Tag Archives: plantains

Increasing the resilience of roots, tubers & bananas

Given its focus on the resilience of root, tuber and banana crops, Flagship Project 3 (FP3) aims to incorporate environmental, biological, ecological and economic considerations into the various ‘clusters’ – distinct projects within the flagship.

Crop resilience can be compromised in myriad ways, notes James Legg, FP3 leader and a plant virologist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Among them:

  • Biological factors: including pests, diseases and the inevitable introduction of alien invasive species into a new geographical region as a function of increased international trade and people’s global movement patterns
  • Environmental factors: ranging from drought and increased soil salinity to unexpected spikes or drops in temperature
  • Agro-ecological factors: such as the over-exploitation of land through multiple cycles of cropping, which leads to soil degradation, nutrient deficiencies and other problems
  • Social factors: T for example, population growth leading to greater pressure on agricultural land, or the impacts on shareholders of increasingly smaller farming plots
  • Factors related to changing global climate: these effects will differ greatly among crops and could include shortened life cycles and increased economic damage from major pests.

Cassava farmer examines his field infected by cassava witches’ broom disease in Cambodia. Photo G.Smith/CIAT

Across this array of threats to resilience, technology is vitally important for achieving the goals of FP3, Legg says. For example, sequencing DNA from a specific pest can help the team determine which species are present in which locations, leading to more precisely targeted control efforts.

Moreover, the ability to use new tools to diagnose a disease more quickly and cheaply goes a long way toward containing the threat it poses.

“The invasive pathogen Fusarium oxysporum fsp cubense – Tropical Race 4 – was detected for the first time on the African continent, in a single farm in Mozambique, through the use of a molecular diagnostic method using polymerase chain reaction (PCR),” Legg says. “FP3 scientists and their partners are now using these diagnostics in a containment programme that will map the geographic spread of this new pathogen prior to designing a comprehensive control strategy.”

Yellow and wilted leaves are typical symptoms of Fusarium wilt. Photo G.Blomme/Bioversity International

Sometimes, efforts to boost crop resilience occur in isolation from efforts to enhance other desirable traits. Yet that won’t always be the case: Legg observes that increasingly in Phase II, FPs will combine to “bring these two lines of work together so that improved nutritional profiles” – whose development IN orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP), cassava and banana is being addressed in FP2 and FP4 – “will be combined with resistance to major biotic and abiotic threats in new varieties developed and promoted.” In fact there are multiple natural points of intersection among FP3’s focus on resilience and its sister flagships. By the same token, germplasm development work housed under FP2 will dovetail with specific clusters in FP3. In addition, FP3’s project to improve diagnosis and control using phytosanitation of banana bunchy top virus (BBTV) is being linked to other flagships to help scale up efforts to control its spread.

In theory, how long would it take for Legg and the rest of the FP3 team to ascertain if resilience has increased in a given crop? It all depends on the factors against which resilience is being gauged, he says.

For example, since FP3 covers much of RTB’s disease-management work, it might only require two or three growing seasons (ideally in different locations) to measure whether crops now display greater ability to withstand pest and disease pressures. Yet “for factors such as climate change or soil degradation, the period required may be longer,” he says.

“Much of the cross cutting thinking on resilience in FP3 is being undertaken within cluster 3.2, Sustainable Cropping Systems,” Legg continues. “Under this cluster, research is being undertaken that aims to develop resilient production systems. Since this work considers the whole system, with its diversity of crops and environments, there is an inherent complexity. This will mean that it will take several years before systems with enhanced resilience can be developed, and several more years before the robustness of those systems can be confirmed.”

Cassava farmer, Mr. Khalifa Omari Nkrumah, of Mkurangra district, Tanzania inspects his cassava plants for the presence of Cassava Brown Streak Disease. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

As resilience increases, so too can smallholders’ potential economic and social benefits. Yet Legg cautions that there’s no quick path from greater resilience to greater revenue.

“Yield increases can be converted to estimates of economic gain and increased income,” he notes. “Calculating the impact at the community level is significantly more challenging, and requires the implementation of impact studies conducted at the community level both before baseline and after the implementation of resilience-promoting activities.” Typically speaking, community level change is achieved only after a meaningful period of scaling – which is where FP5 Improved Livelihoods at Scale will engage and support.

“The key theme unifying all of the FPs is the development of productive, profitable and sustainable systems that will ensure that roots, tubers and bananas make a major contribution to sustaining and enhancing the livelihoods of the growing number of people living in the tropical parts of the developing world,” Legg says. “In all the FPs, we share a common goal, and we are working closely together to achieve that.”

This is the third in a series of blogs showcasing the new Flagship Projects of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. The next edition will examine Flagship 2 on ‘Adaptive Varieties and Quality Seed‘. By Amy Rogers Nazarov

Gender, breeding and genomics workshop – Open call for case studies

You are invited to submit an abstract for a case study of plant or animal breeding that has successfully incorporated gender considerations into its strategies and end products, demonstrating attention to contrasting needs and preferences of men and women end users (producers or consumers) by May 15, 2016. 

A small number of case study authors will be invited to present their study at the upcoming workshop ‘Gender, Breeding and Genomics‘ that will take place in Nairobi, Kenya from October 18- 21, 2016. Travel and accommodation expenses for the authors of selected case studies will be covered by the workshop organizers. Authors of other cases of interest to the workshop may be contacted with respect to inclusion of the case in a book-length or journal publication and/or presentation of a poster at the workshop, which is organized by the CGIAR Gender and Agriculture Research Network’s Gender and Breeding working group.

The workshop aims to identify the essential, ‘must have’ ingredients of successful, gender- responsive breeding initiatives and to explore implications of the revolution in genomics for new opportunities and entry points in the breeding research cycle for effective integration of gender.

Gender responsive root, tuber and banana breeding

There have been many cases in which improved crop varieties released by national agricultural research and extension systems were poorly received by farmers because they lacked the flavor or another trait that farmers or consumers wanted. To ensure high adoption rates for the varieties they develop, breeding programs usually survey farmers about the traits they prefer, but all too often, those researchers rely disproportionately on the opinions of men. However, specialization of household roles means that women and men have different knowledge about and preferences for varietal traits. Women are usually responsible for food preparation and small scale processing, but their knowledge is rarely used for the varietal development process.

As The CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) works to unlock the genetic potential of roots, tubers and bananas for improving food security, nutrition and incomes, it is also supporting field research to document gender-disaggregated trait preferences. The aim is to ensure that the improved RTB crop varieties developed in the coming years will have as widespread and gender-equitable an impact as possible.

Read more about RTB’s work to incorporate women’s needs and preferences into root, tuber and banana breeding. 

For more information about the upcoming workshop and how to submit a case study, please visit the Gender Network website.

Adding value and reducing postharvest losses in Uganda’s cooking banana value chain

Cooking banana is the main staple crop in Uganda produced mostly by smallholders for food and income. However, the cooking banana value chain  actors face risks of high postharvest losses due to the short green life of bananas and damage arising from poor  handling of the produce after it is harvested, leading to high physical and economic losses.

A detailed market study was conducted in Isingiro, Rakai and metropolitan Kampala in Uganda to identify and describe the key players in the banana value chain and establish the current demand and future growth prospects of the different banana presentation forms. The study also established the level of sorting and grading in the banana value chain, the level of use of the weight-based pricing system and the actor’s willingness to pay for its introduction, along with determining the extent and causes of postharvest losses along the banana value chain.

Results show that the cooking banana value chain is characterized by a large number of middlemen (5-7) between producers and consumers, which is partly responsible for high consumer prices and increased postharvest losses as the bananas change hands.

Cooking banana for sale at a market in Mbale, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

Cooking banana for sale at a market in Mbale, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

The results further show that there are four market-preferred varieties; Nakitembe, Musakala and Mbwazirume, plus Kibuzi which also has a long shelf-life. While these varieties are not widely grown by farmers, they are willing to purchase clean planting materials of these varieties if available.

Bananas are traded mainly as bunches and unpeeled fingers at all levels, but also as clusters and peeled fingers at retail level. Clusters and peeled fingers are missing at the primary production end of the value chain. There is an increasing demand for peeled bananas by customers at retail level, therefore retailers could demand for peeled bananas right from the farm. It was also noted that there is an increased demand for smaller units and convenient forms of presentation, such as packaged peeled and unpeeled fingers to cater for the changes in demographics.

All the value chain actors grade banana bunches by size while only exporters grade by variety, appearance, size and shape of fingers. However, the majority of people working in throughout the value chain recognize the importance of sorting and grading and are willing to adopt the practice. The consumers also show willingness to pay a premium if such products were availed on market.

A banana exporter preparing her bananas, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

A banana exporter preparing her bananas, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

Unit prices are determined by visual inspection. However, the actors recognize that this system is arbitrary and presents risks for unfair marketing transactions. Unlike other value chain actors, exporters buy and sell banana using a weight-based pricing system, yet their suppliers negotiate (through brokers) the bunch price at the farm using visual inspection. Post-harvest losses along the chain are high.

Substantial amounts of banana are thrown away (physical losses) particularly during the peak harvesting seasons and even higher volumes incur some degree of quality deterioration leading to lower selling price (economic losses). The study has estimated the extent of physical and economic post-harvest losses at each stage of the value chain. Female value chain actors experience higher losses compared to their male counterparts.  Major causes of the losses are bruising, ripening, finger plucking and scotching.

A woman harvests bananas in Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

A woman harvests bananas in Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

The study has revealed various challenges and opportunities. Targeted interventions can be designed to address these challenges and also take advantage of the opportunities. Such interventions would reduce post-harvest losses and narrow the gap between farm-gate and retail prices.

This study has  been conducted in the framework of “Expanding Utilization of Roots, Tubers and Bananas and Reducing Their Postharvest Losses” (RTB-ENDURE), a 3 year project (2014-2016) implemented by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) with funding by the European Union and technical support of IFAD.

Clean planting material to combat Moko disease of plantains in Latin America

Moko bacterial wilt is the principal bacterial disease limiting plantain production in Latin America and the Caribbean, and it is primarily spread between farms and regions via planting material. Moko disease can destroy up to 75% of crop production in an affected area and annual losses in the region have been calculated to be more than USD $100 million. Most farmers use chemical products, such as disinfectants, herbicides and insecticides to prevent disease dissemination.

Through RTB, CIAT is collaborating with Bioversity and IITA on introducing hybrids and evaluating them for their agronomic performance; resistance to diseases, including Moko and Sigatoka diseases; and acceptability to farmers for consumption or agroindustry in Colombia.

Figure 3.1

A plantain cultivar susceptible to Moko disease (left), compared with a resistant plantain hybrid (right), both established in sites with presence of Ralstonia solanacearum, the bacterium that causes Moko disease

With combined funding from FONTAGRO and RTB, interdisciplinary teams of scientists from CIAT, CIRAD and regional and national partners, have been working on improving the production of clean planting material through the development of innovative and cost-effective mass propagation systems as part of a disease management strategy.

A significant development is the use of thermotherapy chambers for mass propagation of disease-free planting materials. CIAT designed and piloted an inexpensive, efficient and completely automatic system to produce clean planting materials: Using corms, which are first disinfected in a solution of insecticide and fungicide, and then subject to the technique of accelerated reproduction of planting material, the thermal chambers clean infected material by heat generated with a polyethylene cover and solar radiation. The plants stay inside the chamber around 20 days at a temperature of 51 – 55 °C.

Once the conditions needed to propagate planting materials were determined, a larger thermal chamber was constructed that is currently producing pathogen-free planting material for 7,000 farmers in central Colombia.

Figure 1

The thermotherapy chamber implemented in central Colombia guarantees farmers access to clean and high quality planting material

“I produce my own planting material in the thermal chamber and obviously it comes out very clean”, narrates Silverio González, an agronomist at the National Federation of Plantain Producers of Colombia (FEDEPLÁTANO). “This is an innovative system for large-scale production. The planting materials are completely homogeneous and the production with thermotherapy assures that it happens in a pathogen-free environment.”

“After planting the clean planting materials in the field there are no losses and replanting becomes unnecessary, as it presents better establishment in the field”, adds Alejandro Montaña, a Colombian producer. “Further, the first production cycle is shortened by 1.5 months and the production of suckers starts earlier in comparison with crops established using suckers or in vitro plants as planting material”.

image 3

Dr. Rony Swennen, IITA Breeder (left), Elizabeth Alvarez, CIAT Plant Pathologist and Silverio Gonzalez, Plantain Producer, in front of a plantain genotype resistant to Moko disease at Armenia, Quindio farm in Colombia

The technology has since been adopted by at least 10 nurseries or planting material production centers in Colombia. CIAT scientists helped nursery entrepreneurs to improve their production processes and scale the technology out, while involving female household heads in preparations for planting material production and caring for plantlets.

Conducted trials to evaluate the propagation rate inside the thermotherapy chamber found that monthly production increased by as much as 90 plantlets, from 15 suckers per square meter. A total production of 980,000 plantlets was propagated and distributed to farmers in 2014.


Exploring banana diversity with the enhanced Musa germplasm information system

The Musa Germplasm Information System (MGIS), the most extensive source of documentation on banana genetic resources, is now available on a new, improved online platform.

“The evolution of the website since it was made available in 2003 was mostly conducted by Bioversity staff based in Montpellier, France,” explained Max Ruas, the data manager. “However, nothing could be achieved without the link with the genebank and banana collection communities federated through the Global Musa Genetic Resources Network MusaNet, which provide data and feedback,” he explained.

MGIS provides information such as passport data, botanical classification, morpho-taxonomic descriptors, molecular studies, plant photos and GIS information on 2,281 accessions managed in 6 collections around the world.  As more collections sign the Data Sharing Agreement (DSA) and upload their data, this important resource will expand. The Musa research community would greatly benefit from the collective data sharing of all 60 major banana collections.

Data acquisition for the system relies on collaboration with a wide range of partners, such as the genebank curators from national collections that have signed the DSA. Data also comes from Bioversity’s International Transit Centre (ITC), home to the world’s largest Musa collection, hosted by Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium.

The success of MGIS relies on high data quality. Questions related to the taxonomy are studied by the Taxonomy Advisory Group, a team of Musa taxonomic experts. Contributions and assistance are also provided by the banana genetic resources team led by Nicolas Roux, coordinator of MusaNet and RTB Theme Leader for genetic resources.

Since January 2012, users of MGIS have been able to request online material from the ITC. The primary users of MGIS are the MusaNet partners, who are also very active in testing the applications and providing feedback for improvement. The online platform is also visited by many users worldwide who are looking for specific information related to Musa germplasm.


Figure 1. An example of a collection page on the new MGIS, showing the Taxonomy Wheel that illustrates the composition of the collection as well as location and other collection information.

The new version of the website contains several significant improvements, including:

  • up-to-date data from collections that signed the Data Sharing Agreement (DSA)
  • display of diversity trees based on molecular markers and information from several studies and results from the Musa Genotyping Centre (MGC)

User experience has also been improved through other functional changes:

  • all information on a single accession can be viewed on one page and users can share comments on it.
  • taxonomic content of each collection is summarized graphically (see Figure 1)

For Brian Irish, a horticulturist and curator at the United State Depart. of Agriculture, Tropical Agriculture Research Station (USDA-ARS) based in Puerto Rico, “it’s easier to search for accessions now that the database searches for matches similar to what is being spelled. Also, great to see that the partners providing the data are recognized!” USDA-ARS uses the information included in the database, and also contributes a lot to its content. They provided feedback on the new version: “Along the road, synonyms might be included for particular accessions – but I know it’s a daunting task!” Irish suggested.

Mathieu Rouard, Bioinformatics scientist at Bioversity and Chair of the MusaNet Information Thematic Group, added that “MGIS now includes a new dimension with the inclusion of molecular studies produced by Next-Generation Genotyping. This is an important step toward the comparison of the diversity that we can observe and the diversity over the genome in order to unravel traits of the banana gene pool.’’

Data manager Max Ruas explains that the site will continue to evolve in terms of features and content, thanks to the feedback and inputs from partners. “The advantages of uploading data into MGIS are beneficial to all users because it allows the comparison of passport data and thus the cross–referencing of accessions of the same cultivar. This will improve the overall quality of the data available to users,” he adds.

By Véronique Durroux-Malpartida

The effectiveness of knowledge sharing: The case of ProMusa, a global knowledge platform on banana

ProMusa is a knowledge-sharing platform on bananas managed by Bioversity International through funding from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. It brings together scientists and other stakeholders working on banana, with the ultimate goal of helping banana farmers make a better living and ensuring that bananas – in all their diversity – continue to thrive in a healthy environment.

Through ProMusa, scientists and stakeholder can interact and access a variety of online resources and tools, such as an electronic newsletter, an online compendium of banana knowledge, a bibliographic database, an image bank and a contacts database. Discussions are encouraged through an online discussion forum, a community blog, and mailing lists. ProMusa also organizes a biennial scientific symposium to help its members stay up-to-date on the latest Musa research, encourage exchange of ideas and facilitate collaboration between scientists and across disciplines.

In 2013, a study was undertaken to assess the nature and effectiveness of ProMusa from the point of view of its members and subscribers, what outputs are produced and how these are translated into outcomes and disseminated outside the network. The results of the study are now being disseminated.

ProMusa is seen as a hub and dissemination place for information on banana; a common platform that facilitates collaboration and networking in the banana community from researchers to donors, practitioners, farmers and so on, where all sorts of updated information on banana can be easily found, from news to scientific research, diseases alerts, funding opportunities and events.

“According to the respondents of the study, the unique added value of ProMusa is that it provides reliable, well-respected and updated information on banana production and research in one place, and that it connects different people worldwide with the same goal”, says Inge van den Bergh, Bioversity International Senior Scientist and ProMusa coordinator.
Members also appreciate that ProMusa provides a space where information or views that don’t reach journals can be shared, which gives a valuable feel of hot topics and research needs with a variety of opinions.

“ProMusa’s competitive advantage is its global reach, providing access to free and updated information, with live feedback and sharing between experts from different fields all over the world”, concludes Elisabetta Gotor, Bioversity International scientist and co-author of the impact assessment study with Genowefa Blundo Canto.

Read the full study The effectiveness of knowledge sharing: The case of ProMusa

This research is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas.


Researchers and farmers in banana field, Uganda. Credit: Bioversity International/P. de Santis

Post originally published on the Bioversity International’s website

Unravelling the banana’s genomic potential: ISHS/ProMusa held symposium in Brisbane, Australia

The International Society for Horticultural sciences (ISHS)/ProMusa symposium entitled “Unravelling the banana’s genomic potential”, was held from 18-20 August 2014 as one of the symposia of the 29th International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane, Australia.

Banana acts as a starchy staple food crop for approximately 500 million people, particularly those in the least developed countries, where many poor families are involved in its cultivation and many others benefit as consumers. In many parts of the world, productivity remains well below the optimum and, in certain areas, pitifully poor. Banana is also a potential gold mine of vitamins and micronutrients. With the banana genome recently unravelled, that potential is now more than ever ready to be exploited by the scientific community beyond boundaries not yet imagined. The genome sequence provides access to the plant’s over 36,000 genes, making it possible to identify those genes responsible for particular traits, such as disease resistance, dwarfism, fruit quality and many more, and opening up many exciting new opportunities.

With support from RTB, this symposium took stock of ongoing research efforts with the impact of the recently sequenced genome but also other areas of research. Special attention was given to Fusarium wilt tropical race 4, which is already a major problem in Asia and poses a huge threat for banana production in Africa and Latin America. The contribution of banana to human health and nutrition was highlighted, with a special focus on the crop’s diversity.

The first ISHS/ProMusa symposium was held in South Africa in September 2007.  Participants from 25 countries came together in White River, South Africa, to discuss the status of banana diseases and pests and progress made in their control, and to identify research priorities for the coming years.

You can access the presentations, workshop documents and photos of the Symposium on the ProMusa website: http://www.promusa.org/article128 

Université KU Leuven : la Belgique et les bananes dans le RTB

Rony Swennen, professeur à l’université belge KU Leuven, a rejoint l’équipe du RTB l’année dernière. C’était pour lui une étape logique dans une carrière de 35 ans au service des Musa, le genre des bananes et plantains. Chercheur de renommée dans une des meilleures universités du monde, il apporte au Programme de recherche d’amples connaissances et une riche expérience, ainsi que de nombreuses idées d’amélioration.

L’histoire de la Belgique avec les bananes commence dans les années 1930, lorsque des scientifiques belges commencèrent leurs recherches sur les bananiers et plantains dans ce qui est aujourd’hui la République démocratique du Congo, le Rwanda et le Burundi. Edmond de Langhe, aujourd’hui professeur émérite à KU Leuven, commença à étudier et à collecter différentes espèces de Musa dans la région dans les années 1950. A la fin des années 1970, il reçut une subvention du gouvernement belge pour entreprendre la recherche sur le bananier plantain à l’Institut international d’agriculture tropicale (IITA). Swennen, qui faisait son doctorat à l’Université KU Leuven, rejoignit l’IITA comme agronome et physiologiste en 1979, avant de créer le programme de recherche sur les bananes de l’Institut. Les résultats suivirent, avec notamment le développement de 14 variétés de plantains résistants à la maladie de la Sigatoka noire en 1987, pour lequel l’IITA reçut le prix CGIAR du Roi Baudouin en 1994. « Le Nigéria a émis un timbre postal pour célébrer cette réalisation », explique Swennen, « et j’ai même reçu le titre honorifique de « chef » au Nigeria. »Rony_IITA

La Belgique a continué à financer la recherche de l’IITA sur les plantains, et au fil des ans, une collection de bananiers de classe mondiale s’est développée à KU Leuven. En 1985, la Belgique, le Canada et la France créèrent le Réseau international pour l’amélioration de la banane et la banane plantain (INIBAP selon ses sigles en anglais), qui devint Bioversity International. Edmond de Langhe fut le premier directeur de l’INIBAP, qui a assumé la responsabilité de la collecte des variétés de bananes à la KU Leuven. Swennen lui succéda à la tête de la collection des Musa – maintenant appelée le Centre de transit international – tout en continuant à collaborer à l’IITA. Il commença aussi à enseigner à KU Leuven, où il devint professeur titulaire à la Faculté de génie en bioscience en 1997.

En février 2013, Swennen fut nommé chef du bureau de Bioversity International en Belgique, et dans les mêmes temps, chargé des activités d’amélioration des Musa à l’IITA. « Avoir un double contrat avec Bioversity et l’IITA est une occasion unique », dit-il. « Je suis heureux de faire le pont entre les deux centres. N’oublions pas que, finalement, nous appartenons tous au CGIAR et que les centres se complètent mutuellement ».

Swennen insiste pour que les scientifiques abattent les murs qui existent entre les centres de recherche, « pour le bien des agriculteurs », dit-il, et aussi parce que « nous devons avancer plus rapidement si nous voulons avoir davantage d’impact ». Il reste en contact étroit avec les agriculteurs, en particulier en Afrique.

Rony_genebank2L’une des réalisations dont il est le plus fier est le Prix d’excellence de la coopération Sud-Sud, que l’ONU a accordé en 2010 à un projet mis en œuvre par la Coopération Technique Belge sous la direction de la KU Leuven dans la région de Kagera en Tanzanie, où plus d’un million de personnes dépendent des bananes pour survivre. Ce projet, qui repose sur le travail du Programme international d’évaluation des Musa (IMTP), a été financé par le Programme des Nations Unies pour le Développement (PNUD) et exécuté par l’INIBAP. Une adoption rapide de nouvelles variétés et la distribution de 6 millions de rejets ont entraîné une triple augmentation du revenu d’un demi- million d’agriculteurs du nord-ouest de la Tanzanie.

La reconnaissance du travail accompli par la KU Leuven est également venue d’Asie. En 2009, Swennen a reçu le prix Kadali Puraskar en Inde lors du deuxième Congrès national de matériel de plantation sain de la banane. En 2000, les programmes nationaux de bananes en Asie lui ont donné le prix Pisang Raja, en reconnaissance des 21 ans de réalisation exceptionnelle dans l’amélioration des bananes et de la biotechnologie.

Etre enseignant apporte également à Swennen beaucoup de satisfaction. Il aime dire qu’il obtient le « meilleur des deux mondes » : le travail de terrain et la supervision des doctorants. Il est actuellement fasciné par les résultats obtenus par un étudiant de la RD Congo qui réalise la collecte de bananes plantains à travers son pays. « Il y a une telle diversité en Afrique centrale, c’est impressionnant ! ».

Rony_AfricaSwennen est un passionné de l’amélioration des bananes et il souhaite concentrer son travail sur l’Afrique subsaharienne. « L’amélioration a besoin d’un coup de pouce, mais il y a eu un changement de paradigme dans la recherche sur la banane. La recherche de variétés résistantes et à haut rendement ne suffit plus. Nous devons d’abord prendre en compte le goût et les exigences des agriculteurs ; ensuite intervient le travail de sélection de variétés résistantes », explique-t-il, avant d’ajouter : « Nous devons améliorer considérablement la collaboration. Avec les changements récents survenus au CGIAR, je suis heureux d’être de retour. La bonne nouvelle, c’est que le potentiel est énorme, parce que nous ne faisons que commencer ».

From the University of Leuven: Belgium, Bananas and RTB

For Rony Swennen, professor at the Belgian university KU Leuven, joining RTB last year was the next logical step in his 35-year career working on Musa (the genus of bananas and plantains). A renowned banana researcher at one of the world’s best universities, he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the research program, along with many ideas for improvement.

Belgium’s history with bananas can be traced back to the 1930s, when Belgian scientists started research on bananas and plantains in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Edmond de Langhe, a KU Leuven professor emeritus, began studying and collecting Musa species in the region in the 1950s, and in the late 1970s, he received a grant from the Belgian government to start research on plantain at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Swennen, who was working towards his PhD at KU Leuven, joined IITA as a plantain physiologist and agronomist in 1979, and subsequently built up the Institute’s plantain research program. Rony_IITAResults followed, such as the development of 14 black Sigatoka-resistant plantain varieties in 1987, for which IITA received the CGIAR King Baudoin award in 1994. “Nigeria even issued a postal stamp for this achievement,” Swennen explains, “And I received the honorary title of ‘chief’ in Nigeria.”

Belgium continued to fund IITA research on plantains, and over the years, a world-class banana collection was developed at KU Leuven. in 1985, Belgium, Canada and France created the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP), which eventually became Bioversity International. Edmond de Langhe was the first director of INIBAP, which assumed responsibility for the banana collection at KU Leuven.

Rony_genebank2Swennen succeeded him as the head of the INIBAP Musa collection – now called the International Transit Centre – while continuing to assist IITA with Musa breeding. He also began teaching at KU Leuven, where he became a Full Professor in the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering in 1997.

In February 2013, Swennen became the head of the Bioversity International office in Belgium, and at the same time, he was put in charge of the Musa breeding activities at IITA. “Getting a joint contract with Biodiversity International and IITA is such a unique opportunity,” he says. “I am happy to be the banana-bridge between the two centers; let’s remember that we are all CGIAR and that the centers complement each other.”

Swennen insists that scientists need to break down the walls between research centers “for the sake of the farmers,” and because “we need to go faster for impact.” He stays in close contact with farmers, especially in Africa. One of the achievements he is most proud of is the Cooperation Excellence Award the UN annual global South-South Development Expo gave in 2010 to a project implemented by Belgian Technical Cooperation under the guidance of KU Leuven in the Kagera Region of Tanzania, where more than a million people depend on bananas for their livelihoods. Rony_AfricaThat project built upon the work of the International Musa Testing Programme, which was funded by UNDP and executed by INIBAP. A rapid adoption of new varieties and the distribution of 6 million suckers resulted in a threefold increased income for half a million farmers in northwest Tanzania.

Recognition of the work done by KU Leuven also came from Asia. In 2009, Swennen received the Kadali Puraskar award in India during the Second National Congress of healthy planting materials in banana. In 2000 all the national banana programs in Asia gave him the Pisang Raja award to acknowledge 21 years of outstanding accomplishment in banana breeding and biotechnology.

Being a professor also brings Swennen a lot of satisfaction. He likes to say that he gets the best of two worlds, doing field work and supervising doctoral candidates. He is currently fascinated by the results gathered by a student from DR Congo who has been collecting plantains across the country. “There is so much diversity to be found in central Africa, it is baffling!”

Swennen is passionate about banana improvement and wants to focus his work on sub-Saharan Africa. “Breeding needs a boost, but there has been a paradigm shift in banana research. Researching resistant and high-yielding varieties is not enough; we should first consider the farmers’ taste and requirements. Then comes the breeding work for resistant varieties,” he explains. “We need to dramatically improve collaboration. With the changes in CGIAR, I am happy to be back. The good thing is, the potential is enormous, because we are just starting.”

By Véronique Durroux-Malpartida