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Feb 282013

Drought stalks, some die
Despite the widespread cultivation of beans in Africa, yields are low, stagnating at between 20 and 30 percent of their potential. Drought brought about by climate change is the main culprit, afflicting 70 percent of Africa’s major bean-producing regions in Southern and Eastern Africa.Bean plant by R Okono

Today we turn the spotlight on Zimbabwe, where drought is a serious and recurrent problem. Crop failure is common at altitudes below 800 meters, and livestock death from shortage of fodder and water are all too common. In recent history, nearly every year is a drought year in these low-lying regions frequently plagued by delayed rains, as well as by intermittent and terminal drought.

The ‘battleground’ and ‘blend’
Zimbabwe is divided into five Natural Regions or agroecological zones. More than 70 percent of smallholder farmers live in Natural Region 3, 4 and 5, which jointly account for 65 percent of Zimbabwe’s total land area (293,000 km2). It is also here that the searing dual forces of drought and heat combine to ‘sizzle’  and whittle bean production.

The rains are insufficient for staple foods such as maize, and some of their complementary legumes such as groundnuts. In some areas where temperatures do not soar too high (less than 30oC), beans blend perfectly into the reduced rainfall regime that reigns during the growing season.

A deeper dig: the root of the matter

Godwill Makunde

Godwill Makunde

Research from Phase I of the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project under GCP’s Legume Research Initiative showed that deep rooting is one of the ways to confer drought tolerance in common beans. High plant biomass at pod-filling stage also confers drought tolerance. “These important findings from TLI refined our breeding objectives, as we now focus on developing varieties combining deep roots and high plant biomass,” reveals Godwill Makunde (pictured), a bean breeder at Zimbabwe’s Crop Breeding Institute (CBI), which falls under the under the country’s Department of Research & Specialist Services. Zimbabwe is one the four target countries in Eastern and Southern Africa for GCP’s bean research (the other three being Ethiopia, Kenya and Malawi).

From America to Africa…the heat is on, so is the battle…

The battle is on to beat the heat: through the project, CBI received 202 Mesoamerican and Andean bean breeding lines from the reference set collection held by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, by its Spanish acronym). A ‘reference set’ is a sub-sample of existing germplasm collections that facilitates and enables access to existing crop diversity for desired traits, such as drought tolerance or resistance to disease or pests. The Institute also embarked on bringing in more techniques to breed for heat tolerance.

Kennedy Simango

Kennedy Simango

Drought, pests and disease
“We embraced mutation breeding in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and we primarily look for heat tolerance in small-seeded beans,” says Kennedy Simango (pictured right and below), a plant breeder at CBI. “Preliminary results suggested that just like drought, the reproductive stages of common bean are when the crop is most sensitive to heat. Flower- and pod-drop are common. Yield components and yields are severely reduced. In addition, we also focus on developing pest- and disease-resistant varieties.”


Kennedy Simango at work a the Crop Breeding Institute.
Kennedy Simango at work a the Crop Breeding Institute.

The CBI project’s primary diseases and pests of focus are angular leaf spot (ALS), common bacterial blight (CBB), rust and bean stem maggot, and aphids. “This came from our realisation that drought co-exists with heat, diseases and pests,” Kennedy adds. “So, a variety combining drought, heat, disease and pest tolerance all together would increase common bean productivity under harsh environments or drought-prone areas.”

At first glance, piling up all these vital survival traits may appear insurmountable, but it is all feasible, thanks to advances in plant science. “Breeding methods are changing rapidly, and it is vital that we keep up with the technology,” says Kennedy.

The CBI team is using molecular breeding to identify drought-tolerant parents, and then cross them into preferred bean varieties to confer to the ‘offspring’ the best of both worlds – drought tolerance and market appeal.

All-round capacity and competence
GCP’s support does not stop at enabling access to breeding lines alone, or introduction to molecular breeding. “We got a lyophiliser, which is specialised equipment that enables us to extract DNA and send it for genotyping,” says Kennedy. “From the genotyping exercise, we hope to be able to trace the relationships among breeding lines so that we design better crossing programmes, and thereby maximise the diversity of our breeding lines. In addition, we hope to select recombinants carrying desirable genes in a short period of time, and at times without even needing to test them in the target environment.” GCP assists with genotyping through its Genotyping Support Service offered through the Integrated Breeding Platform.

For phenotyping, CBI has benefitted from a mobile weather station, a SPAD meter (for measuring chlorophyll content), a leaf porometer (for measuring leaf stomatal conductance) and water-marks (probes for measuring soil moisture).

Human resources have not been forgotten either. Godwill Makunde, a CBI bean breeder, is studying for a TLII-funded PhD in Plant Breeding at the University of the Free State, South Africa. A group of four scientists (Godwill and Kenedy,  plus Charles Mutimaamba, and Munyaradzi Mativavarira) are in GCP’s three-year Integrated Breeding Multi-Year Course (IB–MYC). The curriculum includes design of experiments, data collection, analysis and interpretation, molecular breeding and data management techniques. In addition, GCP also trains research technicians. For CBI, Clever Zvarova, Anthony Kaseke, Mudzamiri and Chikambure have attended this training. Their course also includes phenotyping protocols (data collection and use of electronic tablets in designing field-books). To date, CBI has received five tablets for digital data collection , of which two are outstanding.

Photo: CBI

Godwill doing what he does best: bean breeding.

Bringing it all together, and on to farms
But how relevant are all these breeder-focused R&D efforts to the farmer? Let’s review this in proper context: in the words of Mr Denis Mwashita, a small-scale farmer at the Chinyika Resettlement Scheme in Bingaguru, Zimbabwe, “Beans have always carried disease, but from the little we harvest and eat, we and our children have developed stomachs.”

“What Mr Mwashita means is that despite the meagre harvests, farm families fare better in terms of health and nutrition for having grown beans,” explains Godwill.

With this solid all-round support in science, working partnerships, skills and infrastructure, the CBI bean team is well-geared to breed beans that beat both heat and disease, thereby boosting yields, while also meeting farmer and market needs. Trials are currently underway to select lines that match these critical needs which are the clincher for food security.

“The Zimbabwe market is used to the sugar type, which is however susceptible to drought. We hope to popularise other more drought-tolerant types,” says Kennedy. “We plan to selected a few lines in the coming season and test them with farmers prior to their release. Our goal is to have at the very least one variety released to farmers by mid-2013.”

A noble goal indeed, and we wish our Zimbabwe bean team well in their efforts to improve local food security.

VIDEO: The ABCs of bean breeding in Africa and South America, with particular focus on Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe

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Nov 292012

By Gillian Summers

The TLI project lets us know about molecular breeding, so it’s exposed us to new developments in science, especially in the application of molecular techniques and plant breeding.”  Asrat Asfaw Amele, Southern Agricultural Research Institute, Ethiopia

Many a tale about Ethiopia will regale the reader with details of its contrasting landscape, numerous rivers, searing regional temperatures, the multicultural makeup of its society, its world-famous, unbeatable long-distance and high-altitude runners, its rich history and culture; a sweet producer of honey, the home of coffee, and origin of all mankind…

Seeing red… but no blood
…I found a land of incurably hospitable and kind people, proud of their country and culture; infectiously good music, incredibly strong coffee, where they love both bloody raw meat and protein-rich red beans, dubbed ‘bloodless meat’ in this part of the world.

Cool early morning departure

Cool early morning departure

Out & about
My first real taste of Ethiopia was out in the countryside where I visited the work of GCP’s Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project in the field, on a trip to the bean fields at the Southern Agricultural Research Institute’s (SARI) research stations at Areka and Hawassa, which took us on a 600-km round tour, out of the capital Addis Ababa and into the Great Rift Valley beyond.

We set off early that cool morning, and as we headed into the countryside, I glimpsed many a local taking their first breath of morning air as they stepped outside from their decoratively-painted, round, thatched-roof homes, and shook the night’s sleep from their shoulders.

Traditional thatched living rooms

Traditional thatched living rooms

So their day began – already there was smoke coming from the chimneys, and I imagined the lady of the house beginning to prepare for the first coffee ceremony of the day. Coffee is often accompanied by a dish of boiled red beans. Or maybe she was warming the pan for the morning injera – a kind of ‘teff tortilla’: a sour-dough thin pancake made of the local cereal, teff. Injera is an iconic ubiquitous component of Ethiopian cuisine, with which diners take all manner of wat, or stew made from a rich variety of ingredients – from legumes to raw meat, carefully rolling the spongy crepe around the filling twice, making sure no food falls onto the fingers, for dining etiquette strictly dictates against the licking of fingers.

Ensete plantations

Ensete plantations

Living landscape

We pass score upon score of the gently-smoking thatched round huts – the traditional ‘living rooms’ in these parts; most dwellings are accompanied by modest smallholdings, with maybe a grazing goat or two, and many more with plantations of ensete – a banana-like plant, which, in spite of its inedible fruit, has long been a staple in Ethiopia. It is used for its root, which is mashed to make a tasty, stodgy, bread-like food called kocho, used to accompany meals, a denser cousin of the favourite injera. These smallholdings would also be the perfect size for cultivating beans, as they are not an acre-hungry crop, but grow happily on small plots of land, and in some areas are intercropped with ensete to maximise the space.

Dromedaries, drought and beans

Our common legume: the bean, Phaseolus vulgaris L

Our common legume: the bean, Phaseolus vulgaris L

Into this landscape we pass the incongruous addition of a herd or two of camels with their owners…significantly peculiar as these aren’t desert lands, but the edge of the Ethiopian highlands, gradually and graciously giving way to the majestic Great Rift Valley below. I ask my guide about the addition of camel hands to this highland scenery: he explains their strange presence is due to a growing food shortage which has forced these nomadic peoples further afield to find their fare. The appearance of these dromedaries and their human partners brings harshly to mind Ethiopia’s most notorious claim to fame – especially for anyone who recalls the mid-1980s – for whom Ethiopia will always be indelibly synonymous with famine. It also throws the work of GCP, and specifically TLI, sharply into the spotlight, for the over-arching objective of this project is to improve legume productivity in environments considered marginal for agriculture, due to heat and other stresses. Somehow, it seems that more of the world’s environment is becoming ‘stressed’ by the day, though luckily the giant beanstalk of our story is a hardy crop which can be grown on the poor soils and fragmented plots of these challenged lands.

L–R: Asrat Asfaw Amele (SARI), Bodo Raatz (CIAT), Daniel A Demissie

L–R: Asrat Asfaw Amele (SARI), Bodo Raatz (CIAT) and Daniel A Demissie (Areka Research Station) discuss the A–Z of beans at Areka Research Station.

So the legume of choice for this most uncommon road trip is the common bean, Phaseolus vulgaris L, and our Ethiopian bean breeding expert is Asrat Asfaw Amele of the Southern Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), who is the Lead Scientist of the TLI beans component in Ethiopia. Asrat is our friendly guide and fount of knowledge of all things Ethiopian throughout this impassioned passage into the ‘bean valley’, and we are accompanied by Bodo Raatz of the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT), recently appointed Principal Investigator of TLI’s bean research. At Areka research station we are joined on our journey by Daniel A Demissie, who, along the way, shares his many insights on beans, diseases such as bean stem maggot (BSM), and on drought . We are chaperoned throughout by our courageous driver, Mr Abebe, who at times resembles a pilot as we seem to fly over the bumpy terrain in the plucky pick-up that is our steed for the day.

Courageous steeds

Courageous steeds: our driver, Mr Abebe (foreground and far right) and the intrepid pickup are joined by workers from Areka station


Asrat Afaw Amele

Asrat Afaw Amele

Against the scenic backdrop of the Ethiopian landscape racing by, with background music courtesy of Teddy Afro (whose politically charged songs, sweet voice and infectious rhythm have made him nothing short of a legend in his homeland), I take advantage of this long and winding road trip to interview Asrat, where his answers echo the whirlwind tour rushing by outside – from a description of the landscape he knows so well, and toils in every day – to the impact that this project has had on national scientists, the impacts on farmers’ lives, as well as impacts that are likely to come in the not-too-distant future.

We consider farmers our partners. We try to understand what farmers are looking for, what they like, and we try to include their interests in our breeding materials so that the breeding materials released by our institution start to get wider adoption.” – Asrat Asfaw Amele (pictured).

The rich Ethiopian landscape

The rich Ethiopian landscape

Revolution, alliances & partnerships

Ethiopia’s rich history, as varied as its topographical landscape, has known its fair share of extreme rulers. Now it seems the new ‘regime’ calling the shots is climate change, whose ravaging effects are seen worldwide, and no less in the bean fields of Ethiopia. Asrat even pinpoints climate change as the greatest challenge for the next generation of bean researchers, saying, “The farmers’ growing environment may be modified or a new environment may be created. That could also be a challenge – a new pest population or new disease may come; so the challenge in the future may be to breed or develop varieties which adapt to the changing environment.”

Beans line up

Beans line up at Awassa Research Station

The revolutionaries needed to overthrow this ‘tyrant’, it seems, are those of the ‘triple alliance’ partnership, comprising: Ethiopia’s national scientists, researchers from the international science community including CGIAR Centres, and farmers. Firstly, with this approach, the science sector can understand farmers’ needs, which also has a reciprocal effect, as Asrat explains, “We consider farmers our partners. We try to understand what farmers are looking for, what they like, and we try to include their interests in our breeding materials so that the breeding materials released by our institution start are widely adopted.” Secondly, national and international science systems come together to work for a common goal – in Asrat’s words: “Now we’ve got the knowledge and we can speak a common language with people from advanced laboratories. It’s also brought us closer to international institutes like CIAT and other CG Centres – we work together, so they understand our system better and we understand how they function.” He adds, “We are getting technical backstopping from CGIAR Centres, so as a national partner we are doing work, and they are supplying germplasm. That’s the partnership that will continue in the future.”

The weapon used by this ‘revolutionary army’ is GCP’s double-barrelled approach which combines both traditional and molecular breeding practices and is proving to be effective in developing new, more productive bean varieties to combat drought and disease. Specifically of the TLI project, Asrat says, “It lets us know about molecular breeding, so it’s exposed us to new developments in science, especially in the application of molecular techniques and plant breeding.”

Daniel A Demissie

Daniel A Demissie contemplates looming rain clouds across the parched terrain

The ‘monster’, climate change, rears its ugly head only to be shot down expertly by Asrat and the mighty beans as he reveals, “A lot of farmers are growing our varieties, and, because of changing weather or instability, many people are starting to grow beans; beans are now becoming a major crop, especially in our mandate area.”

Capacity building …
At this stage, the major impact of the TLI beans component in Ethiopia has been on capacity building – both in terms of human resources and physical infrastructure, as Asrat illustrates, “In our breeding programme, capacity building has been an important aspect: scientists in our national system are being exposed to new technology, information, and training; we also have a full irrigation system in about 10 hectares of land, which will revolutionise our work.”

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Magical bean diversity

… and on to farmers
By building on lessons learnt throughout this project, current impacts for the national science system will be translated into ‘real impacts’ in farmers’ fields in the near future. Indeed, Asrat hopes his future work will involve “getting the material into the hands of farmers, to see some impact or change, and to modernise and speed up breeding processes using markers developed by this project.”

Beanstalks. Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Beanstalks: giant potential in Ethiopia

So the ‘magic beans’ of our story tell of a rich brew brimming with such potent ingredients as molecular breeding, capacity building, partnerships spanning continents and research systems, true teamwork with the farmers in the fields, and the drive to conquer the new challenge of a changing climate.

The impacts from the TLI project are the pot of gold at this rainbow’s end, showing that fairy tales do come true, where ‘magic beans’ put down roots and grow real shoots, and are not just ‘castles in the air’.


Nov 132012

Bean breeding in his bones: Asrat A Amele

For our bean team, we already see the benefits of being in the Tropical Legumes I  project. We now understand molecular breeding, and we are able to apply molecular breeding techniques.” – Asrat A Amele (pictured)

Asrat is a bean breeder at Ethiopia’s South Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) at the Awassa Research Centre.

Besides breeding beans that will better battle drought, Asrat’s team combines drought tolerance with resistance to the bean stem maggot (BSM) – a pest that afflicts all bean-growing zones in Ethiopia.

Connections, continuity and capacity building
The Tropical Legumes I (TLI) was not an entirely new connection, as Asrat’s involvement with GCP predates this particular project. He started off as a GCP-funded fellow in 2007, investigating bean genetics for drought tolerance. The fellowship would also seem him do a stint in Colombia at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture  (CIAT, by its Spanish acronym). His work at the time on root phenotyping and quantitative trait loci (QTL) analysis has since been published.

At that time, Asrat remarked:

The GCP fellowships programme is great for a person like me, working in a developing-country research institute. I can say it potentially provides researchers with up-to-date scientific knowledge in areas of specialisation. It provides better contact with scientists in other parts of the world and opens a wider window to think on problems and deliver better research products.”

Thorugh GCP, Asrat also attended a molecular breeding course at Wageningen University and Research Centre in The Netherlands. Wageningen is a GCP Consortium member.

The ravages wrought by bean stem maggot.

Having passed through that door of opportunity and looking back now, what does Asrat say? “Through TLI, we were able to access new parental sources of germplasm recommended for release and use for breeding. For instance, we’ve received more than 200 lines from CIAT, from which 10 have been selected to be used as parents. We plan to do crosses with these parents to develop a marker-assisted recurrent selection [MARS] population, based on the problems plaguing beans in Africa.”

And it’s not all about material but also matters cerebral (and matters manual, as we shall see further on): “From the science meetings we attend, we’ve also gained valuable new contacts and acquired new knowledge.” Asrat reveals.

Two…and two

Fitsum Alemayehu

Daniel Ambachew

The next step is to validate the workability of MARS, and SARI has a GCP-funded PhD student, Fistum Alemayehu (pictured right), registered at the South Africa’s Free State University and conducting his phenotyping in Ethiopia, alongside other well-trained staff that SARI now has. Fistum is working on marker-assisted recurrent selection for drought tolerance in beans, while Daniel Ambachew (pictured left), another GCP-funded MSc student enrolled at Haramaya University, Ethiopia, is evaluating recombinant inbred line populations and varieties for combined dual tolerance of drought and bean stem maggot.

Both students are using molecular breeding: “For this work, we’ll be using SNP* markers. It is probably the first use of bean SNPs in sub-Saharan Africa. We will now do QTL analysis with the bean population we have from CIAT,” reveals Asrat.

* SNP: (pronounced ‘snips’) is a technical term, and the abbreviation is derived from ‘single nucleotide polymorphism’ – an advanced molecular-marker system widely used in genetic science. You can read more about SNPs in this press release.

Of humans and machines

A training session on maintaining farm machinery.

Moving on to matters manual and mechanical, besides enhanced human resources, SARI has benefited from infrastructure support as part of GCP’s comprehensive capacity-building package: the Institute now has an irrigation system to enable them conduct drought trials, and SARI technicians from more than 20 different SARI stations have been trained in proper use and routine maintenance of farm machinery. SARI also received two automatic weather stations from GCP for high-precision climatic data capture, with automated data loading and sharing with other partners in the network.

Through this project, SARI is now well tuned into the international arena of bean research and development, and profiting in new ways from this exposure to growing international connections.

Water drilling to install irrigation equipment at SARI.

Institutional revolution and rebirth
The engagement with GCP has revolutionised bean breeding at SARI and institutionalised marker-assisted selection. As a result, SARI will soon have a small molecular breeding laboratory funded by another agency. This lab will support one more PhD student and an additional MSc student, both registered in Ethiopian universities and working on marker-assisted selection for beans.

Thus, in this southern corner of Ethiopia, bean breeders conversant in molecular methods will continue to be ‘born’, better-prepared and well-equipped to meet the challenges facing bean breeding today.




Asrat on video


SLIDES: Phenotyping common beans for tolerance of drought and bean stem maggots in Ethiopia


Oct 302012

BREAK-TIME AND BRAKE-TIME from beans for a bit: Steve Beebe takes a pause to strike a pose in a bean field.

“These [molecular breeding] techniques, combined with conventional methods, shorten the time it takes to breed improved varieties  that simultaneoulsy combine several traits.

And this means that we also get them out to farmers more quickly compared to phenotypic selection alone.”
– Steve Beebe

THE NEAR-PERFECT FOOD: Common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L) comprise the world’s most important food legume, feeding about 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Their nutritional value is so high, they have been termed ‘a near-perfect food’. They are also easy to grow, adapting readily to different cropping systems and maturing quickly.

That said, this otherwise versatile, adaptable and dapper dicotyledon does have some inherent drawbacks and ailments that crop science seeks to cure….

Rains are rapidly retreating, and drought doggedly advancing
Despite the crop’s widespread cultivation in Africa, “yields are low, stagnating at between 20 and 30 percent of their potential,” remarks Steve Beebe, GCP’s Product Delivery Coordinator for beans, and a researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, by its Spanish acronym).

“The main problem is drought, brought about by climate change,” he says. “And it’s spreading – it already affects 70 percent of Africa’s major bean-producing regions.”  Drought decimates bean harvests in most of Eastern Africa, but is particularly severe in the mid-altitudes of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zimbabwe, as well as in southern Africa as a whole.

A myriad of forms and hues: bean diversity eloquently speaks for itself in this riot of colours.

Drought, doubt and duality − Diversity a double-edged sword
“Common beans can tolerate drought to some extent, using various mechanisms that differ from variety to variety,” explains Steve. But breeding for drought resistance is complicated by the thousands of bean varieties that are available. They differ considerably according to growth habit, seed colour, shape, size and cooking qualities, and cultivation characteristics.

“A variety might be fantastic in resisting drought,” says Steve, ‘but if its plant type demands extra work, the farmers won’t grow it,” he explains. “Likewise, if consumers don’t like the seed colour, or the beans take too long to cook, then they won’t buy.”

Molecular breeding deals a hand, waves a wand, and weaves a band
This is where molecular breeding techniques come in handy, deftly dealing with the complexities of breeding drought-resistant beans that also meet farmer and consumer preferences. No guesswork about it: molecular breeding rapidly and precisely gets to the heart of the matter, and helps weave all these different ‘strands’ together.

The bean research team has developed ‘genetic stocks’, or strains of beans that are crossed with the varieties favoured by farmers and consumers. The ‘crosses’ are made so that the gene or genes with the desired trait are incorporated into the preferred varieties.

The resulting new varieties are then evaluated for their performance in different environments throughout eastern and southern Africa, with particular focus on Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe which are the target countries of the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project.

Propping up the plant protein: a veritable tapestry of terraces of climbing beans.

GCP supported this foundation work to develop these molecular markers. This type of breeding – known in breeder parlance as marker-assisted selection (MAS) – was also successfully used to combine and aggregate resistance to drought; to pests such as bean stem maggot (BSM); and to diseases such as bean common mosaic necrosis potyvirus (BCNMV) and to bruchid or common bacterial blight (CBB). The resulting ‘combinations’ laden with all this good stuff were then bred into commercial-type bean lines.

“These techniques, combined with conventional methods, shorten the time it takes to breed improved varieties that simultaneoulsy combine several traits,” comments Steve. “This means that we also get them out to farmers more quickly compared to phenotypic selection alone.”

Informed by history and reality
Breeding new useful varieties is greatly aided by first understanding the crop’s genetic diversity, and by always staying connected with the reality on the ground: earlier foundation work facilitated by GCP surfaced the diversity in the bean varieties that farmers grow, and how that diversity could then be broadened with genes to resist drought, pests and disease.

What next?
Over the remaining two years of Phase II of the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project, the bean team will use the genetic tools and breeding populations to incorporate drought tolerance into farmer- and market-preferred varieties. “Hence, productivity levels on smallholder farms are expected to increase significantly,” says Steve.

The work on beans is led by CIAT, working in partnership with Ethiopia’s South Agricultural Research Institute (SARI),  the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI),  Malawi’s Department of Agricultural Research and Technical Services (DARTS) and  Zimbabwe’s Crop Breeding Institute (CBI) of the Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS).

Other close collaborators include the eastern, central and southern Africa regional bean research networks (ECABREN and SABRN, their acronyms) which are components of the Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA). Cornell University (USA) is also involved.

VIDEO: Steve talks about what has been achieved so far in bean research, and what remains to be done



Jan 072015

Beyond chickpeas to embrace beans, chickpeas, groundnuts and pigeonpeas

Paul_w2As a scientist who comes from the dessicated drylands of the unforgiving Kerio Valley, where severe drought can mean loss of life through loss of food and animals, what comes first is food security… I could start to give something back to the community… It’s been a dream finally coming true.” – Paul Kimurto, Senior Lecturer and Professor in Crop Physiology and Breeding, Egerton University, Kenya

As a son of peasant farmers growing up in a humble home in the Rift Valley of Kenya, agriculture was, for Paul Kimurto (pictured above), not merely a vocation but a way of life: “Coming from a pastoral community, I used to take care of the cattle and other animals for my father. In my community livestock is key, as is farming of food crops such as maize, beans and finger millet.”

Covering some six kilometres each day by foot to bolster this invaluable home education with rural school, an affiliation and ever-blossoming passion for agriculture soon led him to Kenya’s Egerton University.

There, Paul excelled throughout his undergraduate course in Agricultural Sciences, and was thus hand-picked by his professors to proceed to a Master’s degree in Crop Sciences at the self-same university, before going on to obtain a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship to undertake a ‘sandwich’ PhD in Plant Physiology and Crop Breeding at Egerton University and the Leibniz Institute for AgriculturalEngineering (ATB) in Berlin, Germany.

… what comes first is food security… offering alternative drought-tolerant crops… is a dream finally coming true!…  GCP turned out to be one of the best and biggest relationships and collaborations we’ve had.”

Local action, global interaction
With his freshly minted PhD, Paul returned to Egerton’s faculty staff and steadily climbed the ranks to his current position as Professor and Senior Lecturer in Crop Physiology and Breeding at Egerton’s Crop Sciences Department. Yet for Paul, motivating this professional ascent throughout has been one fundamental factor:  “As a scientist who comes from a dryland area of Kerio valley, where severe drought can mean loss of food and animals, what comes first is food security,” Paul explains. “Throughout the course of my time at Egerton, as I began to understand how to develop and evaluate core crop varieties, I could start to give something back to the community, by offering alternative drought-tolerant crops like chickpeas, pigeonpeas, groundnuts and finger millet that provide farmers and their families with food security. It’s been a dream finally coming true.”

And thus one of academia’s true young-guns was forged: with an insatiable thirst for moving his discipline forward by seeking out innovative solutions to real problems on the ground, Paul focused on casting his net wide and enhancing manpower through effective collaborations, having already established fruitful working relationships with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the (then) Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in earlier collaborative projects on dryland crops in Kenya. It was this strategy that paved the way towards teaming up with GCP, when, in 2008, Paul and his team were commissioned to lead the chickpea work in Kenya for the GCP Tropical Legumes I project (TLI), with local efforts being supported by colleagues at ICRISAT, and friends down the road at KARI undertaking the bean work of the project. Climbing aboard the GCP ship, Paul reveals, was a move worth making: “Our initial engagement with GCP started out as a small idea, but in fact, GCP turned out to be one of the best and biggest relationships and collaborations we’ve had.”

…GCP is people-oriented, and people-driven” 

Power to the people!
The success behind this happy marriage, Paul believes, is really quite simple: “The big difference with GCP is that it is people-oriented, and people-driven,” Paul observes, continuing: “GCP is building individuals: people with ideas become equipped to develop professionally.” Paul elaborates further: “I wasn’t very good at molecular breeding before, but now, my colleagues and I have been trained in molecular tools, genotyping, data management, and in the application of molecular tools in the improvement of chickpeas through GCP’s Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course. This has opened up opportunities for our local chickpea research community and beyond, which, without GCP’s support, would not have been possible for us as a developing-country institution.”

Inspecting maturity, Koibatek FTC, Bomet_R Mulwa_Sep'12_w

Inspecting pod maturity with farmers at Koibatek Farmers Training Centre in Eldama Ravine Division, Baringo County, Kenya, in September 2012. Paul is on the extreme right.

Passionate about his teaching and research work, it’s a journey of discovery Paul is excited to have shares with others: “My co-workers and PhD students have all benefitted. Technicians have been trained abroad. All my colleagues have a story to tell,” he says. And whilst these stories may range from examples of access to training, infrastructure or genomic resources, the common thread throughout is one of self-empowerment and the new-found ability to move forward as a team: “Thanks to our involvement with the GCP’s Genotyping Support Service, we now know how to send plant DNA to the some of the world’s best labs and to analyse the results, as well as to plan for the costs. With training in how to prepare the fields, and infrastructure such as irrigation systems and resources such as tablets, which help us to take data in the field more precisely, we are now generating accurate research results leading to high-quality data.”

The links we’ve established have been tremendous, and we think many of them should be long-lasting too: even without GCP

Teamwork, international connections and science with a strong sense of mission
Teaming up with other like-minded colleagues from crème de la crème institutions worldwide has also been vital, he explains: “The links we’ve established have been tremendous, and we think many of them should be long-lasting too: even without GCP, we should be able to sustain collaboration with KBioscience [now LGC Genomics] or ICRISAT for example, for genotyping or analysing our data.” He holds similar views towards GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP): “IBP is one of the ideas which we think, even after GCP’s exit in December 2014, will continue to support our breeding programmes. My colleagues and I consult IBP regularly for a range of aspects, from markers to protocols to germplasm and the helpdesk, as well as for contacts and content available via the IBP Communities of Practice.” Paul’s colleagues are Richard Mulwa, Alice Kosgei, Serah Songok, Moses Oyier, Paul Korir, Bernard Towett, Nancy Njogu and Lilian Samoei. Paul continues: “We’ve also been encouraging our regional partners to register on IBP – I believe colleagues across Eastern and Central Africa could benefit from this one-stop shop.”

Yet whilst talking animatedly about the greater sophistication and accuracy in his work granted as a result of new infrastructure and the wealth of molecular tools and techniques now available to him and his team, at no point do Paul’s attentions stray from the all-important bigger picture of food security and sustainable livelihoods for his local community: “When we started in 2008, chickpeas were known as a minor crop, with little economic value, and in the unfavoured cluster termed ‘orphan crops’ in research. Since intensifying our work on the crop through TLI, we have gradually seen chickpeas become, thanks to their relative resilience against drought, an important rotational crop after maize and wheat during the short rains in dry highlands of Rift valley and also in the harsh environments of the Kerio Valley and swathes of Eastern Kenya.”

This GCP-funded weather station is at Koibatek Farmers Training Centre, Longisa Division, Bomet County.

This GCP-funded weather station is at Koibatek Farmers Training Centre.

Having such a back-up in place can prove a vital lifeline to farmers, Paul explains, particularly during moments of crisis, citing the 2011–2012 outbreak of the maize lethal necrosis (MLN) disease which wiped out all the maize throughout Kenya’s  Bomet County, where Paul, Richard, Bernard and their team had been working on the chickpea reference set. Those farmers who had planted chickpeas – Paul recalls Toroto and Absalom as two such fortunate souls – were food-secure. Moreover, GCP support for infrastructure such as a weather station have helped farmers in Koibatek County to predict weather patterns and anticipate rainfall, whilst an irrigation system in the area is being used by the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture to develop improved seed varieties and pasture for farmers.

The science behind the scenes and the resultant products are of course not to be underestimated: in collaboration with ICRISAT, Paul and his team released four drought-resistant chickpea varieties in Kenya in 2012, with the self-same collaboration leading to the integration of at least four varieties of the crop using marker-assisted backcrossing, one of which is in the final stages and soon to be released for field testing. With GCP having contributed to the recent sequencing of the chickpea genome, Paul and his colleagues are now looking to up their game by possibly moving into work on biotic stresses in the crop such as diseases, an ambitious step which Paul feels confident can be realised through effective collaboration, with potential contenders for the mission including ICRISAT (for molecular markers), Ethiopia and Spain (for germplasm) and researchers at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) for germplasm. Paul first established contact with all of these partners during GCP meetings.

By coming together, pooling skills from biotechnology, agronomy, breeding, statistics and other disciplines, we are stronger as a unit and better equipped to offer solutions to African agriculture and to the current challenges we face.”

Links that flower, a roving eye, and the heat is on!
In the meantime, the fruits of other links established since joining the GCP family are already starting to blossom. For example, TLI products such as certified seeds of chickpea varieties being released in Kenya – and in particular the yet-to-be-released marker-assisted breeding chickpea lines which are currently under evaluation – caught the eye of George Birigwa, Senior Programme Officer at the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) initiative of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is now supporting the work being undertaken by Paul and his team through the Egerton Seed Unit and Variety Development Centre (of which Paul is currently Director) at the Agro-Based Science Park.

Yet whilst Paul’s love affair with chickpeas has evidently been going from strength to strength, he has also enjoyed a healthy courtship with research in other legumes: by engaging in a Pan-African Bean Research Alliance (PABRA) bean project coordinated by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Paul and his team were able to release and commercialise three bean varieties which are currently in farmers’ fields in Kenya.


Paul (left) in the field. The crop is chickpeas of course!

With so many pots on the boil, the heat is certainly on in Paul’s research kitchen, yet he continues to navigate such daily challenges with characteristic aplomb. As a proven leader of change in his community and a ‘ can-do, make-it-happen’ kind of guy, he is driving research forward to ensure that both his school and discipline remain fresh and relevant – and he’s taking his colleagues, students and local community along with him every step of  the way.

Indeed, rallying the troops for the greater good is an achievement he values dearly: “By coming together, pooling skills from biotechnology, agronomy, breeding, statistics and other disciplines, we are stronger as a unit and better equipped to offer solutions to African agriculture and to the current challenges we face,” he affirms. This is a crusade he has no plans to abandon any time soon, as revealed when quizzed on his future aspirations and career plans: “My aim is to continue nurturing my current achievements, and to work harder to improve my abilities and provide opportunities for my institution, colleagues, students, friends and people within the region.”

With the chickpea research community thriving, resulting in concrete food-security alternatives, we raise a toast to Paul Kimurto and his chickpea champions!



Dec 312014

sunset-taskforce-130Our sunset is finally here: the Generation Challenge Programme officially closes today, Wednesday the 31st of December 2014. It is with great sadness, but with even more joy and pride, that we say our farewells, look back on all that GCP has achieved in its decade of existence, and look forward to GCP’s legacy to the researchers, farmers and hungry consumers of the future.

As GCP reaches its end, we would very much like to thank all those who have been part of the GCP journey, whether as active participants or simply cheering us on. This card is for you, with our heartfelt gratitude (and please keep reading, as we have more to say below!).

thank you from gcp

The GCP family is both mighty and numerous, and we cannot hope to name all those whose invaluable contributions have helped make GCP what it is.

First and foremost, we thank the Product Delivery Coordinators past and present who have provided essential leadership and vision to each of our Research Initiatives, and the Principal Investigators who have shepherded each of GCP’s projects – sometimes through green pastures and sometimes along stony paths – to their triumphant conclusions. Our sincere thanks also go to all the hundreds of researchers who have worked with them, and whose efforts have been instrumental in the results and impacts that GCP has achieved.

A body is nothing without its head, and so we offer our profound thanks to the members of our Executive Board, and its predecessor the Programme Steering Committee. Defying anatomy, they have furnished GCP with not only brains but also a heart and firm hands to steer the GCP ship deftly on its course. We further thank all the members of the Consortium Committee, the Intellectual Property Advisory Committee, the now defunct Review and Advisory Panel and Programme Advisory Committee, and the Integrated Breeding Platform’s Scientific and Management Advisory Committee, for their indispensable advice and guidance. (See our current governance and advisory bodies)

We are deeply grateful to all of our funders, whose steadfast faith in GCP enabled this remarkable decade of collaboration and discovery. And last but not least, we thank all of GCP’s staff, both past and present, as well as consultants and others who have worked with us, for their incredible hard work, loyalty and habitual miracle-working.

We would also like to offer a special and thankful mention to our esteemed 3,000-plus readers of GCP News who have faithfully stayed with us through the years, as well as our friends, fans and followers on all our social-media accounts (see them all along the top and bottom of our website).

Together, we have created something remarkable (as our external reviews attest), and none of us will continue in our lives untouched by the GCP spirit. To all those listed above, and to all our other friends who have collaborated, contributed and cheered us on our way – THANK YOU!


Just as it would be impossible to name each and every person who has been part of GCP, we also could not possibly list all the ways in which GCP will live on. GCP’s legacy takes many forms: new crop varieties for farmers, scientific knowledge, relationships between researchers, both young and senior scientists trained in the latest tools and techniques, new ways of working together… we could go on and on!

However, there are a few things we would particularly like to mention. The Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) is one of GCP’s most important offspring, and in many ways its heir. IBP is a one-stop shop for both conventional and molecular breeding activities, making the latest tools and knowledge available to breeders across the world. Its Breeding Management System (BMS) offers a suite of interconnected software designed to help breeders manage their day-to-day work at all stages of the routine breeding process. IBP has also taken over the hosting of certain GCP activities, such as the crop-specific communities of practice fostered by GCP, so that these will continue to go from strength to strength.

Many other GCP projects are also continuing in new phases and forms – their success at securing funding from new sources a validation of their accomplishments so far. For example, Tropical Legumes I and II projects, respectively led by GCP and ICRISAT, will be merging into a new incarnation, Tropical Legumes III, to be led by ICRISAT. In general, the work in GCP’s key Phase II crops – cassava, legumes (beans, chickpeas, cowpeas and groundnuts), maize, rice, sorghum and wheat – will continue under the umbrellas of the CGIAR Research Programmes, as we had hoped and envisaged in our 2010 Transition Strategy.

Meanwhile, you can expect a few final news posts from us in the New Year, as we wrap up the Programme and its communications. It’s our pleasure to announce that, thanks to your demonstrated interest, the GCP website will continue to be online (albeit as an archive), so you will still be able to call in for any GCP information you need – or purely for nostalgia. And we will continue to publish our collection of closing stories on our Sunset Blog, so keep visiting for upbeat and comprehensive journeys through GCP’s achievements, including how GCP has done things differently, our impacts, what we have learnt, and how these will carry on into the future.

Finally, we have one more special thank you to give: to our GCP artists Durga Bernhard and Rhoda Okono, to CIMMYT designers Miguel Mellado, Marcelo Ortiz and Eliot Sánchez for incorporating their beautiful artworks into so many gorgeous designs over the years, and to our web developer and designer Brandon Tooke for stunning concepts. Without Rhoda and Durga to give us our signature look, GCP would hardly be so colourful or distinctive. If you enjoyed the glimpses of their paintings in the thank you card above, why not sample the full works in our online galleries? The first exhibit is fittingly a ‘decoding’ of the lovely logo that Marcelo designed for us in 2004, and the sunset twist Brandon has added to it since (see below).

On that joyful artistic note, from us here at GCP, fare thee well, thank you, and long live the GCP spirit!


P.S. Hold on! We’re not done just yet with our roll of honour. Please step forward, Vincent Vadez, groundnut researcher, for giving substance, form and name to that which most of us felt and loved, but could not put a name to – the GCP spirit. Here’s what Vincent said in a survey response in September 2011: “I feel that GCP is not a consortium, or an institution. It is a spirit.” And thus, a handy and legendary moniker was born, that served us well in the years that followed, and that will hopefully live on into the future. Thank you Vincent for that down-to-earth gem of groundtruth from our main groundnut researcher!

 Posted by at 4:12 pm
Nov 132014

Long legs: our longest running capacity-building marathon’s end is in sight and a new breed of breeders is ready and set to go

Photo: IAMZAs we ‘speak’, the Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course (IB–MYC) is in its final session, reaching its close after three intensive years. This last gathering runs from 3rd to 14th November 2014, and as always is hosted by our partners IAMZ–CIHEAM (the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Zaragoza, Spain). IB–MYC is unusual in its approach, but by taking a risk and investing in long-term in-depth training, GCP has shown that IB–MYC is a powerful model for capacity building with profound impact. Congratulations to our marathon runners as they approach the finish line… and all the best for an ‘integrated breeding’ future!

Breeders develop new varieties of crop through several methods. IBP has developed new varieties of breeders through the IB-MYC programme.”
— Johnson Adedayo Adetumbi: IB–MYC participant, research fellow at the Institute of Agricultural Research & Training (IAR&T), Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria, and breeder working on cowpeas, kenaf, maize and soya beans

IB–MYC: integrated, intensive, incomparable

IB–MYC differed from most other courses in two important ways, both reflected in its name: its ‘integrated breeding’ curriculum and its ‘multiyear’ timescale.  Implemented by GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), the course aimed to empower breeders in developing countries to adopt molecular-breeding techniques. The ‘integrated’ approach to making this happen meant equipping students not only with the latest knowhow on molecular breeding itself, but also hands-on training in and effective tools for data management and analysis.

Course participant Samuel Adelowo Olakojo, Head of the Cereals Improvement Programme at IAR&T and maize breeder, is an enthusiast of IBP’s Breeding Management System (BMS). “My perception about data management is that it helps the breeder to plan their work very easily without stress. The time you take in thinking how to fashion out the design of the trials – you can actually get that done very quickly, very precisely,” he says. “Secondly… after you have produced your output, with minimal editing you can transfer your data to the preparation platform for publishing it. You don’t have to sit down writing everything again,” he adds. “The presentation that comes out of it now seems more graphical. And when you present reports in a graphical, pictorial form… people are enlightened, quickly.”

Since IB–MYC began in August 2012, the participants have each received two weeks of intensive face-to-face training per year. The participants were divided between three annual training sessions, broadly reflecting the three target regions for the course of Eastern and Southern Africa, West and Central Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. In between these sessions they were expected to work on assignments and project, with ongoing in-depth support including online resources from IBP. While well-supported, it was a demanding course, with students expected to pass each year and complete their assignments as a precondition to proceeding to the next year.

More than forty participants came together in November 2014 for the final IB–MYC training session, hosted by IAMZ. For more photos, see the IAMZ Facebook page.

More than forty participants came together in November 2014 for the final IB–MYC training session, hosted by IAMZ. For more photos, see the IAMZ Facebook page.

Taking the slow train to knowledge that sticks

Just as for the participants, this three-year course was also a major commitment for GCP, and – being unlike anything that had gone before – a risky investment of funds and efforts. However, this long-distance marathon has had some special advantages over the quick sprints of more conventional training courses, whose length is normally measured in weeks.

Rather than simply imparting knowledge that is forgotten as quickly as it is learnt, the practical focus, ongoing support and extended time-frame of IB–MYC ensured that participants were able to test and see the value of what they were learning within their own breeding activities, leading them to adopt useful technologies, tools and practices as an integral part of their work – and, it is hoped, becoming advocates, trainers and mentors themselves. Furthermore, as trainees have got to know each other and build relationships over the years, they have woven true communities of practice, springboards for sharing information and working together into the future.

Of course, not everyone has made it to the finish line. A few participants have dropped out over the years as they have changed jobs and directions, and some have even flunked the course. But the great majority have stayed the distance, and with both trainers and trainees convinced of IB–MYC’s value.

Seeds for the future in IB–MYC’s IAMZ roots

Not least of the relationships that have flourished during the course is GCP’s partnership with IAMZ, which also contains the seeds of one of the ways IB–MYC will live on into the future, after GCP’s planned close in December 2014. “We are working with IAMZ to continue that collaboration through IBP,” says Ndeye Ndack Diop, GCP’s Capacity Building Leader. “IAMZ has decided to include the BMS within… the short training course they provide, and that is of course a big endorsement for us that we appreciate. But beyond that, right now Ignacio [Romagosa], the Director of IAMZ, is working towards developing one project with different partners at the European level, where IBP also will be taking part.” This will use both the training material that IBP has developed in the course of these three years, and also the BMS. Says Ndeye Ndack: “the programme that he’s thinking of will be targeting breeders, in which case we believe BMS will be a good tool for them.”

Watch IAMZ’ interview with Ndeye Ndack below (or on YouTube) for more, including GCP’s approach to capacity building, how the GCP-IAMZ relationship began, and the stellar support that IAMZ has provided.

So even as we come to the finish line of this first IB–MYC marathon with the final training session, many more races are yet to be run and many new pathways are opening up for Johnson’s “new varieties of breeders” – and perhaps a new variety of trainers too. We at GCP would like to take this opportunity to give our special thanks to our friends at IAMZ–CIHEAM, and to thank and congratulate all IB–MYC participants and trainers for their commitment, hard work and fantastic achievements.


Oct 142014
Things fall apart… and come together

By Eloise Phipps

Cassava – the tough, gutsy daughter of a poignant confluence of cultures, and the benevolent mother of millions when times get tough – is bursting onto the science scene after years of neglect. For October 15th, the International Day of Rural Women, we crown her the Queen of Crops. Read on to see why …

His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop.”

So wrote Chinua Achebe in his great novel, Things Fall Apart, set among the Igbo people in southeast Nigeria. His words are a reminder that men’s and women’s experiences, needs, activities and ambitions in the agricultural sphere can often be different – and that women’s contributions are all too often undervalued.

Cassava feeds more than half a billion people in the in the developing world. After rice and maize, it is the third-largest source of carbohydrates for people in the tropics, where it is grown across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Yet tough, unassuming cassava is a bit of an underdog – just like the women who grow it. We are celebrating the International Day of Rural Women by taking a special look at cassava, what it means for women, and the extraordinary things that can happen when Things Come Together!

A bright spot in a sea of green: a farmer in her field of cassava, in the village of Tiniu, near Mwanza, northern Tanzania.

A bright spot in a sea of green: a farmer in her field of cassava, in the village of Tiniu, near Mwanza, northern Tanzania.

It thrives on poor soils where other plants struggle, and it survives droughts that leave other crops biting the dust. For many rural mothers, cassava is the crop that keeps their families alive…”

“We must sing for you, great cassava…”

Hefty chunks of cassava – full of energy and nutrients – on sale in Kampala, Uganda.

Hefty chunks of cassava – full of energy and nutrients – on sale in Kampala, Uganda.

Cassava’s story is one that is inextricably linked to centuries of pain and struggle. It was introduced to Africa in the 16th century by Portuguese traders who brought it from Brazil – and took Africans back to Brazil as slaves.

Yam, native to Africa, was firmly established as the staple food of the Igbo people. Dominating their farming activities, it thus dominated the very routine of existence. So, control of yam affirmed men’s position at the top of the pinnacle. When cassava arrived, no one thought very much of it. For the Portuguese, it was a cheap source of carbohydrates. For the Igbo, it was a decidedly inferior crop to the long-beloved and much-revered yam.

Since the men were generally not much interested, Igbo women gradually adopted cassava as ‘their’ crop, a process that has been reinforced over the centuries. For example, Nigerian troop conscription during the First World War and the subsequent influenza pandemic caused a serious shortage of labour, particularly manpower. Women needed to grow more food, and cassava – more flexible and less labour-intensive than yam – was the natural choice, being also free from the cultural constraints that made yam the exclusive domain of men.

While no one would call cassava glamorous, plenty of women over the years have turned out to be quite happy that such a valuable crop ended up in their sphere of influence. While cassava is not often much of a cash crop in Africa, it is tough, resilient, and very useful for survival in difficult times. It thrives on poor soils where other plants struggle, and it survives droughts that leave other crops biting the dust. For many rural mothers, cassava is the crop that keeps their families alive.

The hard-working hands of Angelique Ipanga, a teacher and farmer, as she tends her cassava crop in Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo.

The hard-working hands of Angelique Ipanga, a teacher and farmer, as she tends her cassava crop in Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo.

What better words to sing cassava’s praises than those of Flora Nwapa, Nigeria’s first female novelist, in her Cassava Song? In ancient Igbo tradition, women sing their work, singing it into being and into completion, and her poem is a tribute to those work-songs.

And here, we have another Nigerian to join the chorus of praise – watch Emmanuel Okogbenin, molecular plant breeder, on the importance of cassava:

While our spotlight on Nigeria thus far has been purely coincidental, let’s also not forget that Nigeria is the global cassava giant, being far and away the world’s biggest producer and consumer of cassava. But do buckle up and let’s cross the great ocean, to another part of the planet, for an equally captivating cassava story…

 … legend has it that the first cassava was birthed by a human woman…”

Crossing continents: A virgin-born, Amazonian Snow White planted in the earth

Of course, cassava is not exclusively a female province – it is grown by both women and men farmers around the world. But can you blame us for imparting it with a special feminine mystique, when legend has it that the first cassava was birthed by a human woman caught at the confluence of two cultures?

Many centuries before the Europeans arrived, cassava – often known in the New World as manioc – sustained peoples and cultures throughout the tropical lowlands of the Americas. The Tupí people of Brazil tell how, many years ago, the daughter of a chief became pregnant. Although she said that she had not been with a man, her father did not believe her, and threatened to kill her if she did not tell him the name of the child’s father. When he slept, however, he dreamt of a white-skinned warrior who told him that his daughter was telling the truth, and that one day, she would bear a great gift for all his tribe.

The chief’s daughter gave birth to a little girl, Maní, whose skin was as white as the moon and eyes were as dark as the night. She grew into a happy and beautiful baby, but died suddenly after her first birthday. Her mother watered the grave every day, as was the custom, and one day, a strange plant grew there that no one had ever seen before. Later, the earth cracked open, and the Tupí people saw a fruit that was as white as the dead child. They drew it from the ground, peeled and cooked it, and to their surprise found that it was delicious, and even renewed their strength. They called it mandioca or manioca, meaning ‘House of Maní’.

It is a haunting tale, rich with echoes of the cultural upheavals that followed the coming of the Europeans, ancient fears of female impurity, and the realities of infant mortality. But it leaves one thing in no doubt: poor little Maní’s legacy was a precious treasure, not just for the Tupí but for the world.

Under the hot sun, the work goes on: a farmer tends her cassava crop in Colombia's southwestern Cauca department.

Under the hot sun, the work goes on: a farmer tends her cassava crop in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca department.

Proud in pink and polka dots: a farmer shows off a healthy cassava leaf in a plantation in Kampong Cham, Cambodia.

Proud in pink and polka dots: a farmer shows off a healthy cassava leaf in a plantation in Kampong Cham, Cambodia.

A busy Bea grows her way to cassava glory – with a little help from her friends

Female farmer reloaded: Being a rural woman farmer does not mean you have to have dirt under your fingernails all the time. Here’s Bea looking as elegant and regal as any queen.

Female farmer reloaded: Being a rural woman farmer does not mean you have to have dirt under your fingernails all the time. Here’s Bea looking as elegant and regal as any queen.

Ghanaian cassava researcher Elizabeth Parkes is no puny pushover, but even so she met her match in gutsy and determined farmer Bea. Elizabeth laughs as she remembers how the story began: “She hadn’t planted cassava before in her life, but she wanted to go into cassava production. She came to me – she pestered me actually! I was tired of it, because she didn’t know anything and it was a time when I was finishing my PhD, and I thought no, this lady cannot take this precious time from me.”

When most people think of a farmer, they probably think of a man in a straw hat. But in defiance of this stereotype, women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries, rising to at least 50 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Asia. These millions of rural women have incredibly diverse lives, but a few things stay surprisingly constant. Female farmers tend to produce less than their male counterparts – not because they are worse at farming, but because they have less access to all kinds of resources and opportunities. These include anything from land itself to improved seed and new technologies, and from education and information to financial credit.

If this gap could be completely sealed, women could increase their harvests by 20 to 30 percent, translating to millions fewer hungry and malnourished people worldwide. Fortunately, with the right kind of support, female farmers can – and do – transform their lives in remarkable ways. Bea’s story came to just such a happy ending: with guidance from Elizabeth, her cassava-growing skills took off like a rocket, and she became so successful that she was recognised as the best farmer in her community. “These are things that make me glad… that at least I have impacted somebody who hadn’t planted cassava before, and it’s amazing,” says Elizabeth. “There are people out there who need us, and when we give them our best, they will give the world their best as well.”

Listen to Elizabeth in the podcast below, and you are bound to pick up her infectious enthusiasm!

When scientists like these come together, with a dash of the right support, marvellous things happen… cassava has been given a voice.”

Things Come Together

Elizabeth Parkes is a woman from Ghana, and Chiedozie Egesi is a man from Nigeria, himself of the Igbo people and a yam breeder in a past life. However, the two have a lot in common. They are dynamic African scientists with a passion for social justice, and for helping the poorest and most disadvantaged rural people through their work on cassava. When scientists like these come together, with a dash of the right support, marvellous things happen.

Read Elizabeth’s story here and more from her here, and catch up with Chiedozie here and here.

Cassava has traditionally been a forgotten ‘orphan’ in crop science research. Humble and unfashionable, it also has some special challenges for breeders, like its long growth cycle and complicated genetics, while its tough and uncomplaining nature meant that many people thought of it as an “anywhere, anyhow” crop – a very misleading myth, if ever there was one (with thanks to myth-buster Joseph Adjebeng, for that memorable cassava quote). Although the idea grew from a kernel of truth, cassava, like any other crop, needs a little love, and yields less when plagued by problems such as diseases or degraded and infertile soils. But, like Harry Potter, in recent years this orphan has come out from the cupboard under the stairs, and the magic has begun.

Wreathed in sunlight and smiles, a cassava farmer inspects her crop in Kratie, Cambodia.

Wreathed in sunlight and smiles, a cassava farmer inspects her crop in Kratie, Cambodia.

Cassava’s no waif – luckily, as its tuberous roots are packed with staple carbohydrates. Here Ghanaian researcher Elizabeth Parkes shows off some huge and healthy cassava.

Cassava’s no waif – luckily, as its tuberous roots are packed with staple carbohydrates. Here Ghanaian researcher, Elizabeth Parkes, shows off some huge and healthy cassava. These days Elizabeth is a pro when it comes to things crop-related, but it was not always so. “I remember we used to uproot volunteer cocoyam from a serious, busy lady farmer’s farm and we put it in our garden expecting to have a fast-growing plant overnight,” she admits. “The crops died and the busy woman farmer had to come and warn us never to step in her farm again. That was the first hard lesson learnt.” Elizabeth remains ready to learn, with a healthy respect for the knowledge and skills of the farmers she works with, an attitude she learned early on when she visited cocoa farms near her home town. “I loved the way farmers called colleagues by making unique sounds,” she says. “There are many paths to the farm but everyone knew the many routes to our many farms. This still amazes me.”

The plus side of cassava being neglected for so long is that it only needed a relatively small initial investment in local capacity-building and applying modern breeding methods to make a big impact, and set the ball rolling for serious cassava research. “GCP helped us to build an image for ourselves in Nigeria and in Africa, and this created a confidence in other global actors, who, on seeing our ability to deliver results, are choosing to invest in us,” explains Chiedozie.

His team have released new cassava varieties that are resistant to diseases and rich in pro-vitamin A, providing the vitamin A that is particularly important for small children and childbearing women. He believes that these have the potential to transform the lives of the people – mainly rural women – who grow them. “The food people grow should be nutritious, resistant and high-yielding enough to allow them sell some of it and make money for other things in life, such as building a house, getting a motorbike, or sending their kids to school,” he says.

Elizabeth agrees that a new, “blessed and privileged era” has begun for cassava. “Thanks to funders such as GCP, who recognised that we couldn’t afford to turn a blind eye to the plight of this struggling crop, cassava has been given a voice.”

It seems that things have come together for cassava at last, and for Elizabeth, the personal rewards of being able to make real impacts are great. “I see African communities where poverty and hunger are seemingly huge problems with no way out; I’m fortunate to be working on a crop whereby, if I put in enough effort, I can bring some solutions.”

After all, it seems that being a ‘woman’s crop’ might not be a put-down, but something to celebrate. Cassava has come a long way, from a pale princess lying under the earth, to a steadfast mother keeping the family going in the toughest of times, to a confident and majestic queen with a glorious reign ahead of her.

And so, for October 15th, in honour of the International Day of Rural Women, we crown her the Queen of Crops. Long live Queen Cassava!

Colourful streamers for the coronation? No, they’re cassava noodles being made in Kampong Cham, Cambodia.

Colourful streamers for the coronation? No, they’re cassava noodles being made in Kampong Cham, Cambodia.

A regal African beauty tends her gorgeous cassava plants.

A regal African beauty tends her gorgeous cassava plants.

Links:  Our cassava Research | Slides | Podcasts Videos | InfoCentre | resaerch products

Mar 202014


Jeff Ehlers

Jeff Ehlers

Our guest today is Jeff Ehlers (pictured), Programme Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Jeff’s an old friend of GCP, most familiar to the GCP community in his immediate past stomping grounds at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), USA, leading our research to improve cowpea production in the tropics, for which sunny California offers a perfect spot for effective phenotyping. Even then, Jeff was not new to CGIAR, as we’ll see from his career crossings. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves in narrating Jeff’s tale. First, what would high-end cowpea research have to do with crusading and catapults? Only Jeff can tell us, so please do read on!

The GCP model was a very important way of doing business for CGIAR and the broader development community, enabling partnerships between international research institutes, country programmes and CGIAR. This is particularly important as the possibilities of genomics-led breeding become even greater…If anything, we need to see more of this collaborative model.”

Growing green, sowing the seed, trading glory for grassroots
Growing up in USA’s Golden State of California, green-fingered Jeff had a passion for cultivating the land rather than laboratory samples, harbouring keen ambitions to become a farmer. This did not change with the years as he transited from childhood to adolescence. The child grew into a youth who was an avid gardener: in his student days, Jeff threw his energy into creating a community garden project ‒ an initiative which promptly caught the eye of his high school counsellor, who suggested Jeff give the Plant Science Department at UCR a go for undergraduate studies.

And thus the seeds of a positively blooming career in crop research were sown. However, remaining true to the mission inspired by his former community-centred stomping grounds, a grassroots focus triumphed over glory-hunting for Jeff, who – no stranger to rolling his sleeves up and getting his fingers into the sod – found himself, when at the University of California, Davis, for his advanced studies, embarking on what was to become a lifelong undertaking, first at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and then at UCR, dedicated to a then under-invested plant species straggler threatening to fall by the research world’s wayside. With a plethora of potential genomic resources and modern breeding tools yet to be tapped into, Jeff’s cowpea crusade had begun in earnest…

GCP’s TLI was essential in opening that door and putting us on the path to increased capability – both for cowpea research enablement and human capacity”

Straggler no more: stardom beckons, and a place at the table for the ‘orphan’
And waiting in the wings to help Jeff along his chosen path was the Generation Challenge Programme (GCP), which, in 2007, commissioned Jeff’s team to tackle the cowpea component of the flagship Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project, implemented by GCP under the Legumes Research Initiative. TLI is mainly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The significance of this project, Jeff explains, was considerable: “The investment came at a very opportune time, and demonstrated great foresight on the part of both GCP and the Foundation.” Prior to this initiative, he further explains, “there had been no investment by anyone else to allow these orphan crops to participate in the feast of technologies and tools suddenly available and that other major crops were aggressively getting into. Before GCP and Gates funding for TLI came along, it was impossible to think about doing any kind of modern breeding in the orphan grain legume crops. GCP’s TLI was essential in opening that door and putting us on the path to increased capability – both for cowpea research enablement and human capacity.”

Flashback: UCR cowpea team in 2009. Left to right: Wellington Muchero, Ndeye Ndack Diop (familiar, right?!), Raymond Fenton, Jeff Ehlers, Philip Roberts and Timothy Close in a greenhouse on the UCR campus, with cowpeas in the background. Ndeye Ndack and Jeff seem to love upstaging each other. She came to UCR as a postdoc working under Jeff, then she moved to GCP, with oversight over the TLI project, thereby becoming Jeff's boss, then he moved to the Foundation with oversight over TLI. So, what do you think might be our Ndeye Ndack's next stop once GCP winds up in 2014? One can reasonably speculate....!

Flashback: UCR cowpea team in 2009. Left to right: Wellington Muchero, Ndeye Ndack Diop (familiar, right?!), Raymond Fenton, Jeff Ehlers, Philip Roberts and Timothy Close in a greenhouse on the UCR campus, with cowpeas in the background. Ndeye Ndack and Jeff seem to love upstaging each other. She came to UCR as a postdoc working under Jeff, then she moved to GCP, with oversight over the TLI project, thereby becoming Jeff’s boss, then he moved to the Foundation with oversight over TLI. So, what do you think might be our Ndeye Ndack’s next stop once GCP winds up in 2014? One can reasonably speculate….!

Of capacity building, genomics and ‘X-ray’ eyes
This capacity-building cornerstone – which, in the case of the TLI project, is mainly funded by the European Commission – is, says Jeff, a crucial key to unlocking the potential of plant science globally. “The next generation of crop scientists ‒ particularly breeders ‒ need to be educated in the area of genomics and genomics-led breeding.”

While stressing the need for robust conventional breeding efforts, Jeff continues: ”Genomics gives the breeder X-ray eyes into the breeding programme, bringing new insights and precision that were previously unavailable.”

In this regard, Jeff has played a leading role in supporting skill development and organising training for his team members and colleagues across sub-Saharan Africa, meaning that partners from Mozambique, Burkina Faso and Senegal, among others, are now, in Phase II of the TLI project, moving full steam ahead with marker-assisted and backcross legume breeding at national level, thanks to the genotyping platform and genetic fingerprints from Phase I of the project. The genotyping platform, which is now publicly available to anyone looking to undertake marker-assisted breeding for cowpeas, is being widely used by research teams not only in Africa but also in China. Thanks in part then to Jeff and his team, the wheels of the genomics revolution for cowpeas are well and truly in motion.

Undergoing the transition from phenotypic old-school plant breeder to modern breeder with all the skills required was a struggle…it was challenging to teach others the tools when I didn’t know them myself!…without GCP, I would not have been able to grow in this way.”

Talking about a revolution, comrades-in-arms, and a master mastering some more
But as would be expected, the road to revolution has not always been entirely smooth. Reflecting on some of the challenges he encountered in the early TLI days, and highlighting the need to invest not only in new students, but also in upgrading the existing skills of older scientists, Jeff tells of a personal frustration that had him battling it out alongside the best of them: “Undergoing the transition from phenotypic old-school plant breeder to modern breeder with all the skills required was a struggle,” he confides, continuing: “It was challenging to teach others the tools when I didn’t know them myself!”

Thus, in collaboration with his cowpea comrades from the global North and South, Jeff braved the steep learning curve before him, and came out on the other side smiling – an accomplishment he is quick to credit to GCP: “It was a very interesting and fruitful experience, and without GCP, I would not have been able to grow in this way,” he reveals. Holding the collaborative efforts facilitated by the broad GCP network particularly dear, Jeff continues: “The GCP model was a very important way of doing business for CGIAR and the broader development community, enabling partnerships between international research institutes, country programmes and CGIAR. This is particularly important as the possibilities of genomics-led breeding become even greater…If anything, we need to see more of this collaborative model.”

GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform addresses the lack of modern breeding skills in the breeding community as a whole, globally…The Platform provides extremely valuable and much-needed resources for many public peers around the world, especially in Africa…”

One initiative which has proved especially useful in giving researchers a leg up in the mastery of modern breeding tools, Jeff asserts, is GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP): “IBP addresses the lack of modern breeding skills in the breeding community as a whole, globally. By providing training in the use of genomic tools that are becoming available, from electronic capture of data through to genotyping, phenotyping, and all the way to selective decision-making and analysis of results, IBP will play a critical role in helping folks to leverage on the genomics revolution that’s currently unfolding,” Jeff enthuses, expanding: “The Platform provides extremely valuable and much-needed resources for many public peers around the world, especially in Africa where such one-off tools that are available commercially would be otherwise out of reach.”

Conqueror caparisoned to catapult: life on the fast lane and aiming higher
Well-versed in conquering the seemingly unobtainable, Jeff shares some pearls of wisdom for young budding crop scientists:”Be motivated by the mission, and the ideas and the science, and not by what’s easy, or by what brings you the most immediate gratification,” he advises, going on to explain: “Cowpeas have been through some really tough times. Yet, my partners and I stuck it out, remained dedicated and kept working.” And the proof of Jeff’s persistence is very much in the pudding, with his team at UCR having become widely acclaimed for their success in catapulting cowpeas into the fast lane of crop research.

It was a success that led him to the hallways of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where, after two decades at UCR, Jeff is currently broadening his legume love affair to also embrace beans, groundnuts, chickpeas, pigeonpeas and soya beans.

February 2014: Jeff donning his new Gates hat (albeit with a literal ICRISAT cap on). Behind him is a field of early maturing pigeonpea experiment at ICRISAT India.

February 2014: Jeff donning his (now-not-so-)new Gates hat and on the road, visiting ICRISAT in India. Behind him is an ICRISAT experimental field of early-maturing pigeonpeas. Here, our conquering crusader is ‘helmeted’ in an ICRISAT cap, even if not horsed and caparisoned for this ‘peacetime’ pigeonpea mission!

On his future professional aspirations, he says: “The funding cut-backs for agriculture which started before 1990 or so gutted a lot of the capacity in the public sector, both in the national programmes in Africa but also beyond. I hope to play a role in rebuilding some of the capacity to ensure that people take full advantage of the technical resources available, and to enable breeding programmes to function at a higher level than they do now.”

Jeff (foreground) inspecting soya bean trials in Kakamega, Kenya.

Jeff (foreground) inspecting soya bean trials in Kakamega, Kenya, in January 2013. Next to Jeff is Emmanuel Monyo, the coordinator of the Tropical Legumes II (TLII) project – TLI’s twin – whose brief is seed multiplication. TLII is therefore responsible for translating research outputs from TLI into tangible products in the form of improved legume varieties.

Whilst it’s been several years since he donned his wellington boots for the gardening project of his youth, what’s clear in this closing statement is an unremitting and deeply ingrained sense of community spirit – albeit with a global outlook – and a fight for the greater good that remain at the core of Jeff’s professional philosophy today.

No doubt, our cowpea champion and his colleagues have come a long way, with foundations now firmly laid for modern breeding in the crop on a global scale, and – thanks to channels now being established to achieve the same for close relatives of the species – all signs indicate that the best is yet to come!


Mar 072014
Women in science

“Women can do advanced agricultural science, and do it well!” Elizabeth Parkes, cassava researcher, Ghana

Being a woman scientist in today’s world (or at any time in history!) is no mean feat, science traditionally having been the domain of men. We are therefore drawn to this sub-theme: Inspiring change, in addition to the global theme Equality for women is progress for all, To mark International Women’s Day tomorrow, UNESCO has developed an interactive tool which collates facts and figures from across the world on women in science. The cold scientific truth displayed in the attractive petri dish design shows that only 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women.

At GCP, we have been fortunate enough to have a cross-generational spectrum of, not only women scientists, but that even rarer species, women science leaders – who head a project or suite of projects and activities, and who actively nurture and mentor future science leaders – to ultimately contribute to the fulfilment of our mission: Using genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve crops for greater food security in the developing world. The United Nations has designated 2014 as the Year of Family Farming. GCP’s women researchers have contributed to improving the lives of their farming counterparts the world over, especially in the developing world where on average, 43 percent of the agricultural labour force are women, rising to 60 percent and 70 percent in some regions. (FAO)

Please mind the gap…to leap to that all-important initiation into science

UNESCO's Women in Science interactive tool

UNESCO’s Women in Science interactive tool

The UNESCO tool mentioned above and embedded to the left allows users to “explore and visualise gender gaps in the pipeline leading to a research career, from the decision to get a doctorate degree to the fields of science that women pursue and the sectors in which they work” with this affirmation: “Perhaps most importantly, the data tool shows just how important it is to encourage girls to pursue mathematics and science at a young age.”

In our International Women’s Day multimedia expo, we profile the life and work of a selection of our smart scientific sisters through words, pictures and sound, to explain just how they overcame obstacles, from taking that first hurdle to study science at an early age, to mobility up the research rungs to reach the very top of their game, all the while balancing work, life and family.

A blogpost fest to introduce our first special guests

Masdiar Bustamam

Masdiar Bustamam

We begin our show with a blogpost fest, and first up is GCP’s original Mother Nature, renowned scientist and constant gardener of the molecular breeding plot, Masdiar Bustamam. After a virtual world-tour of research institutes early on in her career, Masdiar took the knowledge of molecular breeding back home, to the Indonesian Center for Agricultural Biotechnology and Genetic Resources Research and Development (ICABIOGRAD), where she personally took up the challenge to work with the fledgling world of biotechnology, set up a lab, and helped establish molecular breeding in her country. In an amazing 37-years-odd research career, Masdiar tended not only tender rice shoots, but also budding blossoms in the form of her many students, whom she nurtured and mentored throughout their studies, and who have now seamlessly inherited her mantle to carry on the mission with the same ever-bright spirit. More

Rebecca Nelson

Rebecca Nelson

We now skip continents and oceans  to meet the feisty, continent- and crop-hopping scientist, Rebecca Nelson (Cornell University, USA). “I wanted to get out into the world and try and have a practical impact instead of doing research for the sake of research,” Rebecca says – and that she did, first leaving her native USA to work in the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. There she teamed up with friend and colleague, Masdiar Bustamam, to establish Masdiar’s laboratory at ICABIOGRAD, Indonesia. The American continent then called her back, where she moved countries and institutes, and switched from rice to maize research, marking the launch of her GCP experience – which simultaneously introduced her to her a whole new network of international crop researchers. This rich research tapestry was  woven together by a poignant pain deep in her heart, as a mother herself, of “so many mothers not being able to feed their families.” Rebecca wanted to combat this problem,  and crop science is her weapon. More

Zeba Seraj

Zeba Seraj

Next, we meet another true mother of molecular plant breeding, Zeba Seraj (University of Dhaka, Bangladesh). Zeba, whose mind is perpetually on call in the pursuit of science, has been around the world, and from plants to animals and back again in the course of her multifaceted science career. During her PhD and postdoc experience in the UK, still with fauna, she cultivated her expertise in molecular biology and recombinant DNA technology, but a lack of opportunities in that field back in Bangladesh saw her enter the world of crop science, where she has remained ever since. Back at her alma mater, the University of Dhaka, she founded a molecular biology lab, and has nurtured and inspired generations of young biochemists. Her GCP project, using molecular markers to develop salt-tolerant rice, was a real eye-opener for her, and allowed her to truly ‘see’ how applied science and such a practical project would have a direct impact on her country’s food security, now and in the future. More

Sigrid Heuer

Sigrid Heuer

Our next scientist is also truly motivated by putting theory into practice through the application of upstream research all the way down the river, and directly into farmers’ fields. Sigrid Heuer (now with the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics), a German national, has pursued her scientific ventures in Europe, Africa, Asia, and now Oceania, with many challenges along the way. Enter the Generation Challenge Programme, and the chance for Sigrid (then at IRRI)  to lead a major project, the Pup1 rice phosphorus uptake project, which taught Sigrid the A–Z of project management, and gave her ample scope for professional growth. Her team made a major scientific breakthrough, which was not only documented in international journals, but was also widely covered by global media.  From this pinnacle, Sigrid  passed on the baton to other scientists and moved on to new conquests. More

Arllet Portugal

Arllet Portugal

Now, all this research we’ve been celebrating generates a massive amount of data, as you can well imagine. What exactly can our scientists do with all that data, and how can they organise them? GCP’s Arllet Portugal, hailing from The Philippines, gives us the lowdown on smart and SHARP data management whilst also giving us some insights into how she started out on the long and winding road to leading data management for GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform. In particular, Arllet describes the considerable challenge of changing researchers’ mindsets regarding the importance of effective data management in the context of their research, and enthuses over the excitement with which developing-country researchers welcome the GCP-funded electronic tablets they now use to collect and record data directly in the field. More

Armin Bhuiya

Armin Bhuiya

If there were a muse for young women scientists, it might very well be the subject of our next blogpost profile, Armin Bhuiya (Bangladesh Rice Research Institute). After completing her master’s degree on hybrid rice in her native Bangladesh, Armin was already thinking like a true change-catalyst scientist, trying to discover what line of research would be the most useful for her country and the world. After much deliberation, she embarked on a PhD focusing on developing salt- and submergence-tolerant rice. This wise choice would take her to study under the expert eye of Abdelbagi Ismail at IRRI, in The Philippines, with the helping hand of a GCP–DuPont postgraduate fellowship. There, she learnt much in the way of precise and meticulous research, while also taking advantage to self-train in modern molecular plant breeding methods. Our bright resourceful student has now advanced to the patient erudite teacher – as she takes home her knowledge of high-tech research methods to share with her colleagues and students in Bangladesh. More

Elizabeth Parkes

Elizabeth Parkes

Hello Africa! Switching continents and media, we now we move from the written medium to tune in to the melodic tones of Elizabeth Parkes (Crops Research Institute [CRI] of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research [CSIR], currently on leave of absence at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture [ IITA]). We’re now at profile number seven in GCP’s gallery of women in science. Elizabeth, who is GCP’s Lead Cassava Researcher in Ghana, narrates an all-inclusive engaging story on the importance to agriculture of women scientists, women farmers, and cassava the wonder crop – all captured on memorable sound waves in this podcast.

If the gravity of words inscribed holds more weight, you can also read in depth about Elizabeth in a blogpost on this outstanding sister of science. Witness the full radiance of Elizabeth’s work in the life-changing world in which she operates; as she characteristically says, “I’ve pushed to make people recognise that women can do advanced agricultural science, and do it well.” And she is no exception to her own rule, as she grew professionally, apparently keeping pace with some of the giant cassava she has helped to develop through the years. But it is her role as nurturer, mentor and teacher that really raises her head-and-shoulders above the rest, from setting up a pioneering biotech lab at CRI–CSIR to conscientiously mentoring her many students and charges in work as in life, because, for Elizabeth, capacity building and cassava are inextricably coupled! More

Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop

Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop

In the wake of some recent high-profile screen awards, we close our multimedia expo with impressions of our science sisterhood through the medium of the seventh art: the magic visual world of the movies!  A good fit for a Friday!

The following tasteful and tasty (you’ll see why!) blogpost takes our film fans right onto the red carpet to rub shoulders with our scientific screen stars!

The first screen star you’ll meet is Marie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop (Africa Rice Center), Principal Investigator (PI) of GCP’s Rice Research Initiative, who opens the video-viewing session with seven succulent slices of rice research delight. Her movies are set in the rice-growing lands of Africa, where this savoury cereal is fast becoming a staple, and tackles the tricky topics of rice-growing constraints, capacity building, molecular breeding methods, and the colossal capacity of community in collaborative research projects.

Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw

Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw

The following feature introduces the talented GCP PI Jonaliza Lanceras-Siangliw (BIOTEC, Thailand), whose community-minded project, set in the Mekong region, focused on strengthening rice breeding programmes by using a genotyping building strategy and improving phenotyping capacity for biotic and abiotic stresses. Though this title is something of a spoiler alert, we hope you tune in to this comprehensive reel to see the reality of molecular rice breeding in the Mekong. More

Soraya Leal-Bertioli

Soraya Leal-Bertioli

Last, and by no means least, is a captivating collage of clips featuring GCP researcher, Soraya Leal-Bertioli (EMBRAPA, Brazil) waxing lyrical about that hard genetic nut to crack: the groundnut, and how GCP’s Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project was crucial in getting the crop breeding community to share genetic resources, molecular markers, knowledge, and tools on a cross-continental initiative breaking boundaries in multiple ways. Video collage


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