Plant breeders to boost Africa’s indigenous crops

From Africa Renewal: 
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Guests view publications at the opening of the African Plant Breeding Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: ICRAF/Thellesi Media
Guests view publications at the opening of the African Plant Breeding Academy in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: ICRAF/Thellesi Media

Two hundred and fifty plant breeders from different African countries are currently at the newly opened African Plant Breeding Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, to examine the nutritional and productivity levels of about a hundred African crops. Upon completion of the project, which is set to last five years, these breeders will be able to advise smallholder farmers in their respective countries on the crops with high yields and nutrition. 

Crop yields and nutrition are boosted when farmers cultivate the right crops, says Howard-Yana Shapiro, an assistant professor at the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of California–Davis, US, which is involved in this project. “What we are trying to do is [help] correct the lack of nutritional content in many indigenous African food crops.”

Under the umbrella of the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC), the University of California is collaborating with the African Union through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the International Livestock Research Institute, the World Agroforestry Center and others to implement this high-tech initiative. 

The consortium launched the plant-breeding academy, the first of its kind in Africa, last December. Ngozi Abu, one of the trainees and also a senior lecturer in the Department of Plant Science and Biotechnology at the University of Nigeria, emphasizes that African researchers should take the lead in research on African crops. Only African scientists or those working in Africa know the desires of African farmers and consumers, she says. Ms. Abu believes that African crops such as “cocoyam and plantains could become the nutritious crops of the world tomorrow.” 

The 250 plant breeders will use new equipment and techniques to “genetically sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes” of the hundred African crops, explains Margaret Kroma, an assistant director general at the World Agroforestry Center. It’s about getting the DNA of crops, Allen Van Deynze of the University of California Seed Biotechnology Center told Africa Renewal in an interview. He maintains that if breeders understand the DNA of crops, farmers could even get information on crops with strong resistance to climate change, in addition to being able to select those with higher nutritional content and yields. 

Throwing his weight behind the academy, Ibrahim Mayaki, the head of the NEPAD, says, “Malnutrition is a direct product of food insecurity. A large number of Africans suffer deficiencies of micronutrients such as minerals, iron and vitamin A, with devastating effect on the population.” According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), malnutrition is responsible for more than half of child deaths in developing countries. 

Mr. Deynze likened this initiative to using a smart cell phone instead of an analogue landline phone.  African breeders will “take advantage of the latest technologies to rapidly advance development of crops that are important to African diets and health,” he says, adding that farmers easily double their yields when they plant the right seeds.

One of the first crops to be examined is the baobab. The fruit can be made into a powder for consumer products. Agricultural scientists refer to the baobab as a “wonder tree” because it has 10 times the antioxidants of oranges, twice the calcium of spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges and four times the potassium of bananas. 

This is an example of the kind of information the 250 plant breeders at the African Plant Breeding Academy will gain about crops and plants. It’s a development that gives Mr. Deynze hope for Africa’s agricultural progress. If there could just be better coordination of the many different agricultural projects on the continent, Mr. Deynze said that “Africa’s agricultural future could be very exciting.”