Africa: Keeping the Grass Greener for African Plant Breeders

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"Unless we invest at least one percent of our budgets into science and development to train plant breeders Africa needs urgently, we are bound to fail," Danquah said, calling for national research funds instituted by law and governed by independent apolitical institutions and not by politicians.

WACCI, recently named a beneficiary of the World Bank's Africa Centres of Excellence project, has launched a 30-million-dollar endowment to bankroll the future training of plant breeders in Africa.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has for more than five years funded more than 500 MSc and PhD students in various agricultural disciplines in 15 universities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

AGRA's president, Jane Karuku, said the graduates have to date released 66 improved varieties of beans, cowpeas, maize, cassava, sorghum and groundnuts. Using a north-south, south-south collaboration approach, the training has ensured scientists are familiar with local tastes and preferences to develop crop varieties suitable for farmers and consumers.

"The benefits of this approach are manifold. It is considerably cheaper than it is to send the scientists over to Europe or to the U.S., " Karuku said, adding "These students are well-versed in local problems and can offer viable as well as sustainable solutions, be it crop breeding, soil health management, policy or enterprise development."

AGRA has invested in a programme to increase the number of crop breeders in Africa. Mozambique is one of the beneficiary countries, where Jose Ricardo is currently the only sweet potato breeder. Ricardo has helped develop and release 15 sweet potato varieties suited for Mozambique, where sweet potatoes are the third most important crop after maize and cassava.

According to AGRA's inaugural Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR), launched in September 2013 in Mozambique, there is a serious lack of data on existing agricultural skills capacity in Africa. The AASR seeks to provide a more accurate picture of agriculture statistics in Africa. The report shows that Africa has the lowest research capacity of any part of the world, with only 70 researchers per million population compared to 2,640 researchers and 4,380 researchers in North America and Japan, respectively.

"It is not only the numbers that are needed, the quality of scientists has to improve to match the changes in the agriculture landscape," the report noted.

Maize breeder Pedro Fato, who works for the Agricultural Research Institute of Mozambique (IIAM), returned to Mozambique after earning his PhD because he believes his skills are critical for his country. Fato has worked on a maize variety tolerant to diseases and limited water, in a nation where droughts and floods are a recurrent problem for farmers.

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