Growing up in southeastern Nigeria, young Damian Njoku was very passionate about agriculture and how people could better access nutritious food. This led him to study agriculture at the university, after which Njoku received his master’s degree in crop physiology at Michael Okpara University of Agriculture in Umudike. He also worked for five years as a junior scientist in the cassava program at the National Roots Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) Umudike in Abia state.
However his journey to becoming one of the best cassava breeders in Nigeria started in 2007 when he applied for a grant from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to complete a PhD Programme. The grant was approved and he was admitted into the West Africa Centre for Crop Investment Institute (WACCI) in Ghana to further his research.
After Dr Njoku graduated in 2013, he returned home briefly and had the opportunity to partake in an AGRA cassava-breeding project. He took over from Dr Emmanuel O. and was able to complete the 2nd phase of the AGRA project after he got a job and left the institute.
“I continued where he stopped and started the 2nd phase of the AGRA cassava project at the national institute in October 2014. Considering the project was about to finish, I started writing for them to give us another grant but I was advised to send in a fresh application, “explained Dr Njoku.
In 2014, he was awarded a grant of $146,350 to work on the genetic improvement of root and tuber crops, particularly cassava, in a new environment. The areas to be covered were Kaduna and Kano state where they only have about two to three months of rainfall. “We take the materials out of Lagos, screen them and then select those that can do well in the north,” he said.
With the help of AGRA, Dr Njoku has received training in different capacities and also travelled to the UK and Tanzania where he has given talks on some of his projects. He has also been able to sponsor 4 students to the university, out of which 2 of them have become graduates.
During his project on genetic improvement of root and tuber crops, he used both conventional and molecular approaches – with the aim to develop more drought-resistant varieties. “I want to see if I can breed cassava varieties that will do well in areas of low rainfall in Nigeria,” he said. “In Nigeria we have an abundance of unused land for agriculture but those lands are mostly in the semi-arid region of the north.”
According to his research and overall experience taking cassava from the south to the north, the cassava ambassador believes that even though cassava isn’t necessarily popular in the north, some farmers are warming up to it.
So far, Dr Njoku has released 4 varieties and is currently working on releasing another 6 between January and February 2017. He has also been promoted to the Head of Genetic resources for the National Food Crop Institute where he is overseeing a cassava grading project.
In honour of AGRA, Dr Njoku built an office space called AGRA House where he gives talks and hosts seminars from time to time.