Hearty applause mingled with the sound of drumbeat at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) as the African Plant Breeding Academy came into being shortly after midday on 3 December 2013. The Academy, an initiative of the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC), is hosted by ICRAF and will be used to train around 250 African scientists in the latest biotechnological techniques to optimize the yield and nutritional content of 100 important but little-researched edible crops and trees native to Africa. Grown widely on farms, the improved varieties will help address the serious challenge of poor health caused by chronic malnutrition and recurrent episodes of hunger among Africa’s populations, especially the rural poor.
The first training course of the Academy had actually started the day before, and the 24 participants, crop breeders from 11 African countries, were in the audience. The Plant Breeding Academy training programme has been developed by UC Davis. “We are very proud of this programme and also very proud to be working with ICRAF on it,” said Allen Van Deynze who is a primary instructor and co-founder, together with Dr. Kent Bradford.
Professor Onesmo ole MoiYoi, the event’s keynote speaker, was emphatic: “We have to get serious about getting people out of episodes of starvation,” he said. Ole MoiYoi, chair of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute Board, discussed the many dangers of poor nutrition in mothers, babies, and young children. These include an acquired predisposition to life-threatening conditions like coronary disease, hypertension, certain cancers, and even schizophrenia, later in life. “Imprinting during fetal development commits an individual to develop traits that can be passed on to grandchildren,” he stated, citing observations from Europe and China.
Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer of Mars, Incorporated, whose idea it was to start the Academy, said stunting and other debilitating conditions of malnutrition such as night blindness (caused by vitamin A deficiency); anaemia (iron deficiency); and cretinism (iodine deficiency) were unacceptable in the present day and age.
“Stunted children do not reach their full potential, physically, mentally or financially. We believe this work can help correct the low nutritional content of staple food; the crops will be bred to optimize their health-giving properties,” said Shapiro.
The baobab tree and millet are examples of food crops and tree species that are important for people in Africa but have not received much attention from researchers and industry. They are among the 100 ‘orphan crops’ that will undergo a complete genome sequencing at the Academy. The genetic information will be used to improve their productivity, yield and nutritional quality. All the information generated from the Academy will be made publicly available.
“This uncommon public-private collaboration, based in Africa with Chinese and US support, will nearly triple the number of genetically sequenced plant species in the world over the next four years, from the current 57, and I am delighted that so many African tree species are part of this initiative,” said ICRAF director general Tony Simons.
Xun Xu, deputy director of Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), China said the new high-throughput machines being used for genetic sequencing at the Academy are a million times faster and a million times cheaper than older-generation equipment. He added that useful species, and especially human food, are a priority for BGI.
“All the delicious vegetables at the Chinese table have been sequenced,” said Xu.
Speaking on behalf of Ibrahim Mayaki, CEO of the NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency, Diran Makinde, head of NEPAD’s African Biosafety Network of Expertise, said the Agency has as its primary thematic area, food and nutrition security.
“Malnutrition is a direct product of food insecurity. A large number of Africans suffer from deficiencies of micro-nutrients such as minerals, iron and vitamin A, with far-reaching effects. If the quality of life for rural farmers can be improved, we can also help control rural-urban migration,” said Makinde.
The chief guest at the ceremony was Kenya’s cabinet secretary for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Hon. Felix Koskei. He said scientists should take advantage of the Academy for improved food security in Africa.
“Breeding new crops is important for ensuring food security by developing new varieties that are high yielding, resistant to pests and diseases, drought tolerant or adapted to different growing environments. This is now more important than ever before due to the challenges of climate change,” said Koskei.
Purity Njagi, a Kenyan small-scale farmer, welcomed the new Academy and shared her rich knowledge of the nutritive, protective, and medicinal properties of indigenous food crops and trees. She said they were the secret to her robust health.
“I have 60 years and 11 children, yet I can throw soil with a spade and it goes very far away!” said Njagi.
Life Technologies Corporation, the AOCC partner company that developed the advanced sequencers that will be used in the program, was represented at the launch by Mauricio Minotta. In a press statement, the company’s chairman and CEO Gregory T. Lucier said “Life Technologies is proud to be part of this global humanitarian effort to help improve the health of future generations in Africa.”
Kenyan poet Sitawa Namwalie and her team performed a selection of contemporary Kenyan verse at the luncheon hosted by ICRAF following the Academy’s launch.
“We [trainees of the Academy] aspire to win the war against starvation in Africa and in the world,” said Ngozi Abu of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She stressed the need for plant breeders to involve the community in their work, in order “to breed varieties that are acceptable to farmers and other end users.”
This post was revised on 20 December 2013 with the addition of the second paragraph of text.
Photos from the launch: http://www.flickr.com/photos/icraf/sets/72157638314000415/
Download presentations from the launch:
http://buzz.mw/b5tok_l – NEPAD CEO Ibrahim Mayaki
http://buzz.mw/b5tox_l – BGI deputy director Xun Xu,
http://buzz.mw/b5toh_l– University of Nigeria, Nsukka trainee Dr. Ngozi Abu
The little-understood indigenous African fruit trees: http://bit.ly/14jrdQS
 The AOCC, officially launched at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) annual meeting in 2011, is an uncommon partnership of 10 public and private sector institutions: the AU-NEPAD Agency; Mars, Incorporated; World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF); Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI); Life Technologies; World Wildlife Fund; UC Davis; iPlant Collaborative, and Biosciences eastern and central Africa – International Livestock Research Institute (BecA – ILRI). AOCC has raised approximately US$40 million of in-kind contributions to date to support its work.