Elder Isaiah Buwah is an aged potato farmer in the Bokos Local Government Area of Plateau State, North Central Nigeria. He has grown potatoes for the last 40 years. During this time, most of his fellow potato farmers have given up on the crop due to the ravaging effects of late potato blight disease.
This year has not been any different. In June, when farmers thought that their harvest for the year would be great, late blight struck again, ravaging their farms. As in the previous years, the blight dampened the spirit of these farmers.
Buwah’s persistence in potato farming has, however, been kept alive by activities started in the first quota of 2022 in Jos by the National Root Crop Research Institute (NRCRI), under the Feed the Future Global Biotech Potato Partnership project that seeks to resolve the lingering challenge of late blight disease, by developing and releasing varieties of blight resistant potatoes.
His joy knows no bounds, being counted among those to witness the harvest of the first batch of biotech potatoes, following Confined Field Trials by researchers from NRCRI at their outstation of Kuru, near Jos, under the Feed the Future Global Biotech Potato Partnership project.
“What I am seeing is salvation coming to potato farmers on the Plateau. I am happy it is happening in my lifetime. We have seriously suffered from the impact of late blight to the extent that some of our colleagues suffered seriously because of the massive destruction and losses we have encounter yearly. Those of us still growing potatoes have done so as a labour of love,” he says.
Buwah explains that persistent requirement for fungicides force them to spend more than necessary to maintain the crop till harvest to contain the disease.
“The fungicide comes with instructions on usage, but we hardly follow this because when you see your crop flourishing and you don’t want late blight to rob you of it, you keep applying the fungicide till harvest and this could have health implications on the consumption of the crop,” he added.
Another farmer, Serah Kwarpo, also says that for the 30 years she has been growing potatoes, late blight has been her biggest nightmare, giving her sleepless nights to the extent that growing potatoes has become less attractive.
The farmers were among stakeholders invited to witness the harvest of the first harvest of the biotech potatoes at a ceremony tagged Brown Field Day. A day set aside by researchers from National Root Crop Research Institute and International Potato Centre to showcase the difference between the biotech potatoes and the conventional varieties.
Prof. Chiedozie Egesi, Executive Director, NRCRI, said the biotech potatoes project aims at providing an enduring solution to the late blight menace in Nigeria.
“We are happy to show our esteemed farmers, and other stakeholders, the first harvest from the CFT. It is our firm belief that with biotech potatoes, we have an enduring solution to late blight in Nigeria. It is time for our farmers to wipe away their tears,” he says.
Prof Egesi, who was represented at the trial by Dr Charles Amadi, Principal Investigator for the project, assured the farmers that the institute, in collaboration with other partners, would expedite the release of the new varieties to boost harvests and income from sale of surplus produce.
Dr Amadi said the research programme hoped to release late blight resistant potato varieties to farmers within two years.
Also speaking at the ceremony, Dr Kyenpiya Deshi, a potato breeder in the Department of Plant Science and Biotechnology, University of Jos, said the Feed the Future Global Biotech Potato Partnership project intervention in Nigeria was timely.
“As a breeder, I know firsthand what farmers are going through. It has been tough, but today’s ceremony has rekindled our hope and brought us joy. The happiness is not only for farmers but also for us breeders, who have been toiling day and night to find solutions to the blight crisis,” she said.
The harvest from the first round of confined field trials planting shows that the biotech potatoes have a yield advantage of 300 percent, when compared to the conventional varieties which have severely suffered from blight infestation. The Feed the Future Global Biotech Potato Partnership project is implemented in four countries – Kenya, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nigeria.
It is coordinated by Michigan State University, and involves various partners including the National Root Crop Research Institute, Umudike; the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF); and International Potato Centre (CIP).