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At ICRAF, the African Plant Breeding Academy graduates elite scientists

Alice Muchugi, Genetic Resources Unit Manager, in her lab at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Photo by C.Watson

Alice Muchugi, Genetic Resources Unit Manager, in her lab at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Photo by C.Watson

Among the machines humming in the seed lab stands Alice Muchugi, Genetic Resources Unit Manager at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Alice has been with ICRAF since she was a Masters student at Kenyatta University. She is now integral to the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) and the African Plant Breeder’s Academy (AfPBA), which graduates its first class of plant breeders on Thursday, 11 December 2014.

The goal of the AOCC is to use the latest scientific equipment and techniques to genetically sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes of 101 African orphan crops for the development of robust and nutritious food. The 23 breeders graduating will be the first of many – the Academy aims to train 250 plant breeders and technicians over 5 years in techniques to create improved planting materials for African smallholder farmers.

“The bulk of the crops we focus on are important to the rural livelihoods of people who practice subsistence farming,” says Alice. “If these crops have been grown for a long time by these families, it means they are important to them. Within the AOCC, we can make a significant change to ensure that these crops are better agricultural products; they can grow faster and be bigger and more nutritious”.

Alice explains that at the AfPBA, students are taught to identify diversity at the molecular level within the species they focus on. This enables them to identify a specific point within the genome and use this to model a breeding strategy, leading to much faster results than traditional breeding methods. All orphan crops present unique opportunities and challenges. But Alice is most interested in the 45 orphan tree species, like the Baobab and Dacryoides edulis or African Plum. They are particularly at risk, she explains. “People do not plant them because they believe that they exist in the wild. For those that do attempt to plant them, the challenges of time and space are significant”

Similar challenges are faced by breeders; traditionally, tree breeding takes space and a great deal of time. But with the AOCC, Alice hopes to see the process sped up. “If we can use our genetic knowledge to tackle these as well as the issue of quality, we can shorten the space between planting and benefit. We can make a real difference.” Alice is excited to see the first class of plant breeders complete their training at the academy, and hopes to see more tree breeders in the second group.

Zimbabwean plant breeder Busiso Mavankeni wants to shorten the growing period of the Bambara groundnut to 90 - 120 days. Photo by C.Watson

Zimbabwean plant breeder Busiso Mavankeni wants to shorten the growing period of the Bambara groundnut to 90 – 120 days. Photo by C.Watson

One of the first to graduate from the AfPBA, run by the University of California at Davis, is Busiso Mavankeni. She smiles brightly as she describes the crop she is working on, the Bambara Groundnut. The nut – in fact, a bean — is a ‘backyard crop’ grown by nearly 70% of small scale farmers in Zimbabwe. Despite being highly nutritious, the Bambara Groundnut has been little researched.

“Some call the Bambara a complete food,” says the plant breeder from Zimbabwe. “It’s about 17-25% protein, more than 60% carbohydrate, and about 6% fat.” But there are challenges; it is a long season crop, taking about 140 days to mature in an increasingly variable climate. “I would like to reduce it to 90 to 120 days,” says Busiso. The lengthy growing time is not the only challenge that she hopes to tackle. Others are disease resistance, drought tolerance, strengthening the value chain and generating income for farmers.

Four out of the 23 scientists in the first AfPBA are women. Photo by C. Watson

Four out of the 21 scientists in the first AfPBA are women. Photo by C. Watson

When asked about the AfPBA, Busiso lights up. “It’s exciting. We have learned a lot. Usually we breed conventionally. Here we have been exposed to new technologies that speed up the process. That will help me in terms of developing better products”. To Busiso, working on an orphan crop speaks directly to the people who need it most. “We talk of food security, yet not many people have access to enough food. We talk of nutrition, and yet not many men, women, and children in Africa have access to nutritious food. This program targets the crops that are important to the African people. They will benefit from it.”

When she returns to Zimbabwe with the knowledge she gained from the AfPBA, Busiso intends to put it to good use. “We are going to scale up the research on Bambara. Using what I’ve acquired here, especially the experience with genotyping, I’ll speed up my group. Very soon you’ll be hearing of an improved variety of Bambara from Zimbabwe!”

The future of African food security looks bright with these plant breeders leading the way. The first AfPBA graduate class will take their experiences back home, where they are determined to make a difference in the lives of farmers. The impact of the AfPBA will stretch far beyond the weeks of training as Busiso explains: “the program is ending for us but it is not the end. It’s just the beginning for me!”

Eleven countries and 21 participating institutions are represented at the training, which is funded by MARS, the chocolate company, and supported by the African Union through NEPAD and the AOCC. Among the 23 participants are four women. Other orphan crops include cocoyam, hibiscus, the shea tree and the fluted pumpkin. AOCC partners include the Beijing Genomics Institute, which is sequencing the plant material, MARS, Google, NEPAD, iPlant Collaborative, Life Technologies and the University of California Davis.

Recruitment is currently  underway for the second Class of  African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA). AfPBA’s goal is to train practicing African plant breeders in the most advanced theory and technologies for plant breeding. This six‐week program will be delivered in three 2‐ week classes with session one beginning in Nairobi, Kenya, on June, 2015. For more information, see pba.ucdavis.edu. Applications are due by February 15, 2015.

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By Bryony Bidder

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