The Cassava Warriors
Around 800 million people world-wide rely on the tuber vegetable cassava as a staple food source. In East Africa, two viruses carried by the silverleaf whitefly are attacking cassava crops and compromising food security. Although measuring barely one millimetre, they have catastrophic effects on crops and the livelihood of farmers.
The main aim of this project is to increase food security with whitefly and disease resistant cassava for smallholder farmers in East Africa. Another aim is to empower local scientists with knowledge of DNA sequencing of different species of whitefly as well as supercomputing technology to enable local research to continue.
“We can do this, we can totally do this. We have to be willing to take the technology that we see as ‘not cool’ and put it somewhere (where it will make a difference)”.
Dr Laura Boykin
Dr Laura Boykin, Computational Biologist at UWA’s School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Affiliated Fellow with The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology leads a team referred to by locals as the Cassava Warriors, that will make a difference to the lives of farmers in East Africa and around the world.
By combining the team’s diverse skills and experience in computing, molecular biology, mathematics, genomics and bioinformatics Laura and her team have developed techniques to identify numerous species of whitefly as well as those that carry viruses. Their research, which is part of the international Africa Cassava Whitefly Project will result in a cassava plant that is resistant to both the viruses and whitefly.
The Magnus Supercomputer, Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, UWA is being used for analysis and data storage of whitefly species resulting in an open source database, which local scientists in East Africa and international collaborators have access to.
The team visited Mbinga, Tanzania where a demonstration crop of disease resistant cassava plants was planted by co-collaborator Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute. The crops yielded 35-fold increase compared to the local varieties. Watching farmers pull up healthy roots and cassava became a life changing moment for Laura “this is what science and research should be”, she said.
The Africa Cassava Whitefly Project is due to be completed in 2018 including the rollout of technologies to local farmers in East Africa.
Whilst Laura started her research in 2006, the Africa Cassava Whitefly Project started in 2015 with a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grant awarded to the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) in the United Kingdom and The University of Western Australia to which Laura and her team is one of the partner organisations. Support has also come in the form of scholarships from Australian Awards, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Science without Borders. Support has also come from the Faculty of Science at UWA.
The research has been recognised internationally as having direct impact. Laura became a TED Fellow in 2015 when she presented a TED talk on the topic of food security. Also in 2015, Laura was invited to the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York City when world leaders signed the Sustainable Development Goals, which included zero hunger. Laura spoke about how saving the cassava will help to end extreme poverty.
Some of the poorest people on the planet will benefit as a result of this research including smallholder farmers in East Africa. Once resistant cassava varieties are planted, farmers will experience a quadrupling of their yield within a year and an improvement in their yield and quality of life.
With the transfer of knowledge taking place and access to the open source database, young scientists in East Africa will be equipped to continue the research and have the ability to react quickly with solutions.
The technology will also help the rest of Africa as well as other developing countries where agricultural systems are struggling or where there is an outbreak situation involving invasive vectors. With the growing concern of climate change, countries around the world, including Australia will also need to implement such solutions.
Impact in Action:
On their recent trip to Uganda, the Cassava Warriors met a farmer named Opio. Opio had taken up the new cassava varieties and had so much yield that he was able to sell some. With the income he bought a new motorbike, commenced building a house and paid his brother’s marriage dowry.
The team also met Modesta, a beautiful 12-year-old girl. She was met in the field after school as she was tending her family’s cassava crops which unbeknownst to her family, were deeply infected with the whitefly and the devastating cassava brown streak virus. The family planted the crops not only as a food source, but as an income and so they can afford to send their children to school. Modesta was asked what her favourite subject is at school: Science! Perhaps Modesta is another Cassava Warrior in the making.