losses.
“Unfortunately, the rain did not wait for COVID-19, so we missed critical data that we were supposed to collect on our experiments,” says Victor Manyong, IITA director for Eastern Africa and agribusiness head for Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to overseeing local farmers, IITA maintains nine of its own research fields stationed across the country. The organization develops crops to improve yields, processes agriculture products to increase shelf life, and finds novel solutions to pests and diseases. But this year, “we could not go to the rural areas to see the farmers who are growing the crops,” which include cassava, maize, soya bean, cowpea, yam, banana, and plantain, he says. “Neither could we meet with the consumers in the urban areas to know exactly what was happening with agricultural sales.”
An IITA researcher collects soil for analysis from a banana research field in Arusha, Tanzania.
Due to Tanzania’s lockdown and closure of universities, more than two dozen students from local universities who planned to come to IITA for hands-on experience could not travel to rural areas of the country to conduct their research, says Manyong. The students are now expected in September. Nine of the students who’d planned to visit IITA this spring wanted to evaluate the efficacy of a treatment to ward off a toxic fungus that affects maize. They missed the window for applying it to this year’s crop.
IITA had also planned to conduct training in aquaculture in the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo, but the pandemic has stopped or delayed delivery of the cages it needed and of a huge quantity of imported fish feed, which was expired by the time it arrived. All told, Manyong says, it’s too soon to know the value of all that IITA has lost to the pandemic, but he expects it will be in the millions of dollars.
Another researcher affected by the confluence of the pandemic and growing season is Oluwaseyi Shorinola, a crop scientist based at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya, who has been working to increase the protein content in wheat varieties grown in Kenya and Ethiopia. His goal, he says, is to enable East African nations to grow more high-quality wheat and reduce their dependence on imported grain.
Working in the laboratory during the lockdown, he managed to finish crossing the best lines of these local grains to optimize them for grain size, protein content, and disease resistance. But pandemic restrictions have contributed to delays in testing his improved lines in the field during the main growing season, pushing that fieldwork to early next year, he says. That will mean he’ll need to apply for an extension to the fellowship from The Royal Society FLAIR that’s supporting the work, he adds.
Ansori Maré, a plant scientist at the University of the Free State in South Africa, is another researcher encountering delays with her wheat-breeding experiments. She has been working to develop new disease-resistant varieties, but due to South Africa’s lockdown, her laboratory and greenhouse work has completely stopped. With no crossed seeds to test, “planting the next season will be later this year, or we will lose a complete season and data collection,” she says. Such delays, she notes, also affect the students in the plant sciences department negatively, slowing the research projects needed to complete their postgraduate studies.
Since June 1, researchers at Maré’s university now have access to laboratories and the greenhouses again, although under strict rules and regulations aimed at minimizing infection risk. “At this stage, no unreplaceable losses were experienced, except time,” Maré says.
Difficulties collecting animal data
Chinyere Ekine, a statistical geneticist at ILRI in Nairobi, is working to improve milk yields in Africa using genetics and crossbreeding of cattle. “To do genetic improvements, we would need to measure traits over time, and keep a pedigree of the animals to know who the sire and dam are. Then you can crunch the numbers and pick out the best sire and dam with an average higher breeding value for the traits of interest so the next generation will be better than their parents’ previous generation on average,” she explains.
To that end, ILRI hires workers known as enumerators to collect data on traits from smallholder farmers in rural Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. They also encourage smallholder farmers to learn the importance of consistently collecting their own data for making informed decisions in the future such as which animals to keep or sell, and for determining the value of a farmer’s herd in order to help secure loans. Ekine’s team uses genetic information from animal hair that the enumerators collect along with other data to identify the best bulls for use in breeding via artificial insemination.
According to Ekine, enumerators used to reach the farmers once a month, but when COVID-19 struck in mid-March, people were not allowed to go out to rural communities. In addition to the official lockdown, there were fears that the virus could be transmitted from humans to farm animals, and people could not risk losing their livelihoods. The flow of data from the enumerators has significantly slowed as a result, she says.
“You need to collect data on milk, on growth, in a sequence. You need to follow the animal,” Ekine explains. “When you have missed this data, it’s an analysis lost.” To keep going, Ekine’s team gave farmers cell phone credit to help collect data on their phones, an additional cost that had not been part of the project initially and was not as effective as the enumerators’ data collection, she says. The challenges mean it will take longer to produce improvements in cattle, and smallholders will have less-robust information to use for breeding decisions. “What you cannot measure, you cannot improve,” says Ekine.
Shorinola worries that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on agricultural research could ultimately extend beyond the disruptions he and others have experienced. “Although this has not happened yet, we anticipate that funders might want to divert their resources to new COVID-19 priorities, neglecting important agriculture research,” he says.
He adds that while developing a vaccine against COVID-19 is very important, problems that affect food security such as locusts and a fungus known as wheat rust have not gone away during the pandemic. To the contrary, he says, “lockdown has exposed the vulnerability of our agriculture systems.”