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Gates and DfID plant project tackles African staple

Cassava breeding initiative builds genetic research capacity

Two international donors will fund a five-year US$25 million global cassava research project to improve plant breeding skills and bolster food security in Africa.

The project will bring the latest plant breeding technology to bear on the African staple, and train more African plant breeders. The research will target Uganda and Nigeria—two countries where cassava is commonly grown.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the US and Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) announced the funding on 29 November.

Cassava is mostly grown by the continent’s small-scale farmers. They produce more than half the world’s cassava, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The project will look at different cassava strains and identify best-bet varieties that can withstand extreme weather conditions and mature quickly with high yields. The goal is to let cassava join other food crops that have benefited from such selection, such as wheat, rice, maize and potato.

Cornell University in the US will host the project in partnership with five other institutions, three of which are from Africa and two from America.

The African partners are the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), both from Nigeria, and Uganda’s National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI).

The importance of cassava in Nigeria and Uganda as a staple food, and the capacity of the institutions to undertake the work, led to the selection of these institutions for the project, says principal investigator Ronnie Coffman from Cornell University.

The other two US institutes are the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in New York and the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Coffman, a plant breeding and genetics expert, says a genetic bank will be built at NaCRRI in Uganda, along with a facility to study the physical make-up of crops to inform breeders of their nutritional profiles.

The equipment will be open to use by other research projects, on other crops, says Coffman. NaCRRI and NRCRI will both also get improved internet connectivity as part of the project, he adds.

Large training component

There is a large training component in the programme. Six PhD students will be recruited from African countries to train under the project. Half will be trained at Cornell, while the rest will be trained under the West Africa Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI) programme at the University of Ghana.

Eight masters students will also be trained at Makerere University in Uganda, where they will carry out cassava-related research.

“The graduate training programmes will be structured such that students are incentivised to return to their countries of origin at the end of the programme, to reverse brain drain away from Africa,” Coffman says.

Peter Kulakow, cassava breeder and geneticist with IITA in Nigeria, says there is a severe shortage of plant breeders on the continent. “Some are getting older and others are retiring. We need replacements,” he says.

He adds that funds should not only be poured into plant breeding, but that the whole agriculture sector in Africa needs a cash injection for research and development.