ACCI food heroes
As a group, ACCI graduates and staff members have made a significant contribution to African agriculture. Apart from developing and releasing new, improved varieties of food-security crops, occupying key leadership positions in African agriculture and teaching and mentoring up-and-coming plant breeders, they also form a body of independent thinkers making a contribution to agricultural science on the continent.
Featured are some of our graduates who have made their mark.
Professor John Derera
It seems fitting to start with our very first graduate, Professor John Derera from Zimbabwe, who graduated in 2006, a year earlier than the rest of his cohort.
He has released an astonishing 131 maize inbred lines, 21 popcorn inbred lines and 15 new varieties of popcorn.
He’s the global head of R&D at Seed Co Ltd and a honorary professor of plant breeding at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Dr Chrispus Oduori
Dr Chrispus Oduori was the first plant breeder to release improved varieties of finger millet in Africa. It was a big deal because at the time, this hardy, ultra-nutritious indigenous crop was entirely unimproved.
Before his varieties were released, farmers were so desperate to get hold of them plants were stolen from the research station where he worked in western Kenya. Since then, yield increases of up to 500% have been recorded for his varieties.
Oduori, who graduated in 2008, is Agricultural Centre Director at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation.
Dr Joseph Kamau
After graduating in 2007, Dr Joseph Kamau achieved a major breakthrough for food security when he developed a cassava variety that was both resistant to Cassava mosaic virus and ready to harvest in less than half the time it usually took, thereby giving farmers an extra harvest each year.
With roots of up to a metre long and the ability to withstand long periods of drought, cassava is a major source of calories for more than 500 million Africans, but until Joseph’s achievement many farmers’ varieties took up to 18 months to mature.
He has since released 12 varieties of cassava and four of sweet potato. He’s currently a lecturer at Kenyatta University and a seed expert for KARI. He’s also the deputy head of the East African Agricultural Productivity Project.
Dr Sophia Kashenge-Killenga
Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and soil in low-lying coastal areas to become more salty. This is a major problem for rice farmers in south-western Tanzania.
For her PhD thesis, Dr Sophia Kashenge-Killenga focused on breeding rice for salt tolerance in Tanzania. She subsequently released two varieties in 2016 that are tolerant of salt water stress, as well as being high-yielding and early-maturing.
Sophia is the Chief Executive Officer of Agriculture Seed Agency, Morogoro, Tanzania.
Dr Stanley Nkalubo
Dr Stanley Nkalubo has released nine varieties of beans — an important source of cheap protein — that are early-maturing and high-yielding. Two of these varieties are also resistant to anthracnose and three are resistant to cowpea aphid-borne mosaic virus (CABMV) — both devastating diseases for farmers.
He works as a plant breeder and geneticist for NARO Uganda.
COVID-19 threatens food security, so the efforts of those who have helped make Africa’s agricultural system more robust are especially significant.
Our graduates have released well over 150 varieties of food security crops that make it possible for smallholder farmers to produce bigger harvest of more nutritious food.
Dr Kiddo Mtunda
Dr Kiddo Mtunda was our first Tanzanian student to graduate with a PhD, focusing on breeding cassava for high dry matter which is highly valued for cooking quality. Cassava has been called the “Rambo root” because of its ability to flourish in harsh conditions and it is a crucial food security crop for millions of Africans.
After graduation Kiddo worked on improving virus resistance (cassava mosaic disease and Cassava brown streak virus), high starch content and yield, breeding four new cassava varieties that were released in 2015.
She now works as principal research officer at the Sugarcane Research Institute in Kibaha, Tanzania.
Dr Damien Shumbusha
Dr Damien Shumbusha’s sterling efforts to develop and release eight new varieties of sweet potato have made a big difference for farmers and consumers in his homeland, Rwanda.
Three of his varieties are high yielding and high in beta-Carotene, a pre-cursor to Vitamin A that is essential for fighting vitamin A deficiency which causes blindness in millions of African children.
In addition, Damien has released five dual purpose varieties for human and animal consumption with a wide array of traits, including high yield, high dry matter content and resistance to diseases.
Dr Mweshi Mukanga
Dr Mweshi Mukanga from Zambia had a background in plant protection before joining our PhD programme and did his research project on breeding maize with resistance to maize ear rots, an indirect method of selecting for reduced levels of mycotoxins. This work, if advanced, could lead to the release of resistant varieties.
He has participated in studies aimed at mitigating mycotoxins’ effects in maize and food legumes and promoting a better understanding of them.
Mukanga also did work breeding rice for high yield, blast resistance and soil acidity tolerance. As a result three varieties were released in 2014. He works for ZARI in plant protection and quarantine.
Dr Amade Muitia
For his PhD research project, Dr Amade Muitia tackled three of the main problems affecting groundnut, a crucial crop that provides protein to millions of Africans.
Groundnut is vulnerable to infection by a fungus called Aspergillas flavus that produces highly toxic aflotoxins. It is also badly affected by Groundnut rosette disease and Leaf Blight.
Muitia bred groundnut for resistance to aflatoxin contamination and reduced susceptibility to Rosette disease and leaf blight, as well as for quality traits. In 2013 an early-maturing variety bred by him was released and commercialised.
Muitia, who graduated in 2012, works at the Mozambique Agriculture Research Institute and is the country’s main peanut breeder.
Dr Robooni Tumuhimbise
Dr Robooni Tumuhimbise has made a huge contribution to improving a crop that is much loved in Africa and especially in his homeland, Uganda, where average per capita consumption is an astounding 191kg. However, this sought-after crop is plagued by diseases.
In 2017 Robooni released four varieties of banana that are disease and pest-resistant as well as high-yielding, while in 2019 he released another variety that is high-yielding and high-quality.
He has also published a book on the subject of his PhD, the breeding and evaluation of cassava for high-storage root yield and early bulking in Uganda. He works for the National Agricultural Research Organisation of Uganda.
Dr Batiseba Tembo
Climate change is causing temperatures to rise, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, and Zambia is expected to get much hotter.
Dr Batiseba Tembo did her PhD research in Zambia on developing high-yielding wheat genotypes that are heat tolerant.
She is now a senior agricultural research officer at Zambia Agricultural Research Institute and has released four new varieties of wheat.
Dr Jimmy Lamo
The most lethal foe for rice in Africa is blast, a stem and sheath disease that causes huge losses to farmers.
Dr Jimmy Lamo, the main rice breeder in Uganda, has released nine varieties of high-yielding rice that are both resistant to this devastating disease and drought tolerant. Eight of these varieties have been commercialised.
For his PhD research project, Lamo also looked at grain shattering, the process whereby the rice plant disperses its seed. For this research, a suction device that pulls grains off the anthers was needed and Lamo designed and built his own rice anther suction device, that uses an ordinary household vacuum cleaner.
In addition, he developed a hand-held single grain tester, which is efficient, cheaper and more suitable for field studies than the laboratory tester.
Dr Clare Mukankusi
Bean breeder Dr Clare Mukankusi is passionate about the work she does because she knows how important this crop is for Africans.
“I knew studying beans would be a way for me to reach the poorest in Africa. Beans are so important – they are known as a poor man’s meat. Whatever I do here will eventually get to these people – to improve livelihoods, nutrition, incomes,” she said in an interview.
Mukankusi focused her PhD research on breeding the common bean for resistance to Fusarium root rot. She now works as a plant breeder at CIAT, where she helps to monitor the flow of bean germplasm in and out of the continent’s biggest bean gene bank. She’s also part of the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance that developed five new bean varieties.
Dr Francisco Miti
Before joining the ACCI programme Dr Francisco Miti had a background in seed quality control, testing and certification in the rural areas, where he realised that the majority of farmers growing maize in Zambia were battling with drought and obtaining fertilizer.
Francisco did his PhD research project on breeding maize that was tolerant of drought and low soil nitrogen while still producing good yields. He’s bred six new maize varieties with these traits, of which five have been commericialised.
He currently works as chief seeds officer at the Seed and Certification Institute, Zambia.
Dr Placide Rukundo
Dr Placide Rukundo, the research coordinator for the potato sub-program at Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Research Board (RAB), has released five new varieties of sweet potato that are aimed at enhancing both farm productivity and the sweet potato value chain.
The varieties are early-maturing, resistant to some diseases and adaptable to various climatic conditions in the country. They are also high yielding, producing about 30 – 40 tons per hectare, considerably above the national average of 10 – 15 tons per hectare. Moreover, each of these varieties has unique attributes that fit agronomic and industry needs.
For instance, while the heat-tolerant variety is suitable for the lowland areas of the country, the early-maturing one is suited for the short-growing seasons. Some of the varieties are also suitable for the processing of potato chips and crisp production.
Dr Arnold Mushongi
Maize is a vital food security crop in Tanzania, where 80% of the total crop is grown by small-scale farmers who lack improved varieties and can’t afford fertiliser.
Dr Arnold Mushongi conducted his PhD research, with input from farmers, in the Southern Highlands agroecology where half of all maize is grown.
His genetic studies of secondary traits and yield heterosis in maize under high and low nitrogen conditions determined that it was possible to develop a variety that produced greater yields in low nitrogen conditions.
This meant that farmers could increase their incomes and improve their lifestyles. The farmer-preferred trait of early maturity was also included in this variety.
Arnold is a maize breeder in the Department of Research in the Ministry of Agriculture. One of his varieties has been released.