Researchers in West Africa have stepped up efforts contain a viral disease that could wreck the region’s staple food and condemn millions to hunger. The cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), is a virus that strikes cassava, also called manioc, which in some of the region’s countries is consumed by as many as 80 percent of the population.
The root-rotting disease was first discovered in Tanzania eight decades ago and is steadily moving westward.
“In outbreaks in central Africa, it has wiped out between 90 and 100 per cent of cassava production it’s now heading towards West Africa,” Justin Pita, in charge of the research program, told AFP.
“It is a very big threat. It has to be taken very seriously.” In Uganda, 3,000 people died of hunger in the 1990s after the dreaded disease showed up, striking small farmers in particular. You can call it the Ebola of cassava,” added Pita.
The West African Virus Epidemiology (WAVE) project, a multi-million-dollar scheme funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to shield the region from the advancing peril.
Headquartered at Bingerville, on the edges of the Ivorian economic capital Abidjan, it gathers six countries from West Africa Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Togo as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Much is already known about CBSD, the virus is generally believed to be propagated by an insect called the silverleaf whitefly, and also through cuttings taken from infected plants.
But there remain gaps in knowledge about West Africa’s specific vulnerabilities to the disease. They include understanding the susceptibility of local strains of cassava to the virus, and identifying points in the cassava trade that can help a localised outbreak of CBSD swell into an epidemic.
The scheme would also look at initiatives to help boost yield a key challenge in a region with surging population growth. “The current average yield from cassava in West Africa is 10 to 12 tonnes per hectare four to 4.8 tonnes per acre, but it has the potential to reach 40 tonnes a hectare,” said Odile Attanasso, Benin’s minister of higher education and scientific research. “In Asia, they have yields of 22 tonnes per hectare,” he added.