Potato farmers have welcomed the government’s on-going trials on the use of agricultural biotechnology in producing a new Irish potato variety resistant to the devastating late blight disease. If successful, Doing Business has learnt, farmers can grow the new potato variety without necessarily using agro-chemicals. Late blight, a potentially devastating disease affecting potatoes and tomatoes, infecting leaves, stems, potato tubers and tomato fruits, spreads quickly in fields and can result in total crop failure if untreated. According to the International potato Centre (CIP), in East Africa, the disease can destroy as much as 60-100 per cent of the crop. The CIP scientists working with Rwanda are using bioengineering to transfer resistance genes from wild potato relatives into varieties that are already popular with farmers and consumers so as to fight the disease. Athanase Nduwumuremyi, a senior scientist at the Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Development Board (RAB) told journalists, on July 12, that the potato variety that is resistant to late blight disease is being developed using agricultural biotechnology. Agricultural biotechnology is a range of tools, including genetic engineering that alters living organisms to improve plants or animals. “The new potato variety is resistant to late blight and will cut off the use of agro-chemicals,” Nduwumuremyi said. Potatoes cover 3.9 per cent of the country’s total cultivated area. Irish potatoes are the third most popular food crop in Rwanda. However, the average productivity of potatoes is 10 tonnes per hectare which is low, compared to the yield potential of more than 30 tonnes. The new potato variety, Nduwumuremyi said, could also increase productivity. Rwanda projects to increase potato yield per hectare from 13.5 tonnes in 2021 to 14 tonnes in 2024. Grown on 106,236 hectares across the country, projected production is set to increase from 1,194,677 tonnes in 2021 to 1,487,304 tonnes in 2024, according to the strategic plan for the agricultural sector. The agricultural scientist said that use of the new potato variety will go in line with the biosafety law. “The biosafety law has all guidelines although it is not yet passed. The draft law is in the Prime Minister’s office after coming from the law reform commission. What we are doing now is to get approval based on the law governing research in general.” “Before the new variety is released to farmers, a biosafety law will be in place. Otherwise there will be ministerial orders or guidelines and the Food and Drugs Authority will check if the variety meets standards as food and seed,” he said. He estimates that, according to the research roadmap, by 2025, the new variety will be ready for distribution to farmers. “It will not take too long to reach farmers if the process is fast-tracked,” Nduwumuremyi said. What farmers expect Farmers who are counting losses due to late blight disease welcome the plan to use agricultural biotechnology in developing a resistant crop variety. “The disease erodes 80 per cent of expected produce if a farmer has no financial capacity to afford required agro-chemicals. It affects the crop during rainy seasons which are also seasons for growing potatoes,” Apollinaire Karegeya, a farmer in Musanze District, told Doing Business. Karegeya grows Irish Potatoes on about 15 hectares every season. He said that once the disease-resistant variety is ready, it could cut the huge costs incurred on agro-chemicals and paying workers who do the job. “We have to use agro-chemicals eight times in two months,” he said. Karegeya spends Rwf3.6 million on agrochemicals to fight the disease every season. “One hectare requires three kilos of agro-chemicals. Each kilo costs Rwf5, 000 and we spray twice a week.” The farmer uses Rwf30, 000 per hectare or Rwf450, 000 on his 15 hectares, every week. “We hope the agricultural biotechnology that the government is talking about could save us from losses and costs incurred on agro-chemicals because smallholder farmers just can’t’ manage with such losses,” he said. According to Jean Marie Vianney Nteziyaremye, a member of an Irish potato farmers’ cooperative in Kabatwa sector, in Nyabihu District, a farmer spends Rwf120, 000 on agro-chemicals per season to spray crops on 2,000 square metres of farm land. “During the rainy season we spray Dithane agro-chemical. It requires spraying two times a week which is done in the first two months and a half before the crops reach four months of maturity,” he said. This, he said, requires spraying more than 16 times, which is exorbitant. According to Florence Uwamahoro, the researcher who did a survey in 10 districts, late blight was reported by up to 73 per cent of surveyed farmers. Agricultural biotechnology forum established The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and RAB recently launched the Rwanda chapter of the open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB). It aims to enhance awareness and knowledge sharing on innovative agricultural technologies in increasing production, Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. in the country. The platform is in seven other countries – Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania. The food import bill for Africa rose to $49 billion in 2019 from $35 billion, in 2015. Scientists say that there is a need for home-grown scientists’ innovations in agricultural biotechnology to help reduce the food import bill.