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Nigerian scientist learning nuclear ways
Aminu Abdu Zaria does not have to look far to see the hardship suffered by poor rural farmers in northern Nigeria.

Back home his own relatives and friends tell him of their daily struggles to scrape a living from small plots of poor-quality land.

Now Mr Zaria is determined to help them – by developing new, higher-yielding crop varieties at the FAO/IAEA nuclear laboratory here.

"I have daily reminders of the hardships suffered by farmers and it’s a massive motivation to my work,” says Mr Zaria, a research scientist.

“Poor crop yields mean many people struggling to feed and look after their families."

Mr Zaria, 50, has seen the effects of rural poverty across his country. While growing up he travelled across northern Nigeria with his family of 15 brothers and sisters, as his father, a civil servant, was frequently re-located.

The family finally settled in the city of Zaria, where he sat A’ levels before studying for a degree in Agriculture and a Masters in Crop Breeding at the local Ahmadu Bello University.

He then became a researcher at the university’s Institute of Agricultural Research, before being asked to undertake a research fellowship at the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme laboratory.

He is spending four months at the laboratory developing new varieties of the high-protein cowpea plant, a staple food in Nigeria, which also provides high-quality fodder for livestock.

Through mutation, he hopes to create new varieties that are more resistant to pests and disease, and which thrive well in low-maintenance soils.

Mutation – or the change in the genetic make-up of an organism – is a natural process that occurs over millions of years in plants and other organisms; scientists simply create more favourable conditions for quicker mutations by applying tiny doses of gamma rays.

Mr Zaria is among more than 160 fellows who have received training over the past 23 years in the Plant Breeding Unit from the Joint Programme at Seibersdorf.

The Programme is a unique partnership of FAO and International Atomic Energy Agency, exploring the use of safe nuclear techniques to increase food security across the world.

"We provide the tools for scientists to take home and use where they are needed, back in the field where nuclear technology can benefit all those threatened by poverty and poor diet," says laboratory director Gabriele Voigt.

On his return to Nigeria, Mr Zaria will continue research in laboratories at the University’s Institute of Agricultural Research, and will later assist in field trials with the farmers.

He adds: "Many of the farmers are not educated and it's important we explain exactly the kinds of benefits these newer varieties can have. Once farmers understand how changes can help improve their lives, they are more likely to approve of them."

The project he is working on is a collaboration between the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme, the University and the Nigerian Government.

It is hoped the benefits of such research may also be felt in the long term by neighbouring cowpea-producing countries, such as Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.
Focus on the issues: How hi-tech nuclear science is feeding the poor

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FAO/K. Wiedenhofer

Research fellow Aminu Abdu Zaria uses nuclear techniques to create new varieties of cowpea.

FAO/P. Lowrey

A researcher, right, and farm worker check crops during cowpea field trials.

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