Transforming African Agriculture by Training Plant Breeders

The ever increasing demand for crop production requires that crop scientists keep pace with emerging technological packages so as to meet the demand. It has been documented that plant breeding alone contributes to a very significant increase in crop production – the genetic make-up of a seed accounts for up to 40 per cent of the ultimate yield.

Production of high quality varieties has been a major challenge in most African countries due to shortage of well-trained plant breeders. As a result, only an average of 20 per cent of African farmers, especially the smallholders, use improved seeds.

To address this gap, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has, over the last 12 years, invested over US$4m to train plant breeders for the East and Southern Africa region through the Improved Masters in Cultivar Development for Africa (IMCDA) program implemented in partnership with the Africa Center for Crop Improvement (ACCI), funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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.

In April 2018, fifteen of the last group of students benefiting from this programme graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Nine of them were PhD graduates while five received their Msc degrees. They are all raring to contribute to improving Africa’s fortunes using their newly acquired skills.

The PhD course in Plant Breeding has been designed to train competent plant breeders using the new technologies. The graduates are well versed theoretically and practically with all fundamental aspects, research and emerging issues/technologies in crop improvement through plant breeding.

“AGRA, through its 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,” said Dr. Rufaro Madakadze who manages AGRA Capacity Building Programme while attending the graduation ceremony.

Trailblazing Work by the Graduates

Tanzania’s Filson Kagimbo, for example, bred weevil resistant sweet potato varieties incorporating farmers preferred traits such as high storage potential, improved yield and dry matter content that make it difficult for the weevils to attacjk the tubers. This variety is suited for the weevil-infested agro-ecologies of Western Tanzania

Another Tanzanian, Emmanuel Mrema, was awarded a PhD in plant breeding. His thesis was titled ‘Integrated Striga Management in Sorghum through Resistance Breeding and Biocontrol in the Semi-Arid Regions of Tanzania’. He conducted a participatory rural appraisal (PRA) study in three selected districts across six villages in semi-arid regions of Tanzania. Of the seed varities he developed, seven had high levels of Striga resistance.

A research scientist at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), Ronald Kakeeto, also graduated with a PhD in plant breeding. During the field research in his home country, he won the African Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF) fellowship to conduct the molecular part of the research at the Biosciences East Central Africa Hub based at International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) in Nairobi. His PhD study identified genetically distant genotypes which combined high yield, drought tolerance and adequate physical quality traits, which are important genetic resources for developing improved groundnut lines in Uganda or countries with similar environments in sub Saharan Africa.

Solomon Assefa Derese from Ethiopia says the ACCI PhD program has been beneficial to him in improving his ability to conduct scientifically oriented plant breeding research particularly in his home country and to the world. Solomon said the PhD program was beneficial to him as it improved his ability to conduct scientifically oriented plant breeding researches which will benefit his home country, Ethiopia and the world at large.

Before joining ACCI, Mozambican Eduardo Mulima worked as a researcher for 10 years at the Agricultural Research Institute of Mozambique based in Sussundenga Research Station. He worked with the maize breeding programme before joining the ACCI PhD study, then he later found interest in sorghum breeding. He is sourcing for fund to continue the work he started with his PhD study to release new sorghum varieties that have farmer preferred traits.

Maurice Mogga from South Sudan also graduated with a PhD in plant breeding. His research topic was on, “Genetic improvement of grain yield and quality in rice in South Sudan.” The overall objective of his research was to provide an understanding of the factors that contribute to enhanced yield and grain quality traits as a basis for breeding and selection strategies in rice germplasm for South Sudan.

Tigist Girsil’s doctoral research focused on common bean resistance to the Mexican Bean Weevil, one of the biggest threats to bean production in her home country, Ethiopia. By developing high-yielding and bruchid-resistant bean cultivars and reducing post-harvest losses in Ethiopia, her project will help contribute to improved food security, nutrition, and the household income of subsistence farmers.

Damien Shumbusha from Rwanda bred dual-purpose sweet potato varieties that are recommended for release in Rwanda or similar agro-ecologies in sub-Saharan Africa. He now works as a researcher at the Rwanda Agricultural Board.


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