West African States Fight Against Root Crop Disease Dubbed ‘Ebola’

West Africa’s cassava, also called manioc, feeds as many as 80% of the population. After viruses killed many people this year, a viral disease could destroy their food and bring hunger to millions of people.

Days after hearing that bananas could go extinct, now people in Africa fear they might lose their main crop.

Researchers from states in West Africa teamed up to fight against what they call the root crop “Ebola.” It’s a virus known as cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), and it strikes cassava crops, rotting the roots. The disease was discovered in Tanzania 80 years ago, and it kept on spreading towards west.

Justin Pita is leading the research programme, stating that:

“In outbreaks in central Africa, it has wiped out between 90 and 100% of cassava production – it’s now heading towards West Africa. It is a very big threat. It has to be taken very seriously.”

The viral disease wiped the crops from small farmers in the 1990s in Uganda and 3 000 people died of hunger.

“You can call it the Ebola of cassava,” Justin Pita

With the help of The West African Virus Epidemiology (WAVE) project funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, researchers are looking for a way to find what can kill the disease.

Six countries from West Africa have gathered to find a way and kill the virus: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Togo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo joined too.

The CBSD virus is spread by an insect called the silverleaf whitefly and through manioc cuttings.

The research programme tries to understand the weakness of the virus found in local strains of cassava and see if the trade of cassava could pinpoint the outbreak of CBSD to contain the area. Researchers also want to find ways to boost they yield, explained Odile Attanasso, who is the minister of higher education and scientific research in Benin:

“The current average yield from cassava (in West Africa) is 10 to 12 tonnes per hectare (four to 4.8 tonnes per acre), but it has the potential to reach 40 tonnes a hectare. In Asia, they have yields of 22 tonnes per hectare.”

The WAVE project hopes it can raise awareness of farming practices and spread through the community leaders and chiefs CBSD awareness and how to deal with the infested areas. The ceremonial monarch of the coastal Grand-Bassam region in Ivory Coast echoes the WAVE project’s idea:

“We kings and traditional chiefs are the interface between the population and the government.”

In Ivory Coast, cassava is largely consumed in a side dish called attieke. Harvested manioc is also a great source of income to people, explains Blandine Yapo Sopi, a local:

“They have to find a cure for this disease – it’s thanks to growing cassava that I am able to provide an education for my four children.”

Rex Austin

Rex Austinwas born and raised in Thunder Bay Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Apart from running his own podcast (Ice Fishing And Other “Cool” Things), he spends his time canoeing and backpacking in Northern Ontario.. As a journalist Rex has published stories for Global News (Thunder Bay) we well as Buzz Feed and Joystiq. As a contributor to Great Lakes Ledger, Rex most covers science and health stories. Contact Rexhere