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Mahmud: How we tamed tomato ebola

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TomatoesProfessor Mukhtari Mahmud, Assistant Director, Extension, Monitoring and Evaluation, Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, led the team that researched and combated the disease, Tutta Absolutta, which ravaged many tomatoes farm. In this interview with SAXONE AKHAINE, Northern Bureau Chief, he spoke on how the disease was contained, advice to states and Federal Government on how to work against future outbreak of crops diseases, and why attention should be paid to research and development.

We have experienced serious scarcity in the supply of tomatoes in recent past, which led to research activities by your department in curtailing tomatoes ebola. How were you able to conquer the disease?
Really, it was the Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, which I belong to that embarked on the research and not the department. When there was this outbreak of the tomatoes ebola, which is caused by tomatoes leaf miner, that we scientists call Tutta absolutta, we were contacted by the Fadama III project and Kaduna State Government to go and look into the problem. The Institute has the mandate for the farming system in the northwestern zone of the country. We moved into action and we surveyed where this problem were reported and affected. We found out that it was true there was serious infection on tomatoes. So, we went into action, and we found out that firstly, the blue miner is a mud. And the mud usually flies to become active in the night. So, it is nocturnal. It looks like butterfly, but butterfly is found in the afternoon. But in this case, this is one found in the night. We now said, ok, how can we control all these things? Then we came up with three measures, short-term measure, medium-term measure and the long-term measure.

The short-term measure that we took is that, first of all, as we know the biology of this Tutta, we need to do what it doesn’t want. That is, we have to prepare to give it an environment that it doesn’t want. And we decided that we should first practice crop protection. It is just like human beings, if someone likes a particular type of food, if you remove that food and bring the one he doesn’t like, he or she will not eat. That means it will die. So, instead of planting tomatoes and other vegetables, we asked the farmers to practice crop rotation in such a way that instead of tomatoes this season, they may decide to plant corn next season, so that there will be a gap and you will reduce the population of this particular insect that was causing the havoc.

You remember when we had the cotton diseases in the 60s and 70s; whereby after that all entire cotton residues were burnt in the farm. So, we said there must be that type of procedure and at one point in time there would be no tomatoes left in the field. Then, we realise that this insect also feeds and lives under the leaves. Therefore, if you spray with insecticide it will not be very effective because the insect lives under the leaves. So, we felt that if something is living under the leaves and you apply spray on it, it will get to it. So, we now told the farmers that when they are spraying with their insecticide, they should combine systemic and counter herbicide together, so that they would have good effect. In doing this, it will go into their system and kill them. Because when the chemical touches their bodies, it will definitely kill them. Therefore, once you combine these things, you get an effective way of controlling it.

Then, we also decided that since the insects use to come out in the evenings and active at that time, if you spray in the morning it will not be effective, because they would go and hide in the morning. So, we asked farmers to spray their farms at least, in the evenings. Then we said the spray should be applied at 10 days intervals.

Then, we now have the medium term intervention. Under the medium term intervention, we are particularly emphasizing on training. Because what is happening is that the farmers just take any type of chemicals and go and apply. So, the special agents have to be trained to apply the insecticides. And secondly, we happened to know that there are a lot of chemical companies, they are coming up with a lot of chemicals, and insecticides that they think would curb these things. We don’t want them to go directly to the farmers; we want them to take them to the various research institutes, so that the research institute will now evaluate them. Right now, a lot of chemical companies have brought their own pesticides to evaluate, so, we are doing it in order to get the most effective one and recommend it to the farmers. Also, we have found out that there is no research on this now.

So, we are trying to look at the virus, alternative herbicide that we can use, from different countries. Because we happen to know that there are countries that have gone through this same problem, especially in South America, Tunisia, Algeria, and Niger near us here, because, this thing came through Niger to us. We said ok, of course, we have to monitor the population of the pest, because if we don’t monitor them we wouldn’t know when there would be an outbreak. But, if we are able to monitor them we would be able to tell farmers to watch out. But most importantly, what we want the farmers to do is this. If you look at it closely, the dry season when most of the tomatoes are produced in this country is divided into two. There is a cold-dry season. The season that time is dry and no water, but it is also cold. And during the period this organism doesn’t grow.

If you remember, during December, January and February there are lots of tomatoes around. Even, if you travel from Zaria going to Kano, you see farmers cutting it. But, immediately the weather changes to dry-hot, then this organism starts coming out and that was when they attack the tomatoes. And because of storage facilities that we don’t have and for companies to change the tomatoes to tomatoes puree, they would be cut and dried, some would rot, so we wouldn’t have anything to store. And again, the farmers, especially from Kaduna State prefer growing tomatoes when it is dry-hot season, because it attracts more money that time. So, we are telling the farmers please grow your tomatoes during cold-dry season. If you have to grow during the hot-dry season, you should look for a variety we call heat-tolerant. That variety will tolerate heat. We have it, so farmers would be able to use it. So, those are the measures we recommended to farmers, which we have tested and they have worked.

How were you able to transverse the tomatoes producing states to conquer the disease?
You remember that Kaduna State Government declared a state of emergency. We were made members, that is, the Institute of Agricultural Research and also the ADP and the Fadama project of Kaduna State. We met and talked and a task force was set up. Right now, we are going round educating the farmers what they should do. Now, for the other states like Kano, Bauchi, Jigawa, Sokoto, Zamfara and other states that produce this crop, we have given the governors our report; that this is what we found out and that this is our submission and breakthrough. So, it is the duty of the governors to set up their own committees through the Agriculture Development Project (ADP), because those are the people that have the extension agents that can be deployed to educate the farmers in their areas. Then, we have sent a copy of our findings to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, and also to the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN), so that from there they would look at the issue and educate the farmers further.

But, then we that are here in Kaduna State have gone ahead, met individuals, set up training centers in all the zones, and we are now training the farmers, especially through the extension agents on how to approach the growing of tomatoes and avoid the past experience. We have about a month ago, gone ahead and talked with the officials of Kaduna Chamber of Commerce when they called us for a stakeholders’ meeting. There we presented what we have done to them. Because we know that they have a lot of big farmers as members. We demonstrated what they have to do to ensure that they take the lessons to their individual farms and communities.

Noting the lessons from the tomatoes ebola, do you think it would not happen again?
Yes, I am very optimistic that it will not happen again. You see, the problem is that, like my people say, when you know your problem then the solution is not farfetched. And with the solution here, we are advising the farmers, and if they follow what we have recommended, we will not have this problem again. We are saying, let there be tomatoe puree companies, even if they are cottage industries that would change the tomatoes into puree and store it for further use. When dried hygienically just as they do in China, we will be able to use it. But, we are optimistic that this problem will not happen again, so long as we follow our recommendation.

The tomatoe ebola is an eye-opener to Nigerians. There are other crops that we depend on for food security. Is there a likelihood of other crops getting affected?
You see the thing is this. There are diseases that can be controlled. What I mean is that there diseases that you can stop from coming into the country to affect our crops. And there are those that you cannot. Most of our problem is that our country quarantine system is very weak. You can go out to any country to bring in any seed, whether it is fit or not.

Such that the disease that is rampant in another place could be transmitted to this place. Secondly, if we want to escape all this calamities and make food to be sufficient in the country, we have to put emphases on good seeds, planting materials, because if you don’t have good planting materials you are nowhere. Also, for the crops, your fertilizers and other inputs must have a reasonable price and we have to fight adulteration. A system where you go and buy pesticides and later found out that it is water or detergent, that is inside is bad. We have to get farmers loans, small time famers that need some thousands of naira to farm. They are in the majority and they are the ones that feed this country.

How will you assess the issue of research and development culture and what is your advice to government?
We have numerous research institutes in this country, about 16 or 18 of them. But, the first problem of research in Nigeria revolves around funding, and secondly, the research outputs are left on the shelves. No businessman comes and picks it up; this is probably because it is a government owned research. And until we have people picking up research products, especially when it is about equipment that can help farmers to reduce labour cost, we have a big problem. 


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