Friday, September 6, 2013

Kenyan Woman Scientist wins World Food Prize

By Esther Nakkazi

Yesterday we were treated to a sumptuous dinner at the Polana Serena Hotel in Maputo where the third African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) has been on 4th -7th September.

Dr. Charity Kawira Mutegi, 38, who currently serves as the Kenya Country Coordinator for the Aflasafe Project for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), on assignment from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), was named winner of the prestigious “Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, Endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation.”

The award recognizes researchers under 40 who emulate the scientific innovation and dedication to food security demonstrated by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug.
Dr. Charity a young Kenyan scientist made the major breakthroughs in combating the deadly aflatoxin mold contamination that occurs in stored grain, which has been a serious problem in Africa and around the world for decades.

Dr. Charity Mutegi
“The award to me recognizes an important aspect of a serious problem which has caused many fatalities and lots of markets within the world trade. Yet we have the capacity to change the situation,” said Charity at a press conference in Maputo.

Dr. Charity has helped in creating awareness to the aflotoxins problem in the face of many people ‘not comprehending the magnitude of the problem,” she said.

Mamadou Biteye, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Managing Director for Africa, made the presented the award to her during the dinner. Aflatoxin, a naturally occurring mold, is a major concern for farmers and consumers worldwide; it is toxic to people who consume it either directly through contaminated grain, or through milk or meat if livestock have been fed contaminated grain. It is one of the most carcinogenic substances known.

Dr. Mutegi spearheaded efforts to identify the cause of, and solution to, a deadly outbreak of aflatoxicosis in 2004-05, fatal to 125 people in eastern Kenya who consumed contaminated grain.
Her diligent research led to innovative solutions to avert future outbreaks and safeguard the region’s staple crop of maize. Dr. Mutegi is leading efforts for the development of a biocontrol product in Kenya that can be used to significantly reduce aflatoxin levels in maize.

This works by introducing naturally occurring non-toxic strains of the fungus, which have a competitive advantage over the strains that produce the deadly aflatoxin, a technology that was developed by the US Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS), and locally adapted for use in several African countries by IITA and partners.  The non-toxic strains out compete the toxic strains, thus reducing aflatoxin contamination in the maize crop.

The microbial bio pesticide she and her team are developing – “aflasafe KE01” – is affordable for farmers, is natural and environmentally safe, and once applied to a field, the effects last multiple growing seasons, making it extremely effective, said a pres release.

“Dr. Mutegi is an inspiration to other young scientists around the world. She tackled a critical problem, and has effectively transferred her own scientific knowledge to farmers and policymakers to help improve food safety for the entire region,” said Amb. Kenneth M. Quinn, President of The World Food Prize.

The award is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and administered by the World Food Prize. In 2011, during the 25th Anniversary World Food Prize Award Ceremony, Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, announced a $1 million contribution to the World Food Prize to endow the new award in honor of Dr. Borlaug, who did his groundbreaking research on improving wheat crops while working for the Rockefeller Foundation, and went on to found the World Food Prize.

“The devastating effects of maize grain contaminated with aflatoxins on many Kenyan households cannot be understated. Several lives have been lost, tons of staple food destroyed, millions of shillings worth from the livestock sector have been lost; and by extension, several livelihoods have been destroyed through death and/or economic disempowerment,” she said.

Dr. Mutegi will be formally presented with the $10,000 award on World Food Day, October 16, 2013, in Des Moines, Iowa, as part of this year’s World Food Prize international symposium.


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