Winning Partnerships: Working with Research Centres to Train Crop Breeders in Africa

The potential of smallholder farmers, who constitute 70 percent of the African population, to feed the continent and drive an inclusive economic growth and development is enormous and well acknowledged.

For the farmers to fully harness this potential, concerted efforts must be made to optimize their yields. Key to increasing yields is access to good quality seeds of improved varieties of a wide range of priority staple crops. This is particularly dire as only 20 percent of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa use seeds of improved varieties despite the fact that over 50 percent of the total crop yield is determined by the genetic potential of the crop, carried in the seed, with the rest apportioned to proper agronomy, use of other inputs like fertilizer and climatic conditions.

Although the continent has made major strides in the production of such seeds, these efforts are hampered by the acute shortage of world-class plant breeding specialists. At the moment, the continent has less than 500 active crop breeders working in the public sector, which is about a tenth of the recommended number. Unlike the Developed World, in Africa the generation of improved crop varieties by plant breeders is still the preserve of the public sector.

Unfortunately, the capacity to substantially increase the numbers of scientists remains low as most universities only have one to two academic plant breeders which limits the numbers of people that can be trained. Training of Plant Breeders is also done by public universities, with little government funding necessitating the need for other players to fund this.

Bridging this gap for trainers and funding calls for innovative approaches that leverage existing opportunities. One model that AGRA and its partners have pioneered involves funding training programs in universities that collaborate with the extensive network of research institutions that exist on the continent including the National Research Systems (NARS) and the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centers, international universities and private seed companies.

Through the Education for Africa’s Crop Improvement (EACI) programme, AGRA funds PhD and MSc training in partnership with 14 universities in 10 countries across the continent. The programme also offers short-term training of plant breeding technicians in partnership with regional research centres. To date, a total of 480 post graduate students – 152 PhD and 330 MSc and 152 plant breeding technicians (from mostly NARS) from 20 countries have been sponsored.

These students have greatly benefited from the partnership. The courses are presented by university lecturers and industry specialists while practical training is provided by the attachment of the students to the research centres and private seed companies. This affords them an opportunity to interact with and learn directly from experienced specialists.

The students also conduct their research embedded in the NARS and CGIAR research programs ensuring effective training and immediate utilization of their research results into relevant on-going research, with a clear goal of delivering new crop varieties. The research centers provide the students with the ideal working environment for research. Senior scientists at these research centres also, co-supervise the students.

An evaluation of the programme shows that over 90 percent of the scientists trained in this programme conducted their thesis research in NARS centers and were co-supervised by senior scientists in the institutions. These students also benefitted from germ plasm from CGIAR centers. The remaining 10 percent conducted their research at CGIAR centers, university research farms and with private seed companies.

Scientists trained in this programme have developed over 130 improved varieties of a wide range of crops including maize, rice, finger millet, sorghum, cowpeas, groundnuts, beans, cassava and sweet potato in 15 countries in the continent. These varieties have been licensed to and commercialized by private seed companies, making them accessible to smallholder farmers by a network of agro-dealers – who were also trained by AGRA – and are helping farmers to multiply their yields.

The specialists have also published over 300 papers in refereed journals worldwide thereby contributing to the body of knowledge on breeding priority African crops on the continent.

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