Professor’s Biotechnology Consulting Bears Fruit in Africa

An FGCU professor’s expertise in propagating plants from tissue culture and his hands-on experience combating a highly infectious banana virus are helping farmers a world away revive a devastated fruit industry and cultivate business opportunities.

There was a fellow building a lab who wanted to do tissue culture bananas.” With Griffis’ help on two trips abroad and online follow-ups, along with some Malawi government support, that farmer, Frank Washoni, was able to establish a lab and nursery and start growing and distributing tens of thousands of banana suckers that were free of the virus. It’s too soon to tell if Malawi’s banana industry will achieve a sustainable comeback, Griffis said, but small farmers have proven to be important players in increasing production of horticultural crops when given the right support and integrated into cooperative networks and larger market chains.

His background in research and development for a major plant micropropagation company in south Florida also prepared Griffis to train others to produce bananas through tissue culture using a small cross-section of the stem that fairly quickly sprouts new growth when stimulated by nutrients and plant hormones; the sprouts continue to grow in a nursery before being transplanted in a field.

Facilitated by the nonprofit Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA) and federally funded, his work has included guiding the setup of biotechnology laboratories and training farmers and local volunteers in banana production, pest and disease control, soil management, and post-harvest handling of crops to minimize loss.

This past summer, Griffis worked remotely to help a host farmer on the ground in Malawi to train 16 men and women in various aspects of banana production and disease control. In the meantime, the farmer who established the first commercial lab in Lilongwe, Malawi to use biotechnology for micropropagation under Griffis’ mentorship continues to expand his business with other fruit and vegetable crops grown through tissue culture. Griffis has grappled with the banana virus before, including during his time in the Tropical Plant & Soil Science Department at the University of Hawaii; the Aloha State is by far the largest U.S. banana producer and has agricultural restrictions due to bunchy top presence.

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