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Big Read: Botanical Garden to Preserve Plants, Diversify Crops, Make Herbal Medicine

Jun 09, 2017     Email"> PrintText Size

 

The botanical garden at the China-Africa Joint Research Centre, JKUAT

When Prof Robert Gituru was in his field treks in Wuhan Botanical Garden in Hubei province of central China in 1999, he was shocked to see more than 10,000 plant species and varieties and 16 speciality gardens in one area.

With sweat oozing out of his face as it was summer, Gituru, now a senior lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, was disappointed that many young African researchers were streaming to China to conduct botanical research.

"Kenya and China are rich in botanical endowment, yet we go to China to conduct research," he says.

HOW THE IDEA STARTED

Gituru says while studying in China, he met Prof Qing-Feng Wang, the current director of Sino Africa Joint Research centre at JKUAT.

"When I got to Wuhan University, we were few people and I happened to get a young researcher who was already a PhD holder and I was not. He was assigned to be my supervisor," Gituru says with nostalgia.

He said as they were going to the field, he talked to the young researcher about the need to establish a joint research centre in Kenya.

"The idea came up: Why can't we push for the establishment of Sino-Africa Joint Research Centre, where Chinese and African researchers, young researchers and mature researchers, would be able to come together and co-operate for the benefit of both countries and the world? That is just an idea, and from there it had to move to reality," he says.

Gituru convinced Wang, who is also the deputy director of Wuhan Botanical Garden.

Wang flew to Kenya in February to March 2002 for about 20 days. A meeting was then convened and links were created, proposals drafted.

At the time, Gituru worked in Egerton University.

An agreement between JKUAT and Wuhan Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Science, was signed in 2010.

It was then followed by development of a joint project proposal for the establishment of a research centre, The Sino-Africa Joint Research Centre, and a botanical garden in JKUAT Juja campus.

Shortly after the proposal had been developed and passed to the Chinese government and accepted as government-to-government aid project, the idea whose time had come started becoming reality.

Ground breaking was done in 2014 by Deputy President William Ruto before construction started, with the hand-over being done in September last year.

The centre is now basking in glory with a lot of indigenous trees, fruits and flowers, and in about 10 years, it will be a replica of the Wuhan Botanical Garden.

It has a herbarium centre for storing preserved plant specimens and associated data used for scientific study, a microbiology lab and a molecular biology lab.

Other sections are a natural products development lab, where medicinal products are developed, and state-of-the-art rooms that can accommodate 40 people.

COLLABORATOR'S BACKGROUND

Wang came to Africa 1996 after attaining PhD from Wuhan University. He said that he found out that African people are very helpful in his work.

He has since learned that Kenya, like China, has several species of trees and animals that need to be preserved not only future generations but also for purposes of research.

Several state-of-the-art labs, offices and accommodation rooms now stand at the 40-acre botany at JKUAT.

And since Wang is mostly based in China, a team of professors is staying in JKUAT to offer support to their colleagues. Due to their love for botany, science and research, some left their families back in China.

Gituru said the garden is useful for scientific research, as it is critical if humanity is to progress.

"In fact, I like to refer to research as an endless frontier limited only by thinking power, and we as humanity have been given inexhaustible thinking power," he says.

Gituru says the centre will also be a centre for education. The young will come and learn, appreciate the value of biodiversity, conservation and entertainment.

JKUAT staff will also get solace from the centre after a hard academic sojourn.

Wang said they will work with researchers from JKUAT to try and introduce good quality crop varieties to help address food security.

"Some 88 students from Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia all study in China for masters and PhD programmes. This year, we have about 40 applicants, most of them from Kenya," he says.

Wang said senior technicians from the Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Forest Service and other institutions in Kenya also benefits from studies.

"We aim to establish a demonstration centre for technology and agriculture," he said, adding that the collaboration between JKUAT and the Chinese Academy of Science will help tackle many problems.

SCIENCE AND INNOVATION

Academy of Science Asian and African affairs deputy director Yipi Jiang said the academy is a comprehensive institution of science and innovation.

"China is growing. We feel there is a certain responsibility for us to share our experience of developing with our brothers at every corner of the world, because every continent in the world is important," he said.

Jiang said for a plane to fly, it needs wings and they consider themselves as the wings.

We need to train people and that is why they provide scholarships to young scientists to study masters and PhD in China,he says adding that they encourage them to come back home and utilize their expertise.

Jiang said it is not enough to have people trained as facilities and instruments are needed and that is why they persuaded the Chinese government provide aid to build botanical garden and state of art facilities at JKUAT.

China has about 234 botanical gardens and arboreta designated by the government as research and development centres for plant diversity conservation and sustainable utilisation.

Most botanical gardens are located in central city locations or in the suburbs, forming an integral part of the city environment.

The number of Chinese botanical gardens is increasing, with major new gardens being developed or planned

"With combined human resources and state-of-the-art facilities, we can realise the dreams," Jiang said.

Jiang said they encourage administrative staff and researchers to stay around as long as possible and share their experience in as far as botanical gardens are concerned.

It is estimated that there are one-five new botanical gardens built each year in China.

Jiang said the centre is set to be localised to help other African countries deal with the day-to-day challenges they face.

"We need to use research to help the ordinary people, to benefit communities; that is our mission," he said.

Jiang said with state-of-the-art facilities, human resources and the support of industry players, success will be realised in the long term.

WHY JKUAT WAS CHOSEN

Jiang said the botanical garden was established in JKUAT since it has several branches and a mission that relates with that of the botanical garden.

Gituru said JKUAT is a technology and innovation university, and research that will come from it will help the country's economy.

He said the centre will generate skills and technologies that will be passed on to the local community.

One of the key pillars is to innovate and pass that information on to the local community and to the world, so JKUAT will ensure the research that will be conducted here and the products from research will eventually go to the community and help to grow Kenya, Gituru said.

Gituru said research in JKUAT over the years has been growing steadilyl, as the levels of funding increase both from the government's National Research Fund and from international partners.

Wang said technology and expertise from China are set to be shared and this will help local researchers.

"We are also trying to see how to introduce new crops varieties to help address food security," he said.

Gituru said many plant species and varieties in the botanical garden are set to increase the number of medicinal herbs.

"In the field of medicine, herbal medicines have taken centre stage unlike before. We are faced with more increased resistance of micro-organisms and disease-causing mechanisms to the conventional treatment. Therefore, it is our dream that we focus on herbal medicines to come up with alternative medicines," he said, adding that 90 per cent of conventional medicines are extracted from plants.

Gituru said they will not do anything new but look for more new effective medicines for the benefit of mankind. (The Star)

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(Editor: CHEN Na)

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