Can nuclear technology zap hunger in Central African Republic?
Tucked away on the University of Bangui campus in the capital of Central African Republic, a portacabin surrounded by palm trees shelters neat rows of test-tubes filled with green shoots.
Here scientists are running a laboratory using advanced nuclear-derived techniques to find a solution to one of the war-torn country’s most urgent and deadliest problems: hunger.
But the conflict has hit their work too. In 2013, as the government was toppled and fighting erupted on the streets, Simplice Yandia was poring over his notes in the tiny lab when he heard loud gunshots outside.
“I had to run away,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The next day, he came back to find the lab had been looted, with even air-conditioning units ripped from the walls.
“Everything was ruined – we had to start from scratch,” said Yandia.
Today, work is back to normal, and the researchers hope that combining nature with nuclear physics will enable them to develop improved crop varieties that can withstand destructive plant diseases.
Last year, Central African Republic was rated the world’s hungriest country, according to the Global Hunger Index, which tracks under-nutrition, stunted growth, low child weight and child mortality.
Sectarian conflict has ravaged the Central African nation since 2013 when Muslim-majority Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize, triggering a backlash by predominantly Christian and animist fighters.
Five years into the conflict, marked by waves of ethnic cleansing, today every second person goes without enough to eat.
While most of the country depends on farming for survival, the World Food Programme estimates crop production is down by more than half compared to pre-crisis levels.
For the Bangui university scientists, one solution lies with the green shoots of cassava – also known as manioc – growing in their lab.
Cassava has long been the country’s number-one staple crop, and is key to keeping hunger at bay, they believe.
First introduced into the region by Portuguese explorers from Brazil in the 16th century, cassava roots are rich in carbohydrate while the leaves provide protein, fiber and vitamins.
Cassava is a versatile food, used to make pastes, soups, powders and animal feed. Its roots are boiled, fried and ground, and its leaves are eaten too.
But today harvests are in danger. On top of the war that has seen armed groups take over swathes of farmland, burning entire fields, a destructive disease is threatening cassava.
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