A Journey through the African Centre for Crop Improvement
Much of the power of Africa lies in its underdeveloped agricultural sector and the unrealised potential of the plant and genetic resources to feed not only the continent, but the world. In recent decades, focus has shifted to the once-neglected area of agriculture in resource-rich and fertile lands of Africa, as governments and investors realised that, to safeguard the future of the only increasingly food-insecure continent and reduce the poverty seemingly running rife in its countries, they needed to mobilise Africa’s valuable resources in order to sustainably and effectively feed her citizens.
Africa has faced mounting challenges in developing the agricultural sector. These include recurrent droughts associated with climate change, lack of improved seeds of crops resilient to disease and pest damages, among other stresses. Africa faces a critical shortage of skilled plant breeders who can develop improved varieties of crops grown across the diverse agro-ecologies of the continent. This will hamper the efforts of Africa’s people to improve their own food security status using improved crop cultivars, which are not just nice to have; improved crops are a necessity as food insecurity threatens lives.
It was into this context that the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) stepped in 2002. The Rockefeller Foundation came to the fore to create an initiative to fill the gap and act as a regional hub for training mid-career professionals in a format which would allow them to achieve their PhD degrees, both through advanced training and through the opportunity to conduct research in their own countries on their own crops. The ACCI was identified as a centre of excellence that could achieve this goal, and so was set up the then-University of Natal, now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, a leading institution on the continent for agricultural research and training.
The ACCI was funded in Phase I by the Rockefeller Foundation and in Phase II by the Programme for Africa's Seed Systems (PASS) program through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). With this alliance in place, the ACCI set out to train African plant breeders in Eastern and Southern Africa to improve African crops.
In the Rockefeller foundation stage of the Centre’s existence, the ACCI trained 40 students, of whom 35 have already graduated and are working in their fields in their home countries. In the second phase, when wider alliances were formed, 61 students were recruited, of which 29 have already graduated.
The Centre provides these breeders with the chance to achieve their PhD degrees through training and research; these qualifications allowing them to deepen their knowledge and give them the experience they need to work towards food security in Africa.
Professor John Derera, who worked at the University as a Professor of Plant Breeding, reflected on the importance of the ACCI’s programme. He was the Centre’s first graduate.
“At the time that the ACCI was started, the problems Africa was facing were both the lack of breeders working to resolve the problems farmers were facing with crops that suffered as a result of disease, pest and drought, as well as the insufficient qualifications and knowledge held by those working in Africa.”
At the time, anyone requiring further training in plant breeding in Africa was leaving its shores to pursue training overseas, resulting in not only a massive brain drain as experts left their countries and remained overseas, but also a disconnect between the training on foreign crops received by students and the work required on African crops, for which they were not prepared. Those who did not have the resources to study simply did not get their degrees.
Many might ask why a PhD in plant breeding is so necessary; what does it add to being able to do the work on the ground?
“It’s a matter of confidence,” said Derera, “confidence in the face of the Afro-pessimism which said that this could not be achieved in Africa. Confidence that comes with the legitimacy of having a PhD. Confidence that is directed towards graduates from funders who are willing to invest in them once they see those letters behind their name and the research that has got them there.”
The enhanced science that comes with the PhD qualification afforded by the ACCI is not the only benefit of the training the Centre has set up. The ACCI is in the business of producing leaders, with many of its students using the confidence they have gained to go on to take up high-ranking positions in not only the public sector and government, but also the private sector.
Derera is a prime example of the results of the Centre’s training in terms of leadership potential. Having been a Rockefeller-funded Masters student at the University of Zimbabwe, as a young plant breeder he had heard of the University of Natal’s strength in plant breeding, and so entered the programme with enthusiasm. His reach across the continent now is almost immeasurable, as he has supervised students from a huge range of countries, enabling their work to be a success. He is a sought-after researcher, and will have an increasingly global impact when he takes up the position of Head of Research and Development at Seedco in Zimbabwe in June 2015.
Despite the now-evident successes that prove the preliminary investment in the Centre to be less risky than initially supposed, the ACCI has faced some of its biggest challenges in the scepticism directed towards the programme, which promoted the idea that conventional plant breeding methods could be more effective and less costly than biotechnological methods and genetic engineering of plants.
Defeating this scepticism and proving the programme’s worth has been a process helped along by the enormous success of the Centre’s students. Derera, during his studies, developed maize inbreds for Southern Africa with grey leaf spot (GLS) resistance, distributed breeding lines of orange maize with hyper-production of pro-Vitamin A and white grain maize inbred lines with stress tolerance to 9 African countries. He has contributed immensely to further capacity building by successfully graduating 56 postgraduate students in plant breeding.
The Centre’s successes are not limited to academia; the ACCI is producing real results, as evidenced by the development of new, resilient varieties of various crops across Africa, many of which have been adopted by farmers. Over 70 new varieties have been released by breeders trained in the Centre, with many more on the way as theses breeders continue their essential work.
The ACCI also put into place a strict process of external review for the research being produced, which was added on top of the University's normal requirements for review of an academic study, in order to prove that the work being produced could stand up under exacting scrutiny.
The ACCI has excelled at producing breeders who understand their country’s crops and are interested first and foremost in farmers’ needs, rather than dictating what they believe will suit them best. Dr Andrew Efisue of Nigeria worked to breed drought tolerant upland rice, and after speaking to the women harvesting the rice found that, despite the dwarf varieties they were given which were thought to be the best variety, they preferred to have their plants at chest height, making it easier for them to harvest. So, Andrew developed a cultivar that suited the farmers it would need to serve.
The Centre has also enabled breeders to improve the economic viability of the crops they are breeding. Dr Joseph Kamau of Kenya, who has 5 registered cassava cultivars with an additional 23 submitted for registration for the semi-arid regions of Kenya, bred for earliness into Kenyan landraces selected for complete tolerance to cassava mosaic virus (CMV), and reduced the time from planting to harvest from 18 months to 7 months. This meant that those growing the cassava would make twice as much by more than halving the time it took them to produce a crop to feed their families and to sell. In addition, Kamau’s cassava varieties had enhanced yield, cooking quality and taste.
Training at the Centre is led by Director Professor Mark Laing involving staff members of varied plant breeding expertise and skills such as Professor Pangirayi Tongoona, Professor Hussein Shimelis, Dr Julia Sibiya (also a graduate of the programme), Professor Rob Melis, Prof John Derera and Dr Paul Shanahan. To maintain its high standard of teaching, the ACCI has outsourced a number of top national and international experts to contribute to its training programme and give graduates a world-class education. The Centre frequently collaborates with the National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARIs) of 12 countries in Africa, with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system and with the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) at the University of Ghana, Makerere University, Cornell University and Wageningen University.
The challenges for the next phase of the Centre’s work will be to continue meeting the need for the output of even more plant breeders for Africa. While the Centre’s achievements are laudable and have defied expectations, spreading its 64 graduates between the countries it has served pales in comparison to the large number of skilled personnel still required to make a meaningful difference on a continent where small-scale farmers produce food at only 5-10% of the yield potential of the crops they grow.
In the next phase of the ACCI’s work, the aim is to recruit and train 100 additional PhD students, in 12 cohorts between 2015 and 2027, scheduled to graduate between April 2019 and April 2028, with the specific aim of graduating approximately 8 PhDs per country in 12 countries in East and Southern Africa to fill the current gaps in capacity, and to replace current Plant Breeders who have vacated their posts.
The ACCI’s dream is to continue and expand, to be a leader in producing leaders who will reinvigorate their fields with confidence, hope and security for the future.