Determined to ensure food security by improving yield of the grains, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) team of researchers has began study on the local grain, Fonio (Acha).
Fonio (Digitaria exilis and Digitaria iburua) is probably the oldest African cereal. It is locally called Acha in Nigeria. Acha is a cereal crop grown in some areas of Bauchi, Plateau and Kaduna states. Acha’s high nutritional content makes it a high demand crop especially in urban areas where its nutritional value is understood.
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Executive Secretary (ES) of TETFund, at a Fonio project workshop held at Nasarawa State University said the government is investing over N3 billion in educational researches one of which is food security and in the Volume I of Lost Crop of Africa, Fonio/Acha is number three grain mentioned.
Baffa said it is expected that the support given by TETFund towards this project would assist research team in acquiring tools necessary to achieve the set goals including studying the grain, extracting information on the usefulness, improving the yield of the grain, enlightening the farmers to mention a few.
Principal Investigator (PI) of the Fonio TETFund project, Dr. Adebayo Liasu Ogunkanmi, of the Department of Cell Biology and Genetics University of Lagos said the project has a total of five stages, germplasm sourcing, screening and selection, population development vis -a-vis recombination and segregation, again screening and selection and the final stage is New variety.
He further stated that plant breeding is a repeating cycle of crossing and selection and markers can be used to increase the effectiveness of each of the various steps involved in breeding.Ogunkanmi assured Nigerians that the study has nothing to do with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). He said the markers are just identifiers of the traits needed in the plants.
The PI said the project is at stage1: Germplasm collections. A total of 38 villages have been visited in Niger, Kaduna, Plateau, Bauchi and Nasarawa states, 74 samples were collected with their local names. These collections include seed saved from previous harvest, seed purchased from the market, and seeds shared between colleagues.
Ogunkanmi delivered a paper on the topic: “Application of Molecular Markers in the breeding of Fonio (Digitaria spp).”His presentation involved food for thought, justification for the study, breeding techniques, marker assisted selection: theory and practice breeding schemes: acha case study and future challenges. He started his presentation with the question “Why does hunger persist in the world of plenty?” and gave the justification for the study of Acha. He said the reason for molecular markers in this study is because drought is a polygenic character that is difficult to analyze morphologically, hence marker assisted breeding (MAB) a panacea for trait of interest and the breeding techniques in this study.
Ogunkanmi said the general aim is hybridization placing a functional pollen from a desired male strains on receptive stigmas at the correct time, protecting plants from selfing or out-crossing, emasculation (removing the useless part of flower), tagging to identify F1. The PI gave a list of markers, as well as an overview of the marker genotyping.
Ogunkanmi said plant breeding as a repeating cycle of crossing and selection and markers can be used to increase the effectiveness of each of the various steps involved in breeding as well as steps in MAS breeding cycle, germplasm resources-screening and selection-population development-screening and selection-production of new varieties.
Prof. Abdul Suleiman D. of the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi State, described Fonio as a neglected food crop of value and area where it can be grown, cultural practice, production and yield in West Africa, comparison of production statistics with other major cereals (maize, millet and rice), nutritional value and strategies for the improvement of Acha for increased production.
Director/Head, Biotechnology Programme National Cereals Research Institute (NCRI) Badeggi, Niger State, Dr. Mohammed N. Ishaq, spoke on the topic: “Meeting the demands of resource poor farmers’ need: A Fonio Example.”
Ishaq highlighted the description of Fonio crop, its quality, the resource farmers, NCRI’s Research efforts and government policy. He said Acha is a crop that does not need much technicality, it can be grown in soils without fertilizers and the sulphur rich amino acid it contains (methionine and cystine) is double the amount found in egg albumen.
He listed a few points to enhance agricultural productivity of the crop, gave alternative means to blend farmers’ challenges that is due to climate and highlighted some suggestions to governments to meeting the needs of resource poor farmers.
Ishaq said Fonio needs urgent attention from the government in uplifting the much research needed to increase its productivity and in turn reduce the food security problem as well as enhance most of demand/needs of the resource poor farmers.
Chairman of the occasion, Prof Jerry Gana, and the anchor and Deputy Vice Chancellor (DVC) Academic and Research, University of Lagos, Prof. Oluwatoyin Ogundipe, appreciated TETFund for being the key funder of the very vital research and has been very supportive in funding /executing projects geared towards capacity building.
Fonio is also one of the most nutritious of all grains. Its seed is rich in methionine and cystine, amino acids vital to human health and deficient in today’s major cereals: wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, barley, and rye. This combination of nutrition and taste could be of outstanding future importance. Most valuable of all, however, is Fonio’s potential for reducing human misery during “hungry times.”
Certain Fonio varieties mature so quickly that they are ready to harvest long before all other grains. For a few critical months of most years these become a “grain of life.” They are perhaps the world’s fastest maturing cereal, producing grain just six or eight weeks after they are planted. Without these special Fonio types, the annual hungry season would be much more severe for West Africa. They provide food early in the growing season, when the main crops are still too immature to harvest and the previous year’s production has been eaten.
Other Fonio varieties mature more slowly—typically in 165-180 days. By planting a range of quick and slow types farmers can have grain available almost continually. They can also increase their chances of getting enough food to live on under even the most changeable and unreliable growing conditions.
Of the two species, white Fonio (Digitaria exilis) is the most widely used. It can be found in farmers’ fields from Senegal to Chad. It is grown particularly on the upland plateau of central Nigeria (where it is generally known as Acha) as well as in neighboring regions.
The other species, black Fonio (Digitaria iburua), is restricted to the Jos-Bauchi Plateau of Nigeria as well as to northern regions of Togo and Benin. Its restricted distribution should not be taken as a measure of relative inferiority: black Fonio may eventually have as much or even greater potential than its now better-known relative.