Feature: Kenya-China collaborative biotech research bears fruit

Source: Xinhua / Updated: 2021-11-24

Photo taken on April 12, 2018 shows an aerial view of Nairobi, Kenya. (Xinhua/John Okoyo)

Mohamed Chungwa, a Kenyan horticulture postgraduate, always indulges himself in analyzing crop gene sequencing at a Kenya-China joint laboratory.

Chungwa hopes he can make full use of the lab to achieve his dream of breeding new varieties of arrowroot, an important source of starch, that can produce high yields with strong resistance to pests.

"This is the best laboratory of crop molecular biology in east Africa. I often use this lab. I'm optimizing regeneration of arrowroot using protoplast," Chungwa told Xinhua.

The Kenya-China Joint Laboratory for Crop Molecular Biology, based in Egerton University's Confucius Institute, was jointly built in 2016 by China's Nanjing Agricultural University and Kenya's Egerton University. In 2019, the lab became the first batch of the Belt and Road Joint Laboratory approved by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China.

Richard Mulwa, Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Egerton University, and director of the lab told Xinhua that the lab aims to increase crop yields and ease food insecurity in the continent. Thanks to the lab, students from not only Kenya but also neighboring countries are coming to Egerton University to pursue agricultural education.

Gloria Joseph Lasu, a South Sudanese student, believes that agro-tech is a promising sector for the African continent. "China's agro-tech suits well for many African countries. I want to bring the greenhouse farming technology back to my country to help the farmers," Lasu said.

Lasu is currently doing research on okra pest control and planting. "I often go to the lab to do my research. I wish my country had this kind of joint lab," said Lasu.

Mulwa noted that China is keen on deepening agricultural cooperation with Africa through skills and technology transfer as well as funding to help the continent deal with food insecurity. It has started testing agriculture technology for small-scale farmers who form the bulk of food producers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Agricultural cooperation between Kenya and China in fact dates back much earlier. Back in 1994, the Nanjing Agricultural University and Egerton University had jointly implemented the third phase of the Sino-Kenya Higher Education Cooperation Plan and established the Biotechnology Laboratory and Sino-Kenya Horticultural Technology Cooperation Center in Egerton University, the oldest agriculture-oriented university in the East African nation.

In 1997, Liu Gaoqiong, a professor from Nanjing Agricultural University, came to Egerton University as a visiting professor. It was the first time the Chinese expert set foot on the African continent. The campus is about 140 km away from Kenya's capital Nairobi, and roughly 2,000 meters above sea level.

Liu, now in his 50s, has devoted himself to teaching in Kenya since then. He mainly teaches greenhouse management, crop cultivation, pest and disease control.

"I witnessed the establishment of the joint lab and many other projects. I feel very delighted and proud of being a part of the China-Africa friendship," said Liu wearing a pink shirt, baseball cap, and sneakers. At present, more than 30 postgraduates and doctoral students are using the laboratory for agriculture-related research.

"Professor Liu is always full of energy and we love him," said Chungwa, who has become skilled in using the laboratory devices for research thanks to Liu's guidance. "The joint lab offers every student the platform to do research instead of relying solely on field experiments," Chungwa added.

Kenya's economy largely relies on the agriculture sector, which contributes some 30 percent to Kenya's GDP. The agriculture sector employs more than 40 percent of the total population and 70 percent of the rural population. However, smallholder farmers continue to face challenges growing their businesses and improving the quality of agricultural goods.

"Small-scale farmers form the bulk of food producers in my country. So technology transfer can really help our farmers. When you go to China, it's impressive that even those growing wheat on a tiny piece of land are using machinery. Now with the introduction of new technologies supported by China, I think our agriculture can benefit," said Mulwa.

Joshua Otiemo Ogweno, director of the university's Confucius Institute, said that bilateral cooperation with China on agriculture has expanded to research, training and transfer of technologies. "We plan to make it a model laboratory for this region so that more people can benefit from it," Ogweno said.