Donations to Cassava Virus Action Project are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

The Challenge

Crop losses due to viral diseases and pests are major constraints on food security and income for millions of households in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Such losses can be reduced if plant diseases and pests are correctly diagnosed and identified early. Currently, accurate diagnosis for definitive identification of plant viruses and their vectors in SSA mostly relies on standard PCR and next generation sequencing technologies (NGS). However, it can take up to 6 months before results generated using these approaches are available. The long time taken to detect or identify viruses impedes quick within-season decision making necessary for early action, crop protection advise and disease control measures by farmers. This ultimately compounds the magnitude of crop losses and food shortages suffered by farmers.

The Opportunity

To date, researchers have utilized conventional methods to diagnose plant pests and diseases that include PCR, qPCR, Next Generation and Sanger sequencing but these are costly and time consuming, delaying time-sensitive corrective actions. Direct rapid DNA/RNA sequencing of infected material on-the-spot or near sample collection sites turns this conventional paradigm on its head by taking the laboratory closer to farmers’ fields. This reduces overall costs and gives crop protection officers and farmers in rural communities’ information critical for sustainable crop production and management of pests and diseases, thus ensuring food and income security for millions of Africans. Currently, provision of data on viruses which is essential for developing virus resistant varieties, sharing virus-indexed germplasm between regions and deployment of virus-free certified planting materials is hampered by the long time taken to receive results generated using conventional diagnostic methods.

Our Mission

We will decrease the time to precisely detect and identify pathogens, vectors or pests, increase resolution and reliability of results by utilizing the power of low cost pocket (portable) DNA extraction and sequencing devises, coupled with our innovative data generation and analyses pipelines. This real-time diagnosis in the field or rural laboratories will quickly provide high quality and reliable diagnostics data to help farmers, seed certification agencies, scientists, crop protection and extension officers make timely and informed decisions regarding disease management.

Our Goal

  • Increase plant yields for farmers for 10 million people in 6 years

How we will achieve this goal?

  • Shorten the time to diagnosis sick plants for smallholder farmers
  • Capacity building in Nanopore sequencing for scientists in Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia
  • Develop a mobile application to get results to farmers quickly


Our Leadership

Dr. Laura Boykin is a TED Senior Fellow (2017), Gifted Citizen (2017) and a computational biologist who uses genomics and supercomputing to help smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa control whiteflies, which have caused devastation of local cassava crops. Her lab at The University of Western Australia uses genetic data to understand the virus and whitefly’s evolution. Boykin also works to equip African scientists with a greater knowledge of genomics and high-performance computing skills to tackle future insect outbreaks. Boykin completed her PhD in Biology at the University of New Mexico while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Theoretical Biology and Biophysics group and is currently a Senior Research Fellow at University of Western Australia. She was invited to present her lab’s research on whiteflies at the United Nations Solution Summit in New York City for the signing of the Sustainable Development Goals to end extreme poverty by 2030. The team’s latest work to bring portable DNA sequencing to east African farmers has been featured on CNN, BBC World News, BBC Swahili, BBC Technology News, and the TED Fellows Ideas Blog.

Dr. Joseph Ndunguru is the head of the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Tanzania and principle investigator of several research projects including the regional coordinator of Disease Diagnostics for Sustainable Cassava Productivity in Africa, co-funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID, a project implemented in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. In September 2012, Joseph received a Presidential medal award on Scientific Discoveries and Research Excellence and award for the best National Agricultural Research Scientist for 2011. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology and also is the National Biotechnology Research Coordinator in Tanzania. His research interest is to understand plant virus at molecular level, their genome organization, gene expression and develop resistance to plant virus of economic importance to Africa. Cassava mosaic geminiviruses, cassava brown streak virus and sweetpotato viruses are his main focus for now.

Dr. Titus Alicai is a plant virologist and Principal Research Officer and Programme Leader of Root Crops Research at the National Agricultural Research Organisation National Crops Resources Research Institute in Kampala Uganda. He is currently leading a team of 150 staff including 7 PhD and 9 MSc students.  Dr. Alicai’s formal education includes a PhD in Plant Virology from the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Greenwich in the U.K. His MSc and BSc in Agriculture from Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. His groundbreaking research on cassava viruses is internationally recognized and has been published in journals such as PNAS and Plant Pathology. His leadership and research excellence has led to securing over 5 million dollars in grant funding for continued support of his cassava virus research from organizations such as USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


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