A Journey through the African Centre for Crop Improvement
In 2001 The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) took a leap of faith, deciding to fund the establishment of the first centre based in Africa to offer world-class training to local plant breeders. The hope was that this venture, the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI), would address several pressing needs at the time: the need for quality agricultural scientists trained in Africa to work on African crops; the need to keep these scientists in Africa; and the need to be able to develop new varieties for each crop adapted to the continent’s diversity of agroecologies.
The ACCI opened its doors to eight students in January 2002, based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
Setting up such a centre, with appropriate programmes and training, required intimate knowledge of local needs and conditions. It required money, energy, insight, creativity and a lot of commitment—a tall order in a resource-poor region of the world. However, dedicated people with the knowledge and passion to drive the project were found, and slowly, over several years, the ACCI matured and produced results that would once have been seen as wildly ambitious.
The brain drain of plant breeders reduced significantly and a growing task force of new graduates was produced to go out and do battle with the effects of climate change, drought, pests, and diseases. The centre was so successful that a sister organisation, the West African Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), was opened in Ghana in 2007 by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which took over the funding of these programmes in 2006 through support provided by RF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The ACCI has so far trained 117 African plant breeders and they have gone on to develop more than 100 new crop varieties that have been released to farmers. Each of these new crop varieties will have a long-term impact, providing improved food security for farm families for perhaps 20-30 years, before they are outperformed by new ones.
These achievements are impressive by any standard, but they’re not the end of the story. It could be argued that of equal importance has been the symbolic impact of an African institution, staffed by Africans and working for the continent, carving out a space for itself in the global scientific arena. The ACCI has become a world leader in research into Africa’s staple food crops, displaying a bold, creative approach to many of the continent’s unique challenges. Furthermore, its graduates stand out as self-confident, empowered agricultural scientists who have a plan and skills to match their vision to make an impact in their home countries.
2014 PhD Graduates
The work of the ACCI is not complete. There is an on-going need for African countries to unite to train PhD-level plant breeders and other agricultural scientists for Africa, in Africa. The ACCI has shown that, given the intellectual space and resources to find solutions to our continent’s challenges, Africans are more than capable of succeeding.
The centre’s history is full of change and growth and this will continue as it enters a new era, where it must survive without funding from AGRA. The centre’s new goal is to attract students who come with their own research funding from different partners, and to offer short courses for professional plant breeders and post-graduates. Both of these initiatives are underway and gaining momentum.