THE survival of any crop, experts say, depends on maintenance and development of its genes.
According to Biosciences for Farming in Africa (B4FA), a not-for-profit initiative with no commercial interests set to raise the level of awareness and understanding of the potential for traditional and modern genetic techniques in improving agriculture, gene banks are repositories where biological material is collected, stored, catalogued and made available for redistribution.
The main role of plant gene banks is to preserve genetic diversity in the form of seeds or cuttings in the case of plants reproduced and subsequently make this material together with associated information, available for future use in research and plant breeding.
However, according to available information, Tanzania is not only proud of having been the world’s number one sisal producer back in the 1960s, it also boasts of being the home of the only sisal gene bank in the world.
Located at the Agricultural Research Institute at Mlingano in Muheza District, just a stone’s throw from Mkanyageni village on the Tanga-Dar-Arusha highway, the gene bank was established 15 years ago and currently has close to 80 sisal plant genes.
The gene bank, however, is in danger of losing some of its sisal genes if measures to restore or establish a new gene bank are not taken as a matter of priority.
According to information made available from the institute, the gene bank could lose some of the genes because some of the plants are not flowering or producing suckers that could be used for propagation of the genes.
“There is an urgent need now to establish a new gene bank, which will have a modern and more professional outlook that would have more sisal plants,” a researcher at Mlingano ARI, Gedson Mkorongwe, says.
The institute needs USD 18,071.7 for establishing a new gene bank out of which USD 14,000 would be used for collecting various types of plant genes. Sisal research in Tanzania started at Amani in Muheza District in 1930.
In 1934 all research activities were transferred to Mlingano where the climate was ideal for sisal farming. Records show the research centre was established by the Tanzania Sisal Growers Association for collection, care of genes, breeding of improved sisal plant types and providing technology and extension services to sisal farmers under a Sisal Research Programme, which is the oldest scheme at Mlingano ARI.
Main sections falling under the sisal research programme include sisal breeding, agronomy, plant protection and sisal tissue culture laboratory. The main activities of the programme, therefore, include breeding and evaluation of high yielding sisal varieties, propagation of sisal varieties by tissue culture, developing improved agronomic practices as well as pest and disease control practices for sisal.
Other activities provided by the programme involve providing technical backstopping (advisory services) to the sisal industry, training of sisal stakeholders and on-farm demonstration.
According to Mkongorowe, financing of sisal research has not been consistent after the fall of the sisal mar kets in the 1970s which had a negative impact on research cost contributions from the TSGA.
Despite a resolve by the Sisal Association of Tanzania (SAT) for members to contribute towards its running costs, the response has been quite unsatisfactory. A Sisal Development Fund that was launched with the aim of becoming the main financing organ of the center has been able to attract much from SAT members.
Sisal research now depends on government financing but financing is not enough in accordance with research requirements for improving the crop. Last year’s meeting of sisal stakeholders resolved to urge members to ‘review’ their decisions and contribute towards the fund to enable it finance sisal research.
Chief Executive Officer of the Tanga-based Sisal Company, Katani Limited, Salum Shamte, urged fellow SAT members to honour their pledges to the Sisal Development Fund to enable it support research activities which he termed as critical to the survival of the crop.
Participants to the Tanga meeting called for a review of the procedures for managing the Fund and push the government to introduce a legislation that would force stakeholders to contribute towards the fund.“Without some kind of force, the fund’s success would be a dream. The fund must be established through legislation,” Shamte said.
It was revealed during the meeting that since the fund was established a few years ago, it has only managed to collect 3m/-. Tanga Regional Administrative Secretary, Eng. Zena Said, urged sisal stakeholders to create other means of col lecting funds to strengthen the crop. “There has been renewed interest in sisal farming following extensive research.
The critical role of the gene bank is to make this renewed interest become a positive attribute. The new gene bank would deal with such activities as conducting a countrywide survey with the aim of collecting all types of sisal not found at the current gene bank.
Proposals suggested by the centre include conducting surveys in sisal estates in Kenya to collect sisal plants which are not found in Tanzania and caring genes that do not produce stalks. The institute has been in the forefront of sisal crop development.
One of the most notable releases by the institute has been the improved sisal variety H.11648 is responsible which the highest harvest record achieved by Tanzania of 230,000 tons in 1966.
Other notable releases are use of Sisal waste manure, weed control technology, sisal planting and husbandry in the field, improved sisal cutting, sisal legume intercropping, breeding through the laboratory and nursery, use of fertilisers for planting such as Agricultural lime, TSP, NPK and sisal plant growth (CAN, MOP).
Others are organic and chemical control of pests and diseases, use of improved and low priced machines for smallholder farmers.