Philippe Nikiema Burkina Faso

Using nuclear technology to fight a devastating parasitic plant in Africa

"Witchweed is causing huge damage in my country."

Philippe Nikiema is a researcher at Burkina Faso’s Institute for the Environment and Agricultural Research working on a project at the Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory of the Joint FAO/International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) division.


The five-year coordinated research project, launched in 2016, aims to help member states develop varieties of sorghum with resistance to witchweed(Striga), a parasitic plant that severely limits cereal production in most of sub-Saharan Africa and semi-arid tropical regions of Asia. According to FAO estimates, up to 50 million hectares of crop land are infested in Africa, causing an annual loss in excess of USD 7 billion and adversely affecting over 300 million people.


Among the countries participating in the project are five from Africa (Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar and the Sudan), three from Asia (Iran, Japan, Turkey), the Netherlands and the United States of America.


“Witchweed is causing huge damage in my country,” Philippe says. “It challenges food security in rural areas, where it has been expanding and taking over thousands of hectares from poor farmers’ fields.”


Host-plant resistance is a vital part of witchweed control, but known resistant traits are lacking for most cereal varieties grown in witchweed-prone areas. This is where technology comes in. By irradiating sorghum seeds, Philippe and his fellow scientists in the project have been able to trigger beneficial mutations. “Thanks to the mutation breeding,” Philippe explains, “we have been able to induce resistance in the varieties preferred by our local farmers and grow them in a witchweed-infested field. I have also confirmed the induced resistance using precise verification methods in the laboratory.”


Philippe now aims to combine more than one defence mechanism in the sorghum varieties to produce super-resistant sorghum.


“I am very excited about the power of nuclear technology,” Philippe enthuses, “and hope that varieties developed through the project will finally restore production of cereals in the heavily infested areas in Africa, ensuring food security and the livelihoods of our farmers.”