AGRA’s Plant Breeding Scholarship

Africa has an acute shortage of world-class plant breeding specialists. At the moment, the continent has about 500 active breeders, which is about a tenth of the recommended number. Disproportionately, a majority of these specialists are men. This is despite the fact that women constitute the bulk of Africa’s agriculture labor force and the established wisdom of the higher returns on investing in women education and training.

To address this twin challenge, AGRA has invested over US$4m in the last 10 years to train plant breeders for the East and Southern Africa region through this programme implemented in partnership with the Africa Center for Crop Improvement (ACCI). This investment aims to tap the passion, will and commitment of students who believe that Africa’s weather, good soils, and human resource are sufficient to cater for the continent’s food needs.

Fitting this bill is Josephine Pasipanodya, a Zimbabwean national, who is pursuing a Masters degree in plant breeding at the University of Kwa Zulu-Natal, South Africa under the Dry Bean Programme of ACCI. She is part of the first group of MSc students on this programme and plans to develop high yielding, drought resistant bean varieties.

I’d like to acknowledge AGRA and the University of Kwa Zulu Natal for availing this scholarship program in Africa to boost research capacity. I believe this is what Africa needs to improve food security and prevent food-shortage related conflicts and wars,” said Josephine.

Considering the complexity of her study subject, Josephine expressed her appreciation of the mentorship and internship component of the program. “I have two mentors, one from Pro Seeds – the private seed company where I take my internship, and another from the National Research Institute in Zimbabwe. They have helped me with my studies and also offered me an opportunity to apply theory to work practice,” she said.

To date, the programme has resulted in 74 PhD students graduating in plant breeding. In order to meet the increasing demand for breeders, AGRA has expanded the scholarship to cover Masters students. The first group of 10 students – which Josephine is part of – is expected to graduate in 2017.

Ruth Musila; now Dr. Ruth Musila, from Kenya, is one of the nine PHD students who graduated from the university of Kwa Zulu Natal in April 2016. Her research focused on the development of high yielding drought resistant rice varieties for the coastal region of Kenya.

“In the coastal region of Kenya and indeed across the country, rice is fast becoming a major staple. To meet this demand and ensure food and nutritional security, farmers should have regular and affordable access to new high quality varieties that are suitable for that region.

“I wanted to find out what farmers really need in the rice crop; and they said drought resistance so I focused my research on identifying drought-tolerant rice varieties suitable for the region,” Dr Musila said.

Ruth believes that with the right support she can increase the country’s rice production and bring an end to rice imports.

While Ruth and Josephine offer great hope for Africa’s food security and future, the fear of potential ‘internal loss‘ of this human capacity is very real. “There is need for continuous capacity building because an equal number of students graduating annually are promoted into administration roles in government and other institutions and are lost to active plant breeding in their respective countries,” says Professor Mark Laing, Director of ACCI.

AGRA, through it’s capacity building function, believes that the development of human resources in plant breeding to drive variety development is a critical component in achieving an agricultural transformation in Africa.

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