Public Release: 

Unique African partnership announces trend-setting Ph.D. program for crop breeding in Africa

Building on revolutionary approach piloted in South Africa, effort seen as critical to aid long-term food security in Africa

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

ACCRA, GHANA and NAIROBI, KENYA (19 September 2007)--The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) announced today that it is partnering with the University of Ghana, Legon, to launch the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), to train the next generation of African crop scientists. AGRA will also strengthen a programme piloted at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI). Together, the two programmes will train approximately 120 PhD plant breeders over the next ten years, helping to create the critical mass of crop breeders needed to end Africa's food crisis.

"These programmes will bridge a wide gap in African scientific capacity, by training African plant breeders in African universities to improve and adapt the indigenous and orphan crops needed to meet Africa's food needs," said Joseph DeVries, Director of AGRA's Programme for Africa's Seed Systems.

With more than 200 million malnourished and hungry people in Africa, the region is in dire need of highly trained crop breeders who can develop high-yielding, hardy, and nutritious varieties of African crops adapted to the wide range of conditions and constraints faced by Africa's small-scale farmers. Such varieties are essential to farmers' ability to raise yields and incomes, and to end poverty.

The grant to the University of Ghana, Legon, is for US$4.9 million, and the grant to the University of KwaZulu-Natal is for US$8.1 million. The Legon programme will recruit students from western and central Africa, and the first class will enter in January 2008. The South African program will recruit students from eastern and southern Africa. Both grants will significantly boost agricultural scientific capacity in their respective institutions.

The WACCI and ACCI programmes set a new direction for agricultural higher education in Africa. Until now, most PhD training of African plant breeders has taken place in Europe or the United States. That training has primarily involved crops that are largely irrelevant to African farming.

"A PhD student training in Europe might look for valuable DNA sequences in wheat. An African scientist whose country has no wheat production and no DNA labs will not be equipped to face the challenges of developing local food crops when they go home," said Prof. Eric Danquah, director of WACCI at the University of Ghana, Legon.

Most of the crops important to Africa--such as cassava, sorghum, millet, plantain, and cowpea--the so-called "orphan crops," are of little importance to researchers and educators in the developed world. As a result, there is a serious shortage of breeders of these crops. For example, there are under a dozen millet breeders in all of Africa. Yet millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on millet as an important part of their diet. Conversely, most of the more than US$35 billion invested by private firms in agricultural research is concentrated in North America and Europe, on a handful of commercially important crops.

The new African university programmes will ensure relevance to Africa's food needs by recruiting students who already work as scientists with African national research institutions and who will return to those institutions upon completing their PhDs. Furthermore, by training students in Africa rather than requiring them to leave the continent, the programmes will help to stem a "brain drain" of Africa's agricultural scientists, as significant numbers of Africans training in the U.S. and Europe stay in their countries of training.

Both programmes will build scientific capacity in Africa for African institutions. WACCI will offer a PhD fellowship which includes two years of coursework and three years of field research. Current crop science programmes in Africa are solely research-based, lacking the critical course work offered in the US and Europe.

First year course work will include plant genetics, crop improvement, biometry, quantitative genetics, molecular genetics and biotechnology in plant breeding, plant microbial interactions and disease control and plant stress physiology.

To help update and strengthen the curriculum, Cornell University in New York is also joining the partnership, and will receive a grant of US$1.7 million to provide services and resources. These include assisting with curriculum design, assessing research capacity, and reviewing dissertation proposals. Cornell will also provide distance learning opportunities and help in the design of information technology infrastructure. And the university's Mann Library will facilitate access to world-class agricultural library resources and services for WACCI and ACCI PhD students.

Building on Success

WACCI will build on the success of ACCI. Having started in 2000 as a mere concept--with no staff, students or offices--the programme graduated its first class of African PhD plant breeders last spring. It is currently training eight new PhD students each year, and has 46 students in the system, tackling 13 crops. Together with their local co-supervisors, the students already form a de facto network of plant breeders.

"We are training applied plant breeders with a broad set of skills so that they can succeed in breeding better crop varieties, however challenging their home environment," said Prof. Mark Laing, Director of the ACCI at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. "By focussing our students' Ph.D. thesis research on local crops, in local environments, the programme will use the power of applied plant breeding on African crops, aiming to develop effective solutions to long-standing problems facing Africa's farmers."

The programme, which draws students from 13 countries, has already had a positive national impact on plant breeding in Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, said AGRA's DeVries. One PhD student has shown that it can take as little as three years to develop superior cassava varieties with resistance to an aggressive virus. In the past, plant breeders have taken 6 to 8 years to make similar progress, according to DeVries.

Ultimately, AGRA envisions plant breeding stations located in every agriculturally important biogeographic zone, populated with skilled, knowledgeable plant breeders, working on locally important crops to meet local needs.


About the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa

The African-led Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is a dynamic partnership working across the continent to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families lift themselves out of poverty and hunger. AGRA programs develop practical solutions to significantly boost farm productivity and incomes while safeguarding the environment and biodiversity. To achieve this goal, Alliance partnerships address all key aspects of African agriculture: from seeds, soil health and water to markets, agricultural education and policy. AGRA is chaired by Kofi Annan, the former ecretary-General of the United Nations.

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