Indigenous African crops meet state of the art plant breeding

Dr Achigan-Dako during a leaf sampling exercise for marker-assisted selection at the African Plant Breeding Academy training in Nairobi. Photo by C Watson/ICRAF

Dr Achigan-Dako during a leaf sampling exercise for marker-assisted selection at the African Plant Breeding Academy training in Nairobi. Photo by C Watson/ICRAF

Few plant breeders in the world work on indigenous African crops. In fact, the lack of research on these nutritious and locally valued plants has been almost total. But Dr Enoch Achigan-Dako, a researcher from Benin, is working on four at the same time. He is equally passionate about each and, between training sessions at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), expounds on them one by one.

Amaranthus can never disappear from our farms,” says the senior lecturer at the University of Abomey- Calavi. “Within one month, you have your plant. But I want to cross Amaranthus cruentus with A. dubius for bigger leaves and taller plants. I also want to delay the flowering time, because once the plant flowers, vegetable sellers think it is old. They want tender leaves.”

“With Cleome, another leafy vegetable, I want to improve leaf quality – leaf size and nutrient content. I intend to cross the East and West African cultivars. In Benin and West Africa generally, it is mostly a medicinal plant. I have wild accessions.” Accessions are plant materials from a particular location. On his cleome team, the plant geneticist has two MSc students and one PhD student funded by the Dutch Food & Business Applied Research Fund (ARF- WOTRO).

Turning to egusi melon— Citrullus mucosospermus, Achigan-Dako says it is eaten daily by almost everyone in Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire.

The African foods aisle of a super market in Brixton, UK, an area where many West Africans have settled. Photo by C. Watson/ICRAF

The African foods aisle of a super market in Brixton, UK, an area where many West Africans have settled. Photo by C. Watson/ICRAF

“Its flesh is very bitter so what we eat are the kernels of the seeds. They are delicious and rich in protein and oil. We need more and better seeds.” The scientist also aims to cross egusi with the pink fleshed watermelon—such a close relative that they look almost identical— in order “to transfer the disease resistance of egusi. Farmers use a lot of pesticide on watermelon.”

Achigan-Dako looks pleased at the sight of photos of egusi seeds in London’s Brixton market. Egusi is so central to the diets of West Africans that it follows the diaspora. In 2015, a study in TheLancet pronounced that Africa has some of the healthiest diets in the world. Out of 187 countries, nine of the ten countries where diets were best were in Africa. “The study highlights the need to protect and build on the nutritional know-how and value of diets in some of Africa’s poorest countries,” said Joan Baxter, a science writer who has documented agriculture in West Africa for decades.

 

Achigan-Dako, who has a PhD from the University of Halle-Wittenberg (Germany), is at ICRAF under the aegis of the   African Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC), which aims to do just that. Set up in 2011 in partnership with the African Union (NEPAD), the goal of AOCC is to make the indigenous plants that are raised on African home gardens or grow in fields, forests and common lands even more nutritious, productive and resilient than they already are.

Global dietary patterns among men and women in 187 countries in 2010, The Lancet

Global dietary patterns among men and women in 187 countries in 2010, The Lancet

Achigan-Dako is part of the second cohort that is attending a six week training run by the African Plant Breeding Academy. Funded by food giant Mars, Incorporated and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the academy is the brain child of University of California Davis. “We are really excited by Dako’s work,” says Allen Van Deynze, Director of Research at UC Davis’ Seed Biotechnology Center. “What he is doing epitomizes the goals of the program, to curb stunting due to malnutrition by improving nutritious African crops through plant breeding and making them available to Africa’s population.”

Undernutrition contributes to nearly half of all deaths in children under five years of age and is widespread Asia and Africa; in East and Southern Africa, 40% of under-fives have low height for age, according to UNICEF.

The 29 current trainees, selected from 252 applicants, are among the best plant breeders on the continent; all have active breeding programmes and some are directors of national institutions. They are learning to apply the latest strategies and technologies. Classic tree breeding, particularly of trees, can take decades, but with the new techniques it takes just five to eight years, and even less with annuals.

Achigan-Dako’s fourth crop is, in fact, a small tree — Synsepalum dulcificum in Latin, miracle berry in English or sisre in his language Fon. “All plant parts are of medicinal importance whereas the fruit is consumed fresh,” wrote Achigan-Dako with colleagues in the Springer journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. “Surprisingly, very little is known on the species in terms of genotypes utilization and breeding.”

The miracle berry, Synsepalum dulcificum or Sisre. Photo Hamale Lyman

The miracle berry, Synsepalum dulcificum or Sisre. Photo Hamale Lyman

“The pulp of the fruit is rich in Vitamin C, the skin in Vitamin A. It is also a blood booster of sorts and protects against diabetes,” says Achigan-Dako. “It also contains antioxidants and a glycoprotein, which makes food that you eat after eating the fruit taste sweet. This taste-modifying property has been exploited for centuries in Africa. In Benin, it helps local people consume tart or sour foods. It could be a great value to the food and beverage industry.”

From the wet Guinean zone, the plant has all but disappeared from Benin’s wild. “On collecting expeditions, I find none in the bush. But I find some on farms. I hold focus groups with villagers. They tell you if they know it and, if it is in the neighborhood, they take you to the tree.  Except for one farmer who had more than 200 trees, including young trees, the maximum I have found is four trees on a farm.”

“Some families protect the tree but others cut it to make space for maize. My breeding objective is to increase the pulp yield of the fruit and decrease the time between flowerings.

Achigan-Dako’s drive comes from his childhood. His mother was a retailer in an open market, selling at least six different leafy vegetables, including West African sorel also known as crincrin (Cochorus olitorus), gbolo (Crassocephalum crepidioides) and African lettuce Launaea taraxacifolia. With just primary education, she made sure the young Dako applied himself to school.

Asked about the training, he said, “It’s totally useful and state of the art. I am already improving the process in the lab and changing what I teach. Sometimes we teach students based on knowledge from Western countries and refer to plants like strawberries. Students ask – what is a strawberry? But when I share knowledge from this academy, my university becomes a sort of local Plant Breeding Academy!”

 

Visit the AOCC website at: http://africanorphancrops.org/

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Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has almost 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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