Fighting witchweed in sub-Saharan Africa

Striga Hermonthica USDA Agricultural Research Service Wikimedia CommonsStriga is considered one of the hardest parasitic plants to control. (Image source: USDA Agricultural Research Service/Wikimedia Commons)The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has approved funding of US$1.5mn for research to eradicate a destructive weed in sub-Saharan Africa

Funding from the foundation is going to King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which will conduct scientific research towards eradicating the Striga hermonthica weed that affects croplands throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Commonly known as ‘witchweed’, it destroys millions of hectares of crops in the region every year by siphoning off valuable water and nutrients. Considered one of the hardest parasitic plants to control, Striga infestation devastates much-needed cereal yields, depriving rural families across the region of much of their livelihood. Solutions for eradicating and combating Striga are greatly needed, particularly for pearl millet.

Dr. Salim Al-Babili, who is leading this research at KAUST, explained, “Pearl millet is the staple food crop for millions of rural families in semi-arid regions of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Striga can destroy an entire year’s cereal yield, causing billions of dollars in losses every year. Additionally, Striga is becoming more severe due to climate change conditions. This project aims to provide lifesaving Striga control methods to enhance food security in the region and potentially in other parts of the world.”

Building on his expertise gained from his work on golden rice, Al-Babili is teaming up with universities in Burkina Faso, Japan and the Netherlands to shed light on the biological compounds in pearl millet involved in the infestation and to identify low-cost methods for reducing and eventually eliminating Striga seed banks in infested soils.

Hassan Al-Damluji, head of Middle East relations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, commented on the programme, saying, “Investing in Africa’s farmers requires strong global partnerships, and this is why we are very pleased to collaborate with KAUST. Through this partnership, we look forward to supporting Striga-prone areas of sub-Saharan Africa and enabling Africa to be able to feed itself - and help feed the world - within a generation.”

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