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Building a Better Peanut: Ugandan Scientist’s Studies Help Bring Farmers a More Resilient Crop

A disease that ravages peanut crops in the country can contribute to food insecurity, but researchers like Esther Achola are fighting back with innovative new tools.

Esther Achola, a doctoral candidate at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, uses her research to fight groundnut rosette disease (GRD), which is particularly devastating for peanuts because it causes discoloration, stunting and distortion to plants, and can lead to total crop loss. Photo credit: Esther Achola/Peanut Innovation Lab

Esther Achola fondly remembers her mother making energy balls from a mixture of melted sugar and ground peanuts. Afterwards, she’d lovingly pack the sticky snacks for Achola to take to school. Peanuts, known as groundnuts in Africa, have always played an integral role in Ugandan culture and cuisine. Now, Achola is studying peanuts to help communities become more resilient in the face of climate change and food insecurity.

As a doctoral candidate at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, Achola is helping develop peanut varieties that are resistant to groundnut rosette disease (GRD), which has long devastated peanut crops in the country. GRD is a virus transmitted by aphids — small, sap-sucking insects — that causes discoloration, stunting and distortion to plants, and can lead to total crop loss. Achola is fighting GRD by looking at the genome — the complete set of genetic material — of peanut varieties to understand how some strains are better able to resist the disease than others. This work is known as genomics, and it’s one of the tools scientists like Achola are using to help get healthy, nutrient-dense and profitable crops into the hands of local farmers.

Peanuts are a robust source of nutrients like protein, fat and fiber, and are a climate-resistant crop that requires little fertilizer and can grow in difficult conditions. Many farmers, however, are growing older varieties that remain susceptible to GRD.  With increasing demands on their land, more intensive cropping rotations, and in some cases a less certain growing season due to climate change, farmers need new varieties that are adapted to the current environment, which includes GRD resistance. Scientists using genomics and plant breeding can meet these challenges by developing new and improved peanut varieties more quickly than in the past.

“If we’re able to have [disease] resistance, then the farmer has a higher yield and this will increase the farmer’s income,” Achola said. “We can also focus on nutrition for the consumer.”

Through her association with the Groundnut Improvement Network for Africa (GINA), a network of 10 plant breeders in 9 African countries, Achola’s genomics work is a boon for breeders.

“Esther’s work improves the predictability and efficiency of plant breeding by helping plant breeders identify valuable traits early in the breeding process,” said Jim Gaffney, activity manager for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Peanut led by the University of George College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences  (also called the Peanut Innovation Lab). Achola said other valuable traits include pod and seed yield, drought tolerance, oil quality and nutrient density.

Achola is conducting her cutting-edge course of study at a crucial moment for the crop: In April, USAID announced a five-year, $15-million investment to the Peanut Innovation Lab. This investment will help researchers scale peanut-based innovations to improve global food security. Achola is also working directly with the Peanut Innovation Lab on two projects that entail mapping for GRD resistance.

Dave Hoisington, director of the Peanut Innovation Lab, said the work the lab is doing to tap into informal networks of smallholder farmers, local seed businesses and farmer cooperatives helps get new, more resilient peanut varieties into farmers’ fields.

Achola was recognized for her genomics work with the 2022 Joe Sugg Graduate Student Competition. She is the first international student to win the award from the American Peanut Research and Education Society. Photo credit: Esther Achola/Peanut Innovation Lab

“Since peanut is grown both for household consumption and as a cash crop, increasing production boosts both farm income and food security for the smallholder’s family,” Hoisington said.

Achola’s groundbreaking research has brought her recognition in her field. Last year, she won first place in the 2022 Joe Sugg Graduate Student Competition from the American Peanut Research and Education Society. Achola was the first international student to win the award. Inspired by the farmers in her family and mentors, Achola said next year she plans to finish her doctorate in plant breeding and biotechnology and graduate university.

Achola has experienced some challenges as a woman in the field. She explained that she has had to work twice as hard as male researchers to prove herself as a woman scientist.

“There are still people who say we’re not good enough,” she said. “I’ll tell all the women out there to be good so no one will ignore you.”

Achola said she values the representation she brings to the industry and uses it to fuel her passion: to create sustainable impact for farmers.

“As I go higher, I should be able to find real solutions that would help us go farther,” Achola said. “I want to provide solutions for the farmers.”

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