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A helping hand - tissue culture blooms in Kenya

Ann Muli has turned her work with tissue cultures into a booming business (Zablon Odhiambo)
Ann Muli has turned her work with tissue cultures into a booming business
Zablon Odhiambo

As many African countries continue to embrace new agricultural technologies against the backdrop of diminishing yields, climate change and nutrient-scarce soils, investors in Kenya are gradually harnessing the benefits of tissue culture techniques to boost agricultural output. For Anne Muli, managing director of Mimea International Ltd, a simple beginning is proving a worthwhile course, ensuring quality planting material for her clients and growing revenues for her two-year old enterprise.

Parts of Kenya are already benefiting from growing tissue culture bananas, flowers, passion fruits and eucalyptus hybrids. Moreover, the trickle-down effect of tissue culture plants on a larger scale is expected to be bolstered by the entry of private companies to supplement existing multiplication efforts by universities and state-owned agricultural research centres, such as the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). Muli prides herself with founding Kenya's second private tissue culture business, which began in a simple laboratory, set up in a small store in the Westlands area of Nairobi.

Gap in the market

Mimea, the name of Muli's business, is the word for vegetation in Swahili and, in this tropical environment, Muli's enterprise has thrived, benefiting from ready markets in the local flower industry. The company also produces seedlings for aloe vera, tangerines, passion, citrus, mangoes, papaya and jackfruit. Other tree species include Macadamia, Jatropha, Moringa, Marula, Warbugia, Neem, Prunus africana and Kigelia africana, otherwise known as the sausage tree.

Plant Tissue Culture
Also known as micropropagation, this plant breeding technique involves the vegetative reproduction of plants under laboratory-controlled conditions, to produce large numbers of clones with desirable traits. To produce new plants, a piece of sterilised plant tissue, or "explant", is taken from a healthy plant and placed in a culture dish containing growth media, such as agar broth. As the cultures grow, parts can be selected, removed and grown separately as sub-cultured tissue. When plantlets have matured, they can be transferred to soil or compost and grown under normal conditions.
Growing plants by tissue culture, enables plantlets to be grown quickly and without risk of disease; the technique is often used to 'clean' particular plants of viral and other infections. It is also a method used for the regeneration of transgenic (genetically-modified) plants or to produce plants from seeds that are unlikely to germinate.

A microbiologist by profession, Muli was first employed at Genetics Technologies International Ltd, the first private tissue culture enterprise in Kenya, where she honed her skills in tissue culture techniques. She also previously worked with the University of Nairobi on tissue culture strawberries, pyrethrum and sugarcane. To start her own business, Muli converted her simple store into a growth and culturing room. Thermostatic controls installed maintain temperatures at between 18 and 28 degrees Celsius, ideal for culturing eucalyptus hybrids and bananas, the first crops Muli multiplied from tissue culture.

Growing the business

Faced with financial constraints to purchase new equipment, Muli built her own wooden lamina flow cabinet - the clean air chamber fitted with filters to avoid contamination of the tissue cultures. The cabinet, she says, normally retails at between KES500,000 (US$7600) and KES1.5m (US$23,000), a cost too high for her to afford at the time. Muli also used a domestic pressure cooker as an autoclave for sterilising soil samples.

Whilse the first six months proved a struggle to maintain the business, a family friend and now business partner provided much-needed capital to expand the enterprise. The company soon bought its first commercial lamina flow cabinet and employed another tissue culture expert. As the business expanded, Muli was able to relocate to a larger site where a greenhouse was built, and more equipment purchased.

A blossoming trade

Vanilla seedlings in the growth room (Zablon Odhiambo)
Vanilla seedlings in the growth room
Zablon Odhiambo

Clients now flock to Muli's premises, particularly at the onset of long rains, requesting planting material for various crops. With increasing demand, the company currently empoys nine full-time staff and produces between 50,000-70,000 banana seedlings and about 100,000 eucalyptus seedlings per year. However, with well-defined seasonal patterns, flower producers have become Muli's best clients, helping her company to plan production more effectively. The producers, she says, make advance orders of up to 100,000 seedlings per year.

In the past, explains Muli, flower farms had to import all seedlings from Europe and other overseas markets. "This was expensive," she says, "as seedlings are destroyed when airport inspections discover contaminated material." To produce seedlings by tissue culture in-country cuts costs by at least a third. The technique not only provides disease-free plants but consistency is also guaranteed. Other desirable characteristics, including stem length, high yield and colour, can also be controlled.

To ensure standards are maintained, the company is registered with the Horticultural Crops Development Authority (HCDA) and the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS). With training support from HCDA, Muli is optimistic that her firm will soon extend its services to regional markets. "We have already established contacts in Tanzania and the Congo and are making plans for Ethiopia," she says.

Written by: Zablon Odhiambo

Date published: March 2008


Have your say

Madam,am Impressed By Your Efforts To Improve Our Agricultur... (posted by: Zablon Lister Malago)

Miss Muli: I personally enjoy working and growing tropical p... (posted by: Charles Pietrowski)

wishing all the best.keep it up (posted by: james mutie)

Hey Muli I hope you are still in business and am looking f... (posted by: ndembei)


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