Plant breed­ers to boost Africa’s in­dige­nous crops

Africa Renewal - - Opinion - By Ge­of­frey Ka­madi

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.”

ICRAF/ Thellesi Me­dia

Guests view pub­li­ca­tions at the open­ing of the African Plant Breed­ing Academy in Nairobi, Kenya.

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