Two of the selected high-yielding Mchare hybrids with resistance to Fusarium wilt.

“Breeding Better Bananas” project excels in developing new ‘Matooke’ hybrids

In October 2019, the “Breeding Better Bananas” project transitioned into Phase II—“Accelerated Breeding Better Bananas”—to further streamline the conventional breeding of banana in East Africa. This project brings together an international spectrum of partners to transform the national banana breeding programs in Uganda and Tanzania.

This improved banana breeding pipeline has produced more than 231 Matooke hybrids for advanced screening in the field, a stunning 250% overachievement on the project target for its 5-year timeframe. Another significant achievement included developing the first-ever Mchare hybrids, which have been produced in Tanzania.

These project achievements and numerous other successes were highlighted at the first annual planning and review meeting of Phase II by Team leader Prof. Rony Swennen, Head of IITA’s Banana Breeding Program.

“We agreed to deliver 95 promising Matooke hybrids but ultimately were able to select 231 for advancement to Preliminary Yield Trials (PYT),” Swennen said.

This adds to the abundance of seeds produced (230,000) and embryos cultured (160,000), which far exceeded projections. For a crop viewed as among the most difficult to breed, this is rewarding progress.

Bananas naturally produce very few seeds, which form the foundation of any breeding effort. Stimulating bananas to produce seeds and successfully culturing or rescuing the embryos is therefore critical to developing successful and efficient breeding pipelines.

The project team has also developed crucial markers to enable breeders to identify the location of desired genes. Digital tools that provide efficient tracking of all steps in the breeding pipeline and facilitate data collection have all contributed to enabling much more efficient tracking and data management.

All this progress helps make banana breeding a viable and feasible undertaking, which can be developed by national programs. The difficulties faced in conventionally breeding banana have previously been problematic in developing banana breeding programs. This has now changed!

First-ever hybrid banana for Tanzania

During the project, the testing of new Matooke hybrids, known as NARITA, was also conducted. NARITAs were jointly developed by Uganda’s National Agriculture Research Organisation (NARO) and IITA. The 27 most suitable NARITAs were selected for evaluation in Tanzania and Uganda.

The best agronomically performing NARITAs, which met consumer taste and texture preferences, were identified after assessment in multilocation trials and have now been forwarded to the respective authorities in charge of releasing new varieties. This is an exciting milestone for the project team, who are looking at the possibility of having the first-ever banana hybrids released in Tanzania.

“The Tanzania Agriculture Research Institute (TARI), in collaboration with its partners, evaluated 27 NARITAs in target regions of Tanzania through Participatory Variety Selection involving farmers and extension agents. This led to the identification of four candidates for official release. These NARITAs will be the first banana varieties to be released in Tanzania from the only banana breeding program in the country,” said Dr Mpoki Shimwela, Head of the Banana program, TARI.

Matooke is a part of the East Africa highland cooking banana family that includes Mchare in Tanzania. These are important staple food crops in the region, providing food and income for millions of smallholder farmers.

Two of the selected high-yielding Mchare hybrids with resistance to Fusarium wilt.

Two of the selected high-yielding Mchare hybrids with resistance to Fusarium wilt.

This project has focused on developing consumer-acceptable Matooke and Mchare hybrids with enhanced resistance against the key pests and diseases in the region. Another exciting project achievement is the development of Fusarium-resistant Mchare hybrids, which are now undergoing further testing.

Reflecting on the success of Phase I, Senior Project Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr Jim Lorenzen said that “This project has progressed impressively in improving breeding efficiency, from core operations through screening for pests and diseases, beginning to work on floral biology, understanding genetics, genomics, and genetic architecture of traits, working with farmers to understand their needs, preferences, and dislikes, and working within the digital ecosystem.”

The “Accelerated Breeding Better Bananas” Project annual review and planning meeting was held virtually on 21-24 September. It was attended by over 100 participants who tuned in from six continents, all of whom are implementing partners or scientific advisors to the project or MSc and PhD students supported by the project.

The work is also supported by the CGIAR Fund and, in particular,  the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers, and Bananas (CRP-RTB)