Gender aside, Doreen on the war path to save bananas

LOOKING at the global statistics, women continue to represent only 29 per cent of researchers.

According to the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), although women are more numerous in certain disciplines, the glass ceiling remains a reality within research as a whole. So, few women doing great in research areas deserve recognition and praise.

A Tanzanian woman scientist, Doreen Mmari-Mgonja, fits well in that category of very few hard working researchers who want to improve lives of fellow human beings at home and abroad. She has developed a simple and rapid DNA-based technique which easily detects nematodes.

In recent years, there have been reports of shrinking of banana farms and the number of healthy banana plants, partly due to nematodes. Farmers find uprooted banana plants, majority with immature bunches and destroyed anchoring roots. With this scientific development, Doreen says, farmers will be on the front line.

“Serious farmers will engage the enemy on a daily basis. What a farmer needs to do is to cut longitudinally a root of a banana plant. When he sees a brown/black colouration, that is an important signal; it is a sign that the banana plant is infected with nematodes,” she says confidently.

Nematodes, she explains, affect banana roots and disrupt the whole system of transporting water and nutrients in banana plant. Sequel to this, she explains, growth and production of banana is hampered, and in severe cases, plants wilt and fall down.

Mrs Mgonja’s research has been sponsored by the Sugarcane Research Institute under a project funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The scientist, finalising her PhD programme at the University of Dar es Salaam, says the nematodes problem is widespread on the Mainland and the Isles.

Areas prone to nematodes include many parts of Unguja and Pemba and Mainland regions of Arusha, Kilimanjaro, Ruvuma, Mbeya and Kagera.

During the research, three major brands of nematodes have been detected, the researcher reports, adding that once a farmer detects nematodes all he/she needs to do is to report the matter to the nearest extension officer for the officer’s confirmation of the infection and the brand of nematodes active in the farmer’s plot.

But the battle is yet to be won, and so victory against nematodes may be a decade away. The researcher says at this stage, efforts must be put on sensitising farmers and teaching them initial techniques in the fight against nematodes; arm extension officers with the technology and train them on how to apply it effectively.

Meanwhile, the scientist says, “we expect to develop our proposal asking for another funding to train extension officers and farmers.” Perhaps, it is pertinent to add here, that the government should think seriously of stepping in and give a helping hand for this new technique to be rolled out in regions affected with nematodes.

This might also be the beginning for Tanzania to ‘export’ this technology to other countries, more so Uganda. But bananas are also grown in Burundi and Rwanda and nematodes know of no borders.

It was learnt that as part of intervention, local scientists are trying to develop banana varieties which can resist nematode attacks and other infectious organisms such as bacteria and fungi. It is hoped that the varieties would also resist drought.

“We want to identify varieties which are highly productive and preferred by consumers,” Doreen says.

This is one of those simple cutting edge innovative technologies that aim to improve lives of farmers in rural Tanzania and Africa at large. Emmanuel Rubagumya writes on science, technology and innovation. Email: innovationstz@gmail.com

...The Kilimanjaro Twins, revolutions and Granpa


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