How Happiness is breeding plants for Africa’s future
Plant breeders are improving food plants and building a more food-secure future for Africa. One has been working at it all her life despite early challenges.
A plant breeder called Happiness spent 17 months trying to study a herbaceous vine prior to breeding.
‘It is found in the thick forest. But when I tried to domesticate it, it never flowered. This indicated that it may be plastic in its floral ontogeny requiring certain environmental signals/stimuli to trigger flowering’, she said.
Undeterred by this, the Nigerian scientist turned her attention to bananas, yams, rice and a myriad of other crops.
But Happiness Oselebe has a lingering regret about the vine, called Dioscoreophyllum cumminsii from where the ‘serendipity berry‘ is harvested.
‘The berry produces a mucilaginous substance (called “Monellin”) which is a low molecular weight protein, having more than 3000 times the sweetness of sucrose on a molar basis. When you find the berry in the market, people scramble for it. Only people who live near the forest easily have it. With disappearing forests, it is becoming an endangered species’.
In a burst of scientific articles ten years ago, she suggested that the sweetener, a glycoprotein that is the world’s sweetest naturally-occurring substance, could replace sugar in foods for diabetics and dieters. She also documented the medicinal attributes of the plant’s tubers, stems and leaves. But like thousands of under-researched African plants, today D. cumminsii languishes, its habitat under threat. Many more Happiness Oselebes are needed to domesticate— that is, bring onto farms—the vine and other plants like it.
It is to address such voids that the African Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC) was established in 2011. Under the aegis of the African Union’s New Partnership for African Development, AOCC is spearheading the improvement of 101 African plants that are profoundly nutritious, locally and climatically adapted, and at the heart of cultures across the continent. Its 14 members include the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Google, LGC Group, Mars Incorporated, BGI, Illumina, iPlant Collaborative, and the University of Ghent.
AOCC is hosted by ICRAF – The World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya where it is headed by Ramni Jamnadass. Like Oselebe, she is also concerned about forests and their role in food supply.
‘Less than 50 years ago, communities obtained much nutrition as well as medicine, fodder, fibre and wood from forests’, said Jamnadass. ‘Yet today, forests have disappeared or are disappearing and so is the future for many of the species that communities want in their farming landscapes’.
The Kenyan scientist, who oversees a gene bank and the AOCC laboratory, stresses that, ‘The challenge is that many forest species are still wild as are the tree foods that AOCC promotes. To encourage farmers to cultivate them requires that the seeds and seedlings be of good quality and widely available. Next-generation sequencing offers huge livelihoods opportunities through improving the planting material by breeding and selecting desirable traits or ideotypes. Our objectives are to sequence almost 50 food trees to expedite their use by farmers and others’.
Oselebe is attending the African Plant Breeding Academy, which collaborates closely with AOCC. From southeastern Nigeria, she was a child during the war of 1967–70 and recalls hiding under yams ‘twined up sticks’. Today an academic at Ebonyi State University, she emits intellectual energy, fortitude and grace. Her husband and family have supported her throughout her journey.
‘In my State, I am the second woman to become a professor. When their mum is called professor, my children are proud’, she said.
Besides being a scholar, Oselebe is an entrepreneur and conservationist. After working on a project to develop higher-yielding, drought-tolerant lowland rice, she set up a limited liability company at her university to produce foundation seed from which companies could grow certified seed. At the same time, she moved to conserve the genetic base.
‘Diversity is quickly eroding. That is why I have students collecting landraces [locally adapted, traditional varieties of domesticated species] of rice and yam. We are planting them on a small basis’.
Her PhD researched bananas but her focus today is yams and rice.
‘When we go to meetings, we lament because not enough attention is given to them, especially yams. There are so many varieties that my people eat. I want to do something that brings me close to my people. Foremost in my mind is preventing hunger. Because oil is failing and the economy is on the downturn, most states are going back to agriculture’.
Asked about the training at the African Plant Breeding Academy, she replied, ‘Every plant breeder would want to be part of it. Breeding is a dynamic and fast-changing field. Even the molecular technologies that I used for my PhD and about which I was on top of the world are obsolete now. There is so much information from the basics to the high-tech and high-throughput technologies’.
Happiness Oselebe is a Borlaug Fellow under the Norman E. Borlaug International Agricultural Science and Technology Fellows Program for Women in Science. She is also a fellow of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), the Gates program based at ICRAF to mentor African women in science.
‘At AWARD, you are assisted to bring out the best in you and know your ambition. I try to chart my life to achieve that. My major goal is to impact the lives of rural dwellers’.
The African Plant Breeding Academy is led by the University of California, Davis and funded by Mars and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Its goal is to train practising African plant breeders in the most advanced theory and technologies for plant breeding in support of critical decisions for crop improvement. Its teachers include some of the world’s top plant breeders, including emeritus professor Dr Rita Mumm, former director of the Plant Breeding Center at the University of Illinois. Click here for more information about the Academy.
ICRAF The World Agroforestry Centre is a member of the CGIAR, a global partnership for a food-secure future.
We would like to thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.