…Scientist to the rescue
By Femi Bolaji, Jalingo
For most Nigerians, beans are a major source of protein. The egume which is consumed by both rural and urban dwellers has in recent times witnessed an upsurge in its cost price across the country.
This phenomenon has made lovers of the delicacy find it more difficult to buy this source of protein in order to fulfill their daily dietary needs.
However, farmers of the cowpea who determine the prices of this food item attributed the inconsistent market price of the legume to pre-harvest losses.
The horrors of huge losses on investment and the battle to break even have discouraged many farmers from venturing into beans cultivation.
In Nigeria’s North-East where beans are mostly cultivated, farmers have identified Cowpea Witchweed as a major cause of their pre-harvest losses.
The pest, which is referred to as ‘WutaWuta’ (Fire-Fire) in the local Hausa language, was drawn from the ravaging effect of the pest on its host (beans seedling).
Recurrent losses over the years have discouraged many farmers in this region from cultivating the legume. Others manage to farm and sell their harvest at exorbitant prices to recoup losses.
The parasite, Cowpea Witchweed, is scientifically known as Striga gesnerioides. According to Wikipedia, the weed belongs to a group of parasitic plants that attach to the roots of its host.
As a parasitic organism, Striga depends on its hosts for survival and in turn causes severe harm, thus depriving the crop of water and nutrients.
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Its devastating effect sometimes leads to very low yield or total loss of seedlings for the farmer.
The European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (EPPO) global database on the distribution of Striga detailed Africa, Asia, America, and Oceania as some of the places it is most prevalent.
Further analysis of the data indicates that a total of 27 African countries including Nigeria contend with this killer weed. Two countries in America, six in Asia, and one in Oceania also have a widespread prevalence of Striga gesnerioides.
While Striga weeds have the capacity to produce several thousand seeds in a planting season; the study of its behaviour by scientists has shown that it cannot survive for more than seven days after germination without attaching to the roots of a host.
Despite this knowledge of the significant behaviour of the weed, farmers in the North East still find it difficult to cut back on pre-harvest losses.
The 2020 farming season for Odeh Ogaji, a farmer in Taraba State, was not the best of times. The COVID-19 pandemic that took the world by surprise dashed his expected outcome at the end of the farming season.
Also, the imposed lockdown and various restrictions of movement exposed his investment in his rice farm to encroachment by nomadic herdsmen who grazed their cattle freely on the farm.
He was also a beans farmer, but recurrent losses put a stop to his investment in beans farms.
“I could hardly get a bag after everything”, he lamented. I used herbicides on the land in a bid to prevent the Striga from killing the bean seedlings but it did not work. That was why I decided not to venture into beans farming in 2020.”
The story in Adamawa State is not different. Sunday Mbidomti, a resident of Girei Local Government Area of the state, at the first shot in beans cultivation last year had a bitter experience with Striga.
“I had high hopes when I secured a wide expanse of land to farm beans last year, but barely a month after cultivation, I started counting my losses. The destruction was so much that almost the entire seedlings were destroyed by the weed (wuta wuta).”
A more detailed experience with Striga was however obtained from another Adamawa-based farmer, Francis Raymond.
“In 2017, I planted maize and cowpea on my farm. Despite applying fertilizer, about 50 percent of my maize was destroyed.
“My beans too didn’t do well at all but the yield was better than the maize. I decided not to cultivate the land in 2018.
“In 2019, I planted only beans because I didn’t want to waste my money to buy fertilizers for the maize. Usually, beans do not need fertilizer. Still, my beans did not do well.
“The year 2020 was so bad. It was a serious fight between me and the Wuta Wuta. As I tried to remove them, more and more kept on growing. Like 80 percent of my beans were destroyed. I was only able to get a little harvest from the land.
“This would be consumed by my family. No extra to sell and earn some money. It was so sad. By the grace of God, in 2021, I would have to look for another farmland to cultivate,” he said.
While there is currently no known single solution to the menace of controlling the growth of Striga weeds, plant scientists have however suggested a combination of various approaches to farmers.
While this suggestion to farmers is quite tasking and expensive, it appears to be the only stop-gap to ensure beans are readily available for purchase in the market.
However, with the advancement in research on the behaviour of the Striga weeds, hope seems to be brewing somewhere in Adamawa, North-East Nigeria.
A scientist at Modibbo Adama University, Yola, Mr. Adebare Adeleke, is developing a solution to the menace of pre-harvest losses which beans farmers across the country have contended with for years.
According to him, “years of study about Striga weeds suggest that the seeds are readily available in infested soils even before planting.
“One of the best solutions that have been proposed to eliminate this parasitic weed infestation is to eradicate or drastically reduce its viable seeds present in the soil by stimulating their growth before planting the food crops on the soil.
“This Striga weed management approach is what I am currently developing. It is a consortium of microorganisms that can produce certain hormones that have the ability to stimulate the germination of Striga seeds in the soil.
“I am developing a microbial product in a powdery form which would be used to pre-treat the field for the Striga weed to grow and die.
“After the germination and subsequent death of the Striga seedlings due to the absence of host plants to attach, the field can then be prepared for the cultivation of the food crop. “
Adeleke believes the microbiological product being developed with local materials would contribute to food security and reduce pre-harvest losses suffered by bean farmers in Nigeria.