Coming along in Kenya

An IMLVT site reaches maturity.

In 2013, a box containing four plastic baggies of coffee seeds arrived from Kenya to a lab in Florida. Each bag was labelled in handwritten pen: SL28, Batian, Ruiru 11, K7. Coffee experts will recognize these as the names of some of the most important coffee varieties developed through Kenya's century-long coffee breeding program.

The seeds were Kenya's contribution to the World Coffee Research International Multilocation Variety Trial, or IMLVT, the world’s largest coffee variety performance trial and seed exchange ever conducted.

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To establish the trial, WCR's partners (Kenya and 10 others), provided 31 of the world’s best arabica varieties. Each partner shipped seeds following strict phytosanitary controls to a sterile lab in Florida. Clones of each variety were made using in vitro tissue culture processes.

Each of the 31 varieties has been distributed to 22 participating countries—including Kenya. When plants first arrive to a participating country from the lab in Florida, they are in a tube, standing about a centimeter tall and suspended in a clear, goopy medium called agar.

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Local researchers painstakingly work to get the baby plants translated into soil and acclimated to life outside a sterile test tube. These Sl6 plantlets arrived at the nursery in Ruiru, Kenya, in February 2015 and were moved into bags with soil. They spent about 6 months maturing in the nursery before being transplanted to the field.

Kenya's 4 varieties are now planted alongside 27 others in research plots in 22 countries. Researchers in each will spend the coming years evaluating how the plants perform in different environments.

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The trial is executed in close collaboration with partnering research institutes. In Kenya, our partners from the Kenyan Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and Coffee Research Institute (CRI) have worked hard to install, monitor, and maintain the research plots and conduct agronomic evaluations.

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In addition to being a key provider of varieties for the global trial network, Kenya was one of the first countries to install its IMLVT plots. The country has plots in two locations: Ruiru in the central part of the country and Koru in the west. The site in Koru has nearly 4 times as much rainfall as the site in Ruiru. It is also, on average, 3.5 degrees hotter, with an annual average temperature of 22.5°C. These environmental differences are a key part of the trial--researchers are evaluating how varieties perform differently in different conditions, both within Kenya and across the entire global network.

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A total of 29 varieties have been planted, and early evaluations of vegetative growth began in 2017. In 2018, the trial reached maturity and Kenya celebrated the first harvest from the research plots at Koru and Ruiru. Early data indicates there is significant variation in agronomic traits and rust susceptibility for the different varieties in the two Kenyan locations. The first full genetics x environment evaluations will be done in 2020.

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Jane Cheserek from Coffee Research Institute Kenya and Solène Pruvot-Woehl from WCR stand in front of a coffee tree in the Ruiru trial plot.

In 2018, Kenya had it's first mature harvest of coffee cherries from IMLVT trial sites. The first quality analysis took place with expert cuppers from the Coffee Research Institute in Kenya. Kenyan coffee breeders and agronomists are watching the trial closely to determine if there are varieties that might offer advantages for Kenyan coffee farmers.

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From left to right: Cecilia Kathurima (CRI), Solène Pruvot-Woehl (WCR) and Samuel Njeruh (CRI) cup so samples from the IMLVT.