Africa lagged behind in the agricultural development that the world experienced in the mid-1960s.  By the mid-1990s, the continent’s agriculture was at its lowest ebb, with alarming implications for incidences of food shortages and chronic malnutrition. By the mid-2000s, there was compelling evidence that plant breeding capacity globally had dropped to alarming levels and Africa had been depleted of the human capital needed to make genetic improvements for the staple crops on which the economies of the African nations hinged. 

Urgent action was needed, but Africa’s governments had not awakened from their slumber as several notable international financial institutions had convinced the governments that higher education need not be a priority in Africa. Recognizing that Africa faced an imminent challenge in its agriculture, the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems, led by Dr. Joseph DeVries, had to act decisively and urgently. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) had been put in place thanks to the generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates and the Rockefeller Foundations. Hired on at AGRA, Dr. DeVries (formerly of the Rockefeller Foundation) and his colleagues, led by an acting President, Dr. Peter Matlon initiated conversations to replicate in West Africa, a model, first tested by the Rockefeller Foundation at the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI), University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Thus began the competitive search for a suitable location to host the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI). 

In “My Journey with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa: The WACCI Story”, Professor Eric Danquah, the Founding Director of WACCI, provides a detailed account of how his frustrations at the University of Ghana following his graduation with a Ph.D. in Genetics at Cambridge University were transformed by conversations in 2005 and 2006 with agricultural leaders at Cornell University, USA. Those conversations culminated in the development of one of the most innovative institutions for training Africans at the Ph.D. level in plant breeding.

WACCI was established at the University of Ghana in 2007 with a 10-year grant of US$ 11.5 million to train African students on African crops in Africa for Africa. Today, the Centre has more than trebled initial investments to over US$38 million, excluding in-kind contributions valued at over US$ 3 million. Since its inception, the Centre has enrolled 149 Ph.D. students in Plant Breeding and 65 MPhil students in Seed Science and Technology from 20 countries since its inception and graduated 95 Ph.D. and 30 MPhil students who are currently leading crop improvement programmes in 14 countries in Africa. The Ph.D. graduates have published highly informative articles in high-impact journals and released over 95 improved and resilient crop varieties that are impacting farmers’ fields in five African countries. 

To achieve this, WACCI established a strong curriculum which meets global standards and has both national and international accreditation. Over 30 faculty from 13 academic departments at the University of Ghana offer first-class instruction, supervision and mentoring of the next generation of plant breeders and seed scientists and technologists. In addition, WACCI has developed partnerships with national, regional and international partners, both public and private, involving lead scientists from world-class universities as well as the institutes of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) who support teaching, supervision and mentoring of students.

Following an open, rigorous evaluation of proposals by the World Bank, WACCI was selected as a Centre of Excellence, thus qualifying it to receive investments of up to US$ 13.5 million in a twophased project spanning 2015 – 2023 to strengthen and expand the scope of the WACCI project. As a World Bank African Center of Excellence (ACE), WACCI boasts of excellent facilities for teaching, learning and research. An Enterprise Hub for Agricultural Innovation (KAEHAI) established at WACCI in honour of Mr. Kofi Annan for his service to AGRA and the University of Ghana addresses the challenges of agricultural commodity value chains and equips African youth with knowledge and skills for agribusiness start-ups. The Centre has evolved into a sustainable agricultural innovation and entrepreneurship institution.  

With support from AGRA, WACCI initiated a hybrid maize breeding programme in 2009, leading to the release of three high-yielding and resilient maize hybrids in 2018. The hybrids, which yield between 9-11 tons/ha, are currently under commercialization and should change the maize production narrative when they get into farmers’ hands by 2021. Centre-funded research projects involving international partners have been initiated by a number of early-career scientists in cowpea, soybean, cassava, sorghum, frafra potato and tomato utilizing modern technologies, tools and methods to efficiently and effectively work towards developing a pipeline of products that drives markets and industries. Again, WACCI’s early-career scientists are partnering with faculty from Iowa State University, USA, to develop instructors’ guides for five on-line courses that WACCI will host on its website. This initiative development positions WACCI faculty as leaders in post-graduate training in plant breeding. Other innovations at WACCI include an instructive book on Demand-Led Plant Breeding written by WACCI and its international partners and published by the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CAB) for both formal and continuing education of plant breeders.

In 2015, a Centre-commissioned international review panel led by Professor Emerita Rita Mumm of the University of Illinois, USA, assessed that WACCI was well-positioned to join the ranks of top-tier institutions educating the next generation of plant breeding professionals globally. The report concluded that “Given WACCI’s evolution, strategic plans for future expansion and record of success, WACCI is an institution poised to have a tremendous impact on food security for Africa in the decade ahead by providing Africans with vital education in Africa to meet regional and global needs”. It is also instructive that a country-commissioned study directed by the Ministry of Finance, Ghana, concluded that “Well-managed institutions like WACCI with goals of sustainability in Ghana and expectations of efficiency and ethics are rare and match the Ministry’s vision for the future of Ghana”.

The WACCI Founding Director, Professor Eric Danquah, was the first African to win the Global Confederation of Higher Education Associations for Agriculture and Life Sciences (GCHERA) World Agriculture Prize in 2018.   He credits AGRA PASS, led by Dr. Joseph DeVries, for the smart investment AGRA made in establishing WACCI and commends the Cornell University team, led by Professor Ronnie Coffman, for opening Cornell’s doors for collaboration. He opines that the majority of the WACCI graduates would have otherwise been lost to the diaspora if WACCI had not been established in 2007.  

Professor Danquah acknowledges the contributions from the University of Ghana and all partners, and cites compelling evidence for WACCI’s sustainability. He submits “Let every policy maker on the continent, every institution, public or private and every development partner prioritize quality plant breeding education as the sine qua non for lifting Africa to the next level, from farmers’ fields to markets and industry, for socio-economic development of Africa” He concludes:  “There is compelling evidence from AGRA’s 2019 and 2020 Reports that if the governments of Africa were bold enough to make the necessary infrastructure and policy investments in the agricultural sector, socio-economic development would be a matter of course in the decade ahead”. He believes the reports provide the context for strengthening and sustaining African Centres of Excellence. Read the full story here