Kenya: Wheat farmers face damaging new strain of stem rust

February 09, 2015
A translation for this article is available in French

Simon Ng’ang’a will not give up without a fight.

Mr. Ng’ang’a has grown wheat for the last ten years on five hectares of land in Njoro, about 200 kilometres northwest of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. But this year, his autumn wheat failed. Although he planted a high-yielding, disease-resistant variety, the wheat was badly affected by a new strain of a disease called stem rust.

Instead of a valuable harvest, his land produced only shrivelled grains and papery chaff.

Mr. Ng’ang’a says: “I was expecting to earn something to … give to my family, to encourage my children so they can be farmers like their father. Now they see how I’ve done, they’re going to go for other jobs.”

Kenyans plant more wheat than any other cereal except maize. The stem rust that destroyed Mr. Ng’ang’a’s crop is a strain of a dangerous fungus that scientists call Ug99. The fungus damages the stem of the wheat plant, and prevents it from forming proper kernels. Outbreaks of the disease can cause severe losses.

Mr. Ng’ang’a planted a variety called Robin, which was developed by breeders at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, or CIMMYT. Sridhar Bhavani heads the CIMMYT nursery for screening stem rust in East Africa. He says that Robin is a hardy variety.

Dr. Bhavani says that older wheat varieties yielded about four and a half tonnes per hectare in Mr. Ng’ang’a’s area. But improved varieties such as Robin can yield up to 30 per cent more if properly managed.

Dr. Bhavani continues: “We’ve been racing to try and combat stem rust, to prevent the spread of the disease by breeding wheat varieties that contain resistant genes. The temporary solution is to spray fungicide.” He adds that Ug99 can completely destroy a crop if farmers do not apply fungicides at the correct time and dosage.

The problem is that small-scale farmers may not be able to afford to spray their crops, and may therefore lose them.

Ug99 has been detected in ten countries in southern and eastern Africa, and as far away as Egypt, Iran, and Yemen. International scientists, governments and policy-makers are trying to develop disease-resistant varieties.

Mr. N’gang’a says, “I’m going to be back in the field again. I won’t lose hope … I will go back and do better.”

To read the article on which this story was based, Wheat farmers in Kenya battle new race of stem rust disease, go to: http://www.trust.org/item/20150130235754-1xuzd/

Photo credit: Wheat breeder Sridhar Bhavani, who heads the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) wheat stem-rust screening nurseries in East Africa, talks with smallholder farmer Simon Ng’ang’a about the loss of his Robin variety wheat crop to stem-rust disease near Njoro, Kenya. CIMMYT/Julie Mollins