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Plant breeders contribute to achieving food security across Africa

Participants take part in a practical session during the course. Photo by ICRAF
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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

The third class of graduates from the UC Davis Africa Plant Breeding Academy pose for a group photo. Photo by ICRAF

Thirty-four plant breeders from 18 countries graduated from the UC Davis African Plant Breeding Academy in May 2018.

The advanced plant breeding course was delivered by the Seed Biotechnology Center of the University of California Davis, in collaboration with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC).

The course, hosted by one of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry’s (FTA) partner institutions — the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) — in Kenya, equips practicing African plant breeders with advanced theory and technologies in plant breeding, quantitative genetics, statistics and experimental design to support critical decisions. This was the third cohort of the course, with participants drawn from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The program was delivered by a team of tutors and complemented by guest speakers, including Leena Tripathi of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) who covered banana improvement through transformation and gene editing, Damaris Achieng Odeny of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) on finger millet genomics, Dusty Vyas of LGC Genomics on genotyping sequencing and DNA analysis, and Alex Lipka of the University of Illinois on genomic selection. Participants also visited the International Livestock Research Institute’s Trepathi lab and glasshouse.

The plant breeders presented various proposals, explaining how they would put their newly acquired skills into practice. Mayada Beshir of the Agricultural Research Corporation in Sudan and Ermias Abate Desta of the Amhara Agricultural Research Institute of Ethiopia were each awarded US$5,000 from Mars Incorporated and Illumina for their winning proposals.

“Sorghum is the most important crop for us in Sudan and is widely produced by smallholders. We are experiencing the effects of climate change, as everywhere, and are observing new traits or stresses that have not been seen before. Sorghum productivity is declining yet the government is working hard to avail land, water and inputs,” said Bashir.

“As a breeder going through this training, my role is to help the farmer. The farmer will consume part of the harvest and sell the rest for income. I will produce a better variety of sorghum that is resistant to the stresses we are seeing right now and add nutrient value with better yield.”

Read more: Orphan crops for improving diets

Tef is a staple crop and is grown only in Ethiopia,” said Desta. “It is an orphan crop because it hasn’t captured the attention of the international scientific community. My work is to identify varieties of tef that are tolerant to soil acidity, a common problem in highly productive areas of the country. I will use my prize money to produce soil acidity-tolerant genotypes of tef. Smallholders cannot afford the lime that needs to be applied to acidic soils for amelioration. Acid-tolerant varieties of tef will help as a management strategy and improve their yields.”

“The UC Davis African Plant Breeding Academy is part of the African Orphan Crops Consortium,” explained Allen van Deynze, a primary instructor at the academy. “The goal of the consortium is to make nutritious crops productive for Africa. The plant breeding academy is delivering food security in the continent. The people here today are the ones who are going to make the difference. Those who have passed through the academy are the ones who have taken on the challenge to make sure that everyone has nutritious food on their table.”

Participants take part in a practical session during the course. Photo by ICRAF

“When you go back, remember all that you have learned will be wasted if you fight, compete or do not collaborate,” said Tony Simons, director general of ICRAF. “It is a great honor to partner with all the institutions that support this program, because out of all the initiatives that ICRAF has implemented in the last 40 years, this has been one of the most impactful.”

Recounting the start of the consortium that led to the UC Davis African Plant Breeding Academy, Howard Shapiro, chief scientist at Mars Incorporated, acknowledged the organizations and individuals who contributed to the consortium. Of the 101 crops that were selected for sequencing, 47 are trees and the remainder are annual crops.

“No one had ever considered to do this amount of research on crops,” noted Shapiro. “Major foundations and organizations chose one crop — cassava, maize — and that is all they work on. Our idea was that we could fix the nutritional productivity of 101 food crops that are not only the backbone of rural Africa, but are also important in urban centers. An idea of paradise is that we can end chronic hunger and malnutrition by improving the nutritional quality and productivity of the 101 food crops. All those who have passed through the academy are the ones who will deliver this paradise.”

“We have sequenced 10 species for the AOCC,” noted Xin Liu of BGI. “We are trying to release data as soon as possible. You can combine this data for better application and breeding processes for all the crops. We made a commitment three years ago to sequence 101 crops. We have our own sequencers that can be used to generate more data and we would like to contribute all the science and technology we can to this consortium.”

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is a primary partner of the academy and has sponsored 31 plant breeders of the second and third cohorts. It also funded master and doctoral courses for over 400 of the 500 plant breeders in Africa. So far, 18 countries have released over 600 varieties of crops.

Read more: Tree seed selection, genome sequencing, improvement of priority species and more

“We realized that the breeding field keeps changing. This course has helped us keep up and modernize our breeding efforts,” said Rufaro Madakadze, program officer of AGRA’s Africa Seed System. “We fund training to develop technologies that people will use.”

Speaking on behalf of the class, Maureen Atemkeng of Nigeria expressed gratitude to the academy, particularly for the opportunity to interact with international experts. She added that the course helped in building principles of efficiency, responsibility and sustainability for the next generation.

“Hunger and malnutrition can be eliminated in our lifetime,” said Rita Mumm, director and primary instructor of the academy. “The vision of the African Plant Breeding Academy is to train 150 plant breeders. Graduates, you will continue to work together, contribute your talent to teams, and join the African Association of Plant Breeders. I exhort you to mentor the next generation of plant breeders. Share your knowledge and experience.”

In closing, Ramni Jamnadass, coleader of ICRAF’s Tree Productivity and Diversity research unit that hosts the AOCC, encouraged the graduates to contribute to breeding programs that will banish food and nutrition insecurity in Africa.

The course is delivered in three two-week sessions spread over 18 months at the ICRAF campus in Nairobi. Since its inception in 2013, 89 plant breeders have successfully completed the course and covered more than 99 species, of which 57 are African orphan crops.

By Susan Onganyo, originally published at ICRAF’s Agroforestry World


This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

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  • Orphan crops for improving diets

Orphan crops for improving diets

A fruit hangs on a baobab tree. Photo by Katja Kehlenbeck/ICRAF
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FTA COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

A fruit hangs from a baobab tree. Photo by Katja Kehlenbeck/ICRAF

Orphan crops, so-called because they are considered neglected and underutilized, are typically overlooked in terms of resources for their promotion. But they are now being brought out of the shadows, along with their potential health and environmental benefits.

At present, orphan crops are not extensively researched, despite their potential for realizing economic and dietary benefits for the people who cultivate and consume them, as well as bringing environmental gains to the landscapes where they are grown.

This is due in part to the “nonstandard and unimproved” landraces being grown in some locations, which are not as productive, robust or of as high quality as they could be. However, through plant genetics and crop improvement, the potential of orphan crops to address issues of malnutrition and hunger in Africa can be enhanced, if the necessary market interventions to support their use are also correctly implemented.

The African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC), which aims to obtain complete sequences of DNA of 101 neglected food crops, and the African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA), which empowers crop breeders from across Africa through skill development, networking and information sharing, are working to improve these crops and promote their utilization.

The AOCC, based in Nairobi and launched in 2011, is hosted by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), one of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry’s (FTA) partner institutions. Its research is now in the spotlight following recent articles from The Economist and the Financial Times.

According to ICRAF’s Prasad Hendre, the Genomics Laboratory Manager at the AOCC, the consortium is “all about giving a voice to underprivileged African farmers through their crops, making the crops sustainably profitable for individual smallholder farmers, their families and communities.”

Members of the African Plant Breeding Academy’s Class II pose for a photo to mark their graduation. Photo by ICRAF

So far, of the overall target, AOCC researchers have fully sequenced 10 genomes and partially sequenced 19.

“The AOCC is working on 101 orphan crops – 50 trees and 51 annuals – shortlisted through larger consensus between farmers, policy makers, governments, agricultural research organizations, philanthropists and private entities,” Hendre said.

“As a first step, we are trying to bring scientific equality to these crops by making the cutting-edge application-oriented scientific tools available through group leadership of the AOCC. It is all about bringing useful and innovative technology to the doorsteps of the African research community, primarily the plant breeders, who can develop new varieties to suit local, regional and global demands.

“At the core of these technologies is the genome sequence of any crop, which directly or indirectly shapes the outcome of these crops on farms. By predicting the effect of a specific DNA signature on the performance of an individual, it is possible to design a next generation of ‘smart’ crops which are high yielding, efficient, highly nutritious and capable of facing environmental challenges. It is also important to impart the right skillsets to African plant breeders who are largely practicing traditional methods of crop improvement. The new tools and methods in their hands can speed up variety development.”

AfPBA, an initiative of the AOCC, is focusing on this skill enhancement by training African plant breeders to use genomic tools and incorporate them into breeding programs.

Mehmood Hassan of ICRAF, who is also FTA’s capacity development coordinator, explained that AfPBA is a collaboration between the University of California, Davis and ICRAF, while the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa are also closely involved.

The academy aims to equip 250 African breeders with advanced breeding skills and approaches by 2023 and to expand their horizons to incorporate African orphan crops, including trees, into their breeding agendas, according to Hassan. So far, more than 50 breeders in two groups have successfully graduated, with a third group of 34 set to graduate in June 2018.

A variety of mango grows on a farm in Machakos County, Kenya. Photo by ICRAF

“Several of the past graduates have already influenced breeding programs by expanding the focus from calorific crops to crops with wider nutritional value,” Hassan said.

AfPBA also mentors the trainee breeders in formulating international grant proposals. A few breeders have already been able to attract additional financial resources to support and expand their programs to include some of these new tools.

“The benefits of breeding these crops will be many,” said Hendre. “For local African orphan fruit tree crops, an additional benefit could be their conservation, encouraging farmers to plant highly productive varieties on farms in a sustainable manner, as compared to extractive non-sustainable harvesting from parklands, semi-wild or forest landscapes.”

“For annuals, it will help in improving their acceptance as mainstream crops due to developing easy to cook, easy to cultivate, tasty and nutritious high-yielding varieties,” he added.

For both trees and annual crops, the primary beneficiaries are expected to be farmers, who will be able to diversify their farms with multiple marketable options made available through newly developed varieties. Certified seed sellers are also likely to be among the primary beneficiaries.

Meanwhile, secondary beneficiaries will include local traders, who will be able to buy and sell the products. Tertiary beneficiaries will be both local and global food processors, who will have the chance to diversify their offerings with nutritious, sustainable and locally sourced foods.

In line with this, once improved crops are bred, both farmers and seed distributors need to be encouraged to make use of them.

“Farmers can be encouraged to adopt new varieties if they are shown benefits. The most important benefit a farmer can see is through increased income. ICRAF and FTA can help farmers see that there is a demand for their products and how they can use that opportunity to market their farm produce and enhance income,” said Hendre. “Other benefits for the environment and human health can be shown using ecological and health indicators for soil, climate and community health, among others.”

Prasad Hendre demonstrates some of the advances in technology in genome sequencing during a laboratory visit. Photo by ICRAF

“Adopting improved varieties requires engaging with certified producers of planting material – be this seed or vegetatively propagated plants in the case of some crops – who can supply improved varieties to the farmers,” he added.

The prospects look good, with some orphan crops holding significant potential for wider consumption and improved nutrition.

“A few of these crops already have global or regional markets, such as African eggplant, African bush pear and African bush mango, Allanblackia, amaranth, baobab, marula, moringa and shea. Releasing improved varieties helps farmers to follow more profitable and sustainable cultivation practices, and allows product standardization, which lead to greater demand and better market prices. In the future, I can see many more of these crops reaching a global market as global consumer preferences change,” Hendre said.

With these efforts and the promising progress to date, new and improved varieties of orphan crops may one day sit alongside current staple foods in stores and on plates, both across Africa and around the world.

By Hannah Maddison-Harris, FTA Communications and Editorial Coordinator 


This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors


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