Despite playing a critical role in helping Zimbabwe and the whole Sadc region adapt to the impact of climate change, the story of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) gene bank remains largely untold.
The research institution which is located at Matopos Research Centre on the outskirts of Bulawayo plays host to the only gene bank in Zimbabwe.
The international research organisation also runs a similar gene bank in Kenya.
A gene bank is a bio-repository which preserves genetic material.
For plants, this could be by freezing cuttings from the plant or stocking seeds while for animals the process involves the freezing of sperm and eggs in zoological freezers for future use.
The ICRISAT Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Dr Moses Siambi, said the Matopos facility plays a crucial role by conserving a collection of germaplasm of small grains such as sorghum, finger millet, groundnuts and chickpea.
“Our gene bank at Matopos conserves over 20 900 accessions of regional importance to meet market requirements and farmer preferred multiple uses.
Several landraces now conserved in the gene bank have disappeared from their natural habitats not only in Zimbabwe but in Africa and Asia as well,” said Dr Siambi.
The regional director stressed that the Matopos ICRISAT gene bank holds genetic material which impacts on climatic variability particularly on water and temperature.
“Climatic variability that impacts on water and temperature is actually captured in the materials which we have in the gene bank. Now, if you can assume that sorghum has been grown in South Africa for several centuries all that variability is captured and kept in the materials which we have in the gene bank. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of the gene bank because it holds material that for generations will be able to produce products that can withstand variable climate,” said Dr Siambi.
Through the gene bank, Dr Siambi said the research institution has been able to extract the necessary genes from the stored material to produce seed varieties that can withstand drought.
Researchers at the centre also use the preserved genetic traits to create new crop varieties that also offer benefits such as higher yields, improved nutritional value, resistance to pests and diseases as well as the ability to survive changing climatic conditions.
ICRISAT has changed the perception and attitude towards small grains in Zimbabwe following the development and introduction of sorghum and pearl millet (SMIP) technology.
The SMIP programme has transformed some drought-prone areas such as Jambezi in Matabeleland North province from being a mere subsistence farming community to a commercially viable rural community.
Dr Siambi, however, decried the private sector’s lack of interest in investing in small grains seed producing facilities.
“Seed value chain is complicated for the crops which we deal with. The reason being that the private sector is not very active in the seed value chain for the dryland cereals and legumes. So the challenge is to make enough seed available which makes it very different from the maize value chain. We are a research institution and we produce seed in small quantities (foundation seed). The private sector needs to take this up to multiply to certified seed,” said Dr Siambi.
Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa recently toured the gene bank and pledged government’s support for the research centre.
Speaking after touring the seed storing facility, VP Mnangagwa said until his recent visit, he did not appreciate the importance of the centre in contributing towards food and nutrition security in both the country and the region.
“With the knowledge that I have now, we are going to take you on board on our Command Agriculture programme. The Command Agriculture programme has devised ways of finding funding to ease your challenges. We do not think it will be a problem to fund you. I can’t see anybody in my team or even cabinet who will say we should not support you or take you on board among the participants or stakeholders in the programme,” said VP Mnangagwa.