A Nigerian plant biotechnologist working at the National Root Crops Research Institute in Umudike, Abia State, Nigeria, Dr. Ihuoma Okwuonu, has been recognised by the Bayer Grants4Ag programme for her work in gene editing of local crop varieties.
Okwuonu was recognised alongside 21 research scientists from eight different countries as recipients of the 2023 cohort of Grants4Ag.
“My research aims to produce cassava varieties that are resistant to Cassava Bacterial Blight disease. While this disease may not always be a problem, when it strikes your farm, it leads to significant losses. It greatly affects yield, resulting in the loss of planting materials. Even the saved materials often wither away,” she disclosed in a recent interview.
She further revealed that the devastation caused by cassava bacterial blight inspired her research on developing resistant varieties using genome editing technology.
When asked about the potential impact of her project on food security in Nigeria, Okwuonu emphasised, “The release of CBB-resistant cassava cultivars will significantly enhance resistance to the disease, leading to higher yields at harvest. The occurrence of CBB is unpredictable, and it can quickly escalate from minor outbreaks to an epidemic, severely impacting food availability. By introducing resistant cultivars, farmers will gain confidence and assurance, knowing that CBB incidence will not threaten their crops.”
The 2023 Grants4Ag programme focused on three innovation themes crucial to Bayer’s R&D efforts in its crop science division: sustainability traits, plant transformation technologies, and the gene editing potential of local plant varieties. The programme provides financial support and mentorship resources, with awards ranging from 5,000 to 15,000 Euros. Additionally, recipients gain access to leading crop science researchers from Bayer as mentors throughout the programme’s duration.
Okwuonu serves as an assistant director and coordinator of the biotechnology programme at NRCRI Umudike. She is also the principal investigator for various projects, including VIRCAPLUS, which aims to develop virus-resistant and nutritionally enhanced cassava varieties for Africa. Recently, she attracted PROSSIVA (Programme for Seed System Innovation of Vegetatively-propagated crops in Africa), a programme focused on enhancing the efficiency, productivity and profitability of vegetatively-propagated crop seed systems in target African countries. Okwuonu is also the principal investigator for the Cassava Source Sink Project, which seeks to develop robust and high-yielding cassava varieties for African smallholder farmers, thereby improving food security in sub-Saharan Africa.
Okwuonu’s recognition as a recipient of the Bayer Grants4Ag programme highlights her exceptional contributions to agricultural research and her commitment to addressing food security challenges in Nigeria and beyond.