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KEPHIS PQBS staff Florence Munguti (left) and Jully Nyapur explain how virus testing works

Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) improving sweetpotato seed systems

International exchange of germplasm and trade and movement of plants and plant products is crucial in the quest for adequate food production and supply. Since 1996, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) has been working to assure the quality of agricultural inputs and produce and prevent the introduction of plant pests, diseases and noxious weed into Kenya.


Dr. Esther Kimani, the Acting Managing Director of KEPHIS explains, “The mission of KEPHIS is to provide science-based regulatory services. We ensure that standards for plant health issues, quality of agricultural inputs and produce are met. This contributes to food security and market access, and ultimately to economic development.” KEPHIS’ activities range from coordination on issues of plant pests and diseases; seed certification; border inspections; chemical analysis of pesticide residues; quality of water, fertilizer and pesticides; education of stakeholders and setting of policies at the national and international level.


The corporation has 20 service offices across the country, especially at border points and the major agricultural production areas. “We also go wherever people request our services,” says Kimani.


KEPHIS PQBS staff Florence Munguti (left) and Jully Nyapur explain how virus testing works
KEPHIS PQBS staff Florence Munguti (left) and Jully Nyapur explain how virus testing works


KEPHIS contributing to sustainable sweetpotato seed systems

As sweetpotato production and processing has continued to rise in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, so has the need for clean, or disease-free planting material. KEPHIS Plant Quarantine and Biosafety Station (PQBS) in Muguga, just on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, has been playing a pivotal role in this regard.

Kimani says, “The PQBS mainly deals with access and exchange of plant germplasm that do not necessarily go through the normal certification process, but which are of high value to facilitate the scientist’s research. Because they have not gone through this process, they may have diseases in them. At this station, we clean the materials and release only the disease-free material to the researchers to work with.”


Plant quarantine is an important phase in the plant protection program during the transfer of plant genetic materials. It prevents the introduction of plant pest, disease and noxious weeds, hence protecting agriculture and the environment. Sometimes, latent infections of seeds and other propagative materials with viruses, fungi, bacteria or nematodes may persist even after treatment.


At the KEPHIS PQBS, high risk plant materials which have been imported are grown under observation for a certain period of time before they are released. Furthermore, specialist laboratories are available at the station to identify various types of pests and diseases of quarantine importance. These include Virology, Tissue culture, Bacteriology, Nematology, Entomology, Mycology and Molecular laboratories 


“That is why the process is called quarantine. By the time they leave our gates, the plant materials are clean and can be multiplied to contribute to food security and the economy,” Kimani says.


In collaboration with the International Potato Center (CIP), under the second phase of the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA), disease-free starter material has been distributed to national agricultural institutions in more than 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Once there, this material is multiplied and distributed further to sweetpotato root producers.


Sweetpotato viruses are responsible for significant reduction of sweetpotato yields in sub-Saharan Africa (at least 60% yield reduction in some cases). To respond adequately to the threat of sweetpotato viruses, KEPHIS has a state-of-the-art virology lab – the only ISO/IEC 17025:2005 accredited Laboratory in sub-Saharan Africa to test viruses in sweetpotato. This means KEPHIS has international endorsement of its technical competency to perform various laboratory tests.


Increasing public awareness about KEPHIS

On 25 November 2015, seven journalists visited KEPHIS PQBS to get a better understanding of ongoing research and development work related to sweetpotato production. The journalists are members of the Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) – an association that seeks to build the capacity of science journalists across almost ten Eastern African countries.


Dr. Esther Kimani, (Acting Managing Director of Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service in conversation with Francis Mureithi, a journalist for the Daily Nation
Dr. Esther Kimani, (Acting Managing Director of KEPHIS in conversation with Francis Mureithi, a journalist for the Daily Nation

The visit was CIP’s contribution to the association’s annual congress, which was held from 22-24 November in Nairobi. For most of the journalists, it was the first time to visit the PQBS and to meet Kimani, who emphasized the important role that the media plays to connect KEPHIS with the public.


“I am very glad for a forum like this. I have been trying to reach out to young people, because I think there are a lot of opportunities for them through the things that the government is trying to promote,” Kimani said, citing the seed production business as one area in which KEPHIS would be able to provide advisory services to the youth. “If we influenced young people to get involved, they could change their lives and those of their communities,” she emphasizes.


About Dr. Esther Kimani

Dr. Esther Kimani, explaining about her vision for Kenya’s youth in seed enterprises.

Dr. Esther Kimani is the Acting Managing Director of KEPHIS. Prior to this, she was the General Manager of Phytosanitary Services, a position she held since August 2014. She joined KEPHIS 15 years ago. From 2001 to 2008, she was the officer in charge of KEPHIS Muguga station. Kimani holds a PhD in Crop Protection, an MSc in Plant Protection and a BSc in Agriculture. She is a member of the Phytosanitary Standard Setting Committee at the International Plant Protection Convention. She also represents Kenya in the Commission of Phytosanitary Measures, which is a body of the International Plant Protection Organization that is responsible for setting policies and standards in the area of Phytosanitation.


Here at home, Kimani states that one of her priorities is to bridge the gap between her institution and the people it serves. According to Kimani, the media visit was a first step towards establishing this link. “After this, I would like you to visit KEPHIS and also attend our stakeholders meetings, interact with us and the farmers, and send messages to the public,” she said.


About Christine Bukania


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