Forest people of DR Congo guide orphan crop research

Tasked to identify orphan crops for DRC by the national agricultural research body, Dr Dowiya takes a leaf sample from a bean plant in an exercise at the African Plant Breeding Academy at ICRAF

Tasked to identify orphan crops for DRC by the national agricultural research body, Dr Dowiya takes a leaf sample from a bean plant in an exercise at the African Plant Breeding Academy at ICRAF

Dr Benjamin Dowiya Nzawele, 42, arrived at the World Agroforestry Centre, also known as ICRAF, in Nairobi with an important brief from his national agricultural research institute: To “identify orphan crops not currently taken into account by INERA, their contribution in the context of climate change and how to improve them”.

The scientist from the L’Institut National pour l’Etude et la Recherche Agronomique (INERA) station at Mulungu in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had come to ICRAF to attend the African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA), where he and 28 other senior plant breeders from Africa are learning new genomic methods for plant breeding. But he had already been out of his duty station for some time.

“I started my search for orphan crops from Yangambi where there was a large research station during the colonial period. It still has a herbarium. Then I went into the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Pygmies were the ones showing me the forest. These pygmies do not cultivate fields but collect everything they need. They follow the season by the fruit. They know everything.”

Dowiya is particularly interested in what these forest people know about wild yams.

Dr Dowiya’s brief: Find orphan crops to improve in response to changing climatic conditions.

Dr Dowiya’s brief: Find orphan crops to improve in response to changing climatic conditions.

“They are experts. They will say – this type of yam, do not eat it. It is poisonous. I am developing a proposal on yams. In DRC, cassava is disappearing because of disease – mosaic and cassava brown streak disease – so people are returning to yams. Wild relatives of crops that we cultivate are very useful for breeding programmes.”

With the help of the pygmy people, he has identified about 30 important species requiring attention, and has found a further 49 elsewhere.

Dowiya did his PhD at Sokoine University in Tanzania “on the distribution and genetic diversity of banana (Musa) in eastern DRC and their relatedness with those in Tanzania”. He comes from South Ubangi in northwest DRC. He experienced many obstacles on his way to becoming a scientist, including political turmoil which closed universities for several years in the 1990s.

His father did not become literate until the age of 30. “We had no primary school in our groupement until then.” Benefitting as a child from that same school, Dowiya then attended secondary school 200 km away. “I traveled by bicycle at the beginning and end of term. It took two days if it was not muddy.”

“I was born into farming,”” says the scientist, who supervises 15 breeding programmes at INERA Mulungu, including one for cinchona. “South Ubangi is in the forest-savanna transition zone. We grew manioc, taro, maize, banana, yams.”

His breeding objective is to have early maturing yams. “Many stay in the ground for one to two years. Very few mature in less.”AfPBA is run by University of California Davis and a part of the African Orphan Crop Consortium, a grouping of 14 partners under the aegis of the African Union. Its aim is to improve over 100 valuable but under-researched African food crops, including trees, with the longer term goal of reducing child stunting.

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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