Jan 122015
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James profile

James Gethi and one of the crops closest to his heart – maize. He also has a soft spot for hardy crop varieties that survive harsh and unforgiving drylands, such as Machakos, Kenya, where this June 2011 photo of him with drought-tolerant KARI maize was taken.

As we tell our closing stories on our Sunset Blog, in parallel, we’re also catching up on the backlog of stories still in our store from the time GCP was a going concern. Our next stop is Kenya, and the narrative below is from 2012, but don’t go away as it is an evergreen – a tale that can be told at any time, as it remains fresh as ever. At that time, and for the duration of the partnership with GCP, the Food Crops Research Institute of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) was then known as the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), and we shall therefore stay with this previous name in the story. KARI was also the the name of the Kenyan institute at the time when James Gethi (pictured) left for a sabbatical at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT by its Spanish acronym). On to the story then, and please remember we’re travelling back in time to the year 2012. 

“I got into science by chance, for the fun of it,” muses James, maize breeder and former GCP scientist “With agricultural school promising a flight to overfly the country’s agricultural areas– this was an interesting prospect for a village guy. ‘This could be fun’, I thought!”

And it turned out to be a chance well worth taking.  His first step was getting the requisite education. And so he armed himself with a BSc in Agriculture from the University of Nairobi, Kenya, topped with a Master’s and PhD in Plant Breeding from the University of Alberta (Canada) and Cornell University (USA), respectively. Beyond academics, in the course of his crop science career, James has developed 13 crop varieties, that included maize and cassava, published papers in numerous peer-reviewed papers (including the 2003 prize for Best paper in the field of crop science in the prestigious Crop Science journal. And in leadership, James headed the national maize research programme in his native Kenya. These are just a few of the achievements James has garnered in the course of his career, traversing  and transcending not only the geographical frontiers initially in his sights, but also scientific ones, reaching professional heights that perhaps his younger self might never have dreamt possible.

As a Research Officer at KARI, a typical day sees James juggling his time between hands-on research (developing maize varieties resistant to drought, field and storage pests) and project administration, coordinating public–private partnerships and the maize research programme at both institutional and country level. What motivates the man shouldering much of the responsibility for the buoyancy of his nation’s staple crop? James explains, “Making a difference by providing solutions to farmers. That’s my passion and that’s what makes me get up in the morning and go to work. It’s hugely satisfying!”

Without GCP, I would not be where I am today as a scientist… [it] gave me a chance to work with the best of the best worldwide… You develop bonds and understanding that last well beyond the life of the projects.”

Rapid transitions: trainee to trainer to leader
It was this passion and unequivocal dedication to his vocation – not to mention a healthy dollop of talent – that GCP was quick to recognise back in 2004, when James first climbed aboard the GCP ship. Like a duck to water, he proceeded to engage in all manner of GCP projects and related activities, steadily climbing the ranks from project collaborator to co-Principal Investigator and, finally, Principal Investigator in his own right, leading a maize drought phenotyping project. Along the way, he also secured GCP Capacity building à la carte and Genotyping Support Service grants to further the maize research he and his team were conducting.


FLASHBACK: At a GCP drought phenotyping course in mid-2006 at Montpellier, France. (1) James (left) pays keen attention during one of the practical sessions. (2) In the spirit of “All work and no play, etc”, taking a break from the course to take in some of the sights with colleagues. Clearly, James, “the guy from the village” is anything but a dull boy! Next to James, second left, is BM Prasanna, currently leader of CIMMYT’s maize programme.


From trainee to trainer and knowledge-sharer: James (behind the camera) training KARI staff on drought phenotyping in June 2009 at Machakos, in Kenya’s drylands.

The GCP experience, James reveals, has been immensely rewarding: “Without GCP, I would not be where I am today as a scientist,” he asserts. And on the opportunity to work with a capable crew beyond national borders, as opposed to operating as a solo traveller, he says: “GCP gave me a chance to work with the best of the best worldwide, and has opened up new opportunities and avenues for collaboration between developing-country researchers and advanced research institutes, creating and cementing links that were not so concrete before. This has shown that we don’t have to compete with one another; we can work together as partners to derive mutual benefits, finding solutions to problems much faster than we would have done working alone and apart from each other.”

The links James has in mind are not only tangible but also sustainable: “You develop bonds and understanding that last well beyond the life of the projects,” James enthuses, citing additional professional engagements (the African Centre for Crop Improvement in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement, have both welcomed James and his team into their fold), as well as firm friendships with former GCP project colleagues as two key take-home benefits of his interaction with the Programme. These new personal and professional circles have fostered a happy home for dynamic debates on the latest news and views from the crop-science world, and the resultant healthy cross-fertilisation of ideas, James affirms.

Reflecting on what he describes as a ‘mentor’ role of GCP, and on the vital importance of capacity building in general, he continues: “By enhancing the ability of a scientist to collect germplasm, or to analyse that germplasm, or by providing training and tips on how to write a winning project proposal to get that far in the first place, you’re empowering scientists to make decisions on their own – decisions which make a difference in the lives of farmers. This is tremendous empowerment.”

Another potent tool, says James, is the software made available to him through GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), which is a handy resource package to dip into for – among other things – analysing data and selecting the right varieties at the right time. The next step for IBP, he feels, should be scaling up and aiming for outreach to the wider scientific community, forecasting that such a step could bring nothing but success: “The impacts could be enormous!” he projects, with a palpable and infectious enthusiasm.

People… don’t eat publications, they eat food… I’m not belittling knowledge, but we can do both”

Fast but not loose on the R&D continuum: double agent about?
For James, outreach and impacts are not limited to science alone. In parallel with his activities in upstream genetic science, James’ efforts are equally devoted to the needs of his other client base-–the development community and farmers. For this group, James’ focus is on putting tangible products on the table that will translate into higher crop yields and incomes for farmers. Yet whilst products from any highly complex scientific research project worth its salt are typically late bloomers, often years in the making on a slow burner as demanded by the classic linear R&D view that research must always precede development, adaptation and final adoption, James has been quick to recognise that actors in the world of development and the vulnerable communities they serve do not necessarily have this luxury of time.

 August 2008: a huge handful, and more where that came from in Kwale, Kenya. This farmer's healthy harvest came from KARI hybrids.

August 2008: a huge handful, and more where that came from in Kwale, Kenya. This farmer’s healthy harvest came from KARI hybrids.

His solution for this challenge? “Sitting where I sit, I realised from very early on that if I followed the traditional linear scientific approach, my development clients would not take it kindly if I still had no products for them within the three-year lifespan of the project. The challenge then was to deliver results for farmers without compromising or jeopardising their integrity or the science behind the product,” he recalls. In the project he refers to – a GCP-funded project to combat drought and disease in maize and rice – James applied a novel double-pronged approach to get around this seeming conundrum of the need for sound science on the one hand, and the need for rapid results for development on the other hand. Essentially, he simultaneously walked on both tracks of the research–development continuum.

The project – led by Rebecca Nelson of Cornell University and with collaborators including James’ team at KARI (leading the maize component), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), researchers in Asia, as well as other universities in USA – initially set out with the long-term goal of dissecting quantitative trait loci (QTLs) for rice and maize with a view to combating drought and disease in these crops. Once QTLs were dissected and gene crosses done, James and his team went about backcrossing these new lines to local parental lines, generating useful products in the short term. The results, particularly given the limited resources and time invested, have been impressive, with seven hybrid varieties developed for drylands and coastal regions having been released in Kenya by 2009, and commercialised from 2010.

James and his colleagues have applied the same innovative approach to other GCP projects, grappling to get a good grasp of the genetic basis of drought tolerance, whilst also generating intermediate products for practical use by farmers along the way. James believes this dual approach paves the way for a win-win situation: “People on the ground don’t eat publications, they eat food,” he says. “As we speak now, there are people out there who don’t know where their next meal will come from. I’m not belittling knowledge, but we can do both – boiled maize on the cob and publications on the boil. But let’s not stop at crop science  and knowledge dissemination – let’s move it to the next level, which means products,” he challenges, adding: “With GCP support, we were able do this, and reach our intended beneficiaries.”

It is perhaps this kind of vision and inherent instinct to play the long game that has taken James this far professionally, and that will no doubt also serve him well in the future.

As our conversation comes to a close, we ask James for a few pearls of wisdom for other young budding crop researchers eager to carve out an equally successful career path for themselves, James offers “Form positive links and collaborations with colleagues and peers. Never give up; never let challenges discourage you. Look for organisations where you can explore the limits of your imagination. Stay focused and aim high, and you’ll reach your goal.”

Upon completion of his ongoing sabbatical at CIMMYT in Zimbabwe, where he is currently working on seed systems, James plans to return to KARI, armed with fresh knowledge and ready to seize – with both hands – any promising collaborative opportunities that may come his way .

Certainly, prospects look plentiful for this ‘village lad’ in full flight, and who doesn’t look set to land any time soon!


In full flight – Montpellier, Brazil, Benoni, Bangkok, Bamako, Hyderabad… our boy voyaged from the village to Brazil and back, and far beyond that. Sporting the t-shirt from GCP’s Annual Research Meeting in Brazil in 2006, which James attended, he also attended the same meeting the following year, in Benoni, South Africa, in 2007, when this photo was taken. James is a regular at these meetings which are the pinnacle on  GCP’s calendar (http://bit.ly/I9VfP4). But he always sings for his supper and is practically part of the ‘kitchen crew’, but just as comfortable in high company. For example, he was one of the keynote speakers at the 2011 General Research Meeting (see below).




Jan 082015
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Welcome to Brazil! Journey by road six hours northwest from Rio de Janeiro and you’ll arrive to Sete Lagoas,  a city whose name means ‘Seven Lagoons’ in Portuguese. Although cloistered in farmlands, the city is largely a commercial centre, but also the seat of Embrapa Milho e Sorgo, the nerve centre of EMBRAPA’s maize and sorghum research, and so could pass for the ‘sede’ (Portuguese for headquarters) of the these two cereals. EMBRAPA is the Portuguese acronym for Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária; the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. EMBRAPA is a GCP Consortium member, and contributed to the proposal that founded GCP.

Photo provided by J MagalhãesJurandir Magalhães (pictured), or Jura, as he likes to be referred to in informal settings such as our story today, is a cereal molecular geneticist who has been working at the Embrapa Milho e Sorgo centre since 2002. “The centre develops projects and research to produce, adapt and diffuse knowledge and technologies in maize and sorghum production by the efficient and rational use of natural resources,” Jura explains.

Such qualities are exactly what appeal to GCP, which has supported Jura as a Principal Investigator since 2004. Beyond science and on to governance and advisory issues, Jura is also EMBRAPA’s representative on the GCP Consortium Committee.

Home and away, on a journey of discovery in sorghum
Hailing from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais State, where he was born, Jura attended the Federal University of Viçosa in his home state. Upon completing his Master’s degree at the university in 1995, he proceeded to USA’s Cornell University in 1998 for his PhD, under the watchful eye of Leon Kochian, another GCP Principal Investigator.

Sorghum rainbow_A Borrell

No, it’s not photo-shopped. This Australian sorghum-and-double-rainbows shot is from Supa Snappa, Andy Borrell, also a GCP sorghum Principal Investigator. See http://bit.ly/1tBAOMW

At Cornell, Jura worked with Leon on identifying the genes associated with aluminium tolerance in sorghum. “At the time, genes associated with aluminium tolerance were known for cereals in the Triticeae family (wheat, barley and rye). But the same genes were not found in the Poaceae family (sorghum, rice and maize). This suggested that there were different aluminium-tolerance genes at play, so it was a really pioneering project.” Continuing with the Cornell team after his PhD, Jura worked with Leon to  map the location of a major aluminium-tolerance genetic ‘hotspot’ in sorghum, which the project team contracted to  AltSB  for short (aluminium-tolerance gene or locus in Sorghum bicolor). The mapping also marked the next chapter  of what was to be a long-term professional relationship for the pair.

Brazil beckons, joining GCP, leadership and enduring partnerships
But in between, Brazil broke in and beckoned her native son home. And so it was that in 2002, Jura packed his bags and accepted a position with EMBRAPA’s maize and sorghum research centre. And despite the geographical distance, it wasn’t long before he and Leon teamed up again. “When I left Cornell, Leon and I had finished mapping AltSB and we were keen to clone it so we could then develop aluminium-tolerant sorghum varieties more efficiently,” says Jura.

Two years after his return to Brazil,  Leon and Jura – in 2004 – submitted a joint proposal for a competitive grant for their first GCP project on aluminium tolerance in cereals, premised on AltSB. This project contributed to GCP’s foundation work on sorghum in this and other projects, the common goal being a bid to provide farmers in the developing world with sorghum crops that would be able to tolerate harsh soils. But the project contributed much more with a deep taproot in pre-history, as that which we today call ‘sorghum’, ‘maize’ and ‘rice’ were once one millions of ‘Jurassic’ years ago. More on that interesting side-story.

And since this first project, EMBRAPA and Cornell University have collaborated with several other research institutes around the world, particularly in Africa.

Left to right (foreground): Leon Kochian, Jurandir Magalhães (both EMBRAPA) and Sam Gudu (Moi University) examine crosses between Kenyan and Brazilian maize, at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kitale, in May 2010.

Left to right (foreground): Leon, Jura and Sam Gudu (Moi University) examine crosses between Kenyan and Brazilian maize, at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kitale, in May 2010.

Jura leads several EMBRAPA and GCP collaborative projects across three continents (Africa, Asia and the Americas). The partnerships forged by and through these projects go well beyond project life and frame, and will therefore continue after GCP’s sunset. Jura is both team leader and team player. And a couple of GCP projects in which Jura is part of the project team will run on in 2015 (see page 10), after GCP’s closure in December 2014.



Jan 072015
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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!



Jan 022015
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Friendship and trust at the heart of sorghum research

…benefits to humanity are the real driver of the work.”

Andy1_wAndrew Borrell (pictured) is a man who loves his work – a search for a holy grail of sorts for the grain of his choice  sorghum.

Based at the University of Queensland, Australia, Andrew is co-Principal Investigator with David Jordan for a GCP-funded project developing drought-adapted sorghum for Africa and Australia. And Andrew is passionate not just about the potential of sorghum, but also about the cross-continental relationships that underpin his research team. These friendships, says Andrew, are the glue that hold his team together and make it work better.

The year 2013 was particularly exciting. After almost five years working with African plant breeders to improve genetic material, field trials were up and running at 12 sites across East and West Africa.  Fastforward to 2015 and  glad tidings for the New Year! Andrew and his team now have preliminary evidence that the drought-tolerant ‘stay-green’ trait enhances grain size and yield  in some of the target countries in  Africa for which data have already been analysed.

What Andrew hopes to see is more genetic diversity, not just for diversity’s sake but put to use in farmers’ fields  to enhance yield during drought. This means more food, fodder and other sorghum by-products such as stems for construction. These benefits to humanity are, he says, the real driver of the work his team does.

So what are the wonders of ‘stay-green’? Waxing lyrical…

The sought-after  ‘stay-green’ trait that Andrew and his team are so interested in describes the phenotype – what the plant looks like. It simply means that when drought strikes, sorghum plants with this trait remain leafy and green during the grain-filling period – a critical time when the plant’s water is channelled to developing healthy panicles of grain.

So, what makes these plants remain healthy when others are losing their leaves? Why do they wax while others wane? The answer, says Andrew, is twofold, and is all to do with water supply and demand, and more and less. Firstly, there is some evidence that the roots of the stay-green plants penetrate deeper into the soil, tapping into more water supply. Secondly, plants with the stay-green trait have a smaller leaf canopy which means less water demand by the plant before flowering, leaving more water for grain-filling after flowering.

Staying power and stover are also part of the story. According to Andrew, “Plants with the stay-green trait produce more grain in dry conditions, have stronger stems so they don’t fall over, and often have larger grains. And it’s not just about grain alone: stay-green also improves the quality of the stover left in the field after harvest, which serves as animal feed.”

Another key feature of the stay-green trait in sorghum is that it is not just a fair-weather friend: it works well in wet as well as dry conditions. “All the evidence we’ve got suggests that you get a benefit under tough conditions but very little penalty under good conditions,” says Andrew.

…the process is synergistic and we do something that’s better than any of us could do alone.”

Safari from Down Under to Africa: East and West, and home are all best

For Andrew and his co-Principal Investigator, David Jordan, the GCP project is the first time they have been involved in improving sorghum in Africa. The two scientists work with sorghum improvement teams in six African countries: Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in the west, and, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan in the east. By crossing African and Australian sorghum, the teams have developed the lines now being field-tested  in all the six countries.

A sampling of some of stay-green sorghum partnerships in Africa. (1)  Asfaw Adugna assessing the genetic diversity of  sorghum panicles produced from the GCP collaboration at Melkassa, Ethiopia. (2)  Clarisse Barro-Kondombo (Burkina Faso) and Andrew Borrell (Australia) visiting a lysimeter facility in Hyderabad, India, as part of GCP training. (3) Clement Kamau (Kenya, left) and  Andrew Borrell (Australia, right) visiting the seed store at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Katumani, Kenya.

A sampling of some of stay-green sorghum partnerships in Africa. (1) Asfaw Adugna (Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute) assessing the genetic diversity of sorghum panicles produced from the GCP collaboration at Melkassa, Ethiopia. (2) Clarisse Barro-Kondombo (Institut de l’environnement et de recherches agricoles, Burkina Faso) and Andrew Borrell (Australia) visiting a lysimeter facility at ICRISAT in Hyderabad, India, as part of GCP training. (3) Clement Kamau (Kenya, left) and Andrew Borrell (Australia, right) visiting the seed store at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in Katumani, Kenya.

According to Andrew, the collaboration with African scientists is “a bit like a group of friends using science to combat hunger. That’s probably been the biggest advantage of GCP,” adds Andrew. “Bringing people together for something we are all passionate about.”

There’s another collaborative element to the project too. As well as improving and testing plant material, the Australian contingent hosts African scientists on three-week training sessions. “We span a whole range of research topics and techniques,” explains Andrew. “We learn a lot from them too – their local expertise on soil, crops and climate. Hopefully the process is synergistic and we do something that’s better than any of us could do alone.”

Andrew says that working personally with plant breeders from Africa has made all the difference to the project. “Once colleagues from overseas come into your country, you develop real friendships. They know your families, they know what you do, and that’s very important in building relationships and trust that make the whole thing work.”

It wasn't all work and there was clearly also time to play, as we can see her., Sidi Coulibaly and Niaba Teme visiting with the Borrell family in Queensland, Australia.

It wasn’t all work and there was clearly also time to play, as we can see here, Sidi Coulibaly and Niaba Teme from Mali visit the Borrell family in Queensland, Australia.

Golden sunsets, iridescent rainbows and perpetual evergreen partnerships

As Andrew and his team wait to see how their field experiments in Africa turn out, they know that this is not the end of the story. In fact, it is only the beginning. Once tested, the germplasm will provide genetic diversity for future breeding programmes in Africa.

And the research collaboration between Australia and Africa won’t end when GCP funding runs out and GCP sunsets. For example, in addition to the GCP project, David Jordan has secured significant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for another four years’ sorghum research in Ethiopia. Plus, Andrew and Kassahun Banttea, a colleague from Jimma University, have also just been awarded a PEARL grant from the Foundation to assess the sorghum germplasm collection in Ethiopia for drought-adaptation traits.

We wish this ‘stay-evergreen’ team well in their current and future ventures. More sorghum ‘stickability’ and staying power to them! May they find the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

This enchanted rainbow-rings-and-sorghum photo is from Andy Borrell, and, contrary to the magical song, please continue under the rainbow for links to more information.

Sorghum rainbow_A Borrello





Dec 312014
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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
Dec 042014
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By Eloise Phipps

Think of something acid.

What came to mind… vinegar? Lemon juice? An acid remark? Chances are that you did not think of soil – the humble sods and clods we rely on to produce our food – unless, perhaps, you grow or breed crops.

It is a cruel and surprising fact that acid soils cover almost half the land that the world uses to grow food. They can be a natural result of rainfall and soil type, but are also made worse by overuse of nitrogen fertilisers. The negative impact of acid soils on annual global harvests is second only to that of drought.

We’re getting down to earth in celebration of World Soil Day, the 5th of December – and looking forward to 2015, the International Year of Soils – as we get our teeth into this Diplodocus-sized problem, and examine how research into genes shared between different species is helping plant breeders provide farmers with crops that thrive even as the pH drops.

More than half of the world’s potential crop-growing land is highly acidic. Map courtesy of Leon Kochian.

More than half of the world’s potential crop-growing land is highly acidic. Map courtesy of Leon Kochian.

Cretaceous crop split leaves common heritage – helping plants pass the acid test when soil dosages get dramatic

Did Triceratops, just like us, enjoy its daily morning breakfast cereal?

Did Triceratops, just like us, enjoy its daily morning breakfast cereal?

The cereal crops that we rely on for our staple foods are relative newcomers in evolutionary terms – just like humans ourselves. The species that are now maize, rice and sorghum all belong to the Poaceae family, or true grasses. They separated out and began to take their own evolutionary pathways roughly 65 million years ago – around the time the dinosaurs were going extinct. Before this, they had a single common ancestor, getting munched on by hungry Triceratops.

Because of this family relationship, maize, rice and sorghum still have many similar genes in common, often carrying out the same or similar functions in the different crops. And some of these functions can help plants do well when faced with the acid test.

The trouble with acid soils is not so much the pH itself, but the way it affects the availability of important nutrients. As acidity increases, aluminium becomes more soluble, giving plants an overdose that causes aluminium toxicity. One of the symptoms is stunted root growth – making it even harder for plants to reach other nutrients. Meanwhile, nutrients such as phosphorus become less available, stuck in forms that plants can’t absorb, making phosphorus deficiency another huge issue.

The consequences of subpar soils are far-reaching. A new report from the Montpellier Panel, ‘No Ordinary Matter: Conserving, Restoring and Enhancing Africa’s Soils’, finds that soil degradation affects two-thirds of arable land in Africa, and that without action it is likely to lock the continent into cycles of food insecurity for generations to come, and hamper both agricultural and economic development. Widespread soil acidity and its effect on nutrient availability are a key piece of the jigsaw; as the report observes, “In the more humid lowland areas [of Africa], soils are typically highly weathered, acidic and nutrient deficient.”

A Kenyan farmer prepares her maize plot for planting. Acid soils cover almost 90 percent of Kenya’s maize-growing area, and can more than halve yields.

A Kenyan farmer prepares her maize plot for planting. Acid soils cover almost 90 percent of Kenya’s maize-growing area, and can more than halve yields.

Collaboration and gene comparison for crops that thrive when pH dives

Fortunately, our scientists are no dinosaurs. Since 2004, crop researchers and plant breeders across the world – collaborating in several GCP projects within the Comparative Genomics Research Initiative – have been using genetic knowledge at the cutting edge of science to develop local varieties of maize, rice and sorghum which can withstand acid soils’ topsy-turvy nutrient levels. Explore our comparative genomics-themed blogposts to meet our heroes Claudia, Eva, Jura, Leon, Matthias, Rajeev, Sam, and others.

Left to right (foreground): Leon Kochian, Jurandir Magalhães (both EMBRAPA) and Sam Gudu (Moi University) examine crosses between Kenyan and Brazilian maize, at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kitale, in May 2010.

Left to right (foreground): Leon Kochian, Jurandir Magalhães (both EMBRAPA) and Sam Gudu (Moi University) examine crosses between Kenyan and Brazilian maize, at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Kitale, in May 2010.

What is the advantage for breeders of knowing about a gene like PSTOL1 (in the locus Pup1), which helps rice do well under low-phosphorus conditions by encouraging it to grow longer roots? Simple. Unlike the scientists in Jurassic Park, our breeders don’t need to resurrect long-dead species to get their kicks (and fortunately, they are at lower risk of being eaten by their work!). The crops they are interested already have all kinds of useful genes hidden within them, but, as with all living things, each species is tremendously varied and diverse.

This is where genomics comes in. Instead of growing many thousands of seeds to see which plants thrive, breeders can use genetic markers to look inside the seeds to see which ones have, say, Pup1. Then they only need to grow those seeds, in order to cross-pollinate them with plants with other useful traits, making the breeding process much faster and more efficient.

Screening for phosphorus-efficient rice, able to make the best of low levels of available phosphorus, on an International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) experimental plot in the Philippines.

Screening for phosphorus-efficient rice, able to make the best of low levels of available phosphorus, on an International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) experimental plot in the Philippines. Some types of rice have visibly done much better than others.

Women farmers in India bring home their sorghum harvest.

Women farmers in India bring home their sorghum harvest.

And what makes the Comparative Genomics Research Initiative even more powerful is that it looks across related crops. Once researchers have found an acid-beating gene in one crop, they can look for similar genes in the others – turning knowledge of a single gene into multi-impact dino-mite. For example, the discovery of the SbMATE gene, behind aluminium tolerance in sorghum, spurred researchers to seek and find a similar gene in maize – which they named ZmMATE. This knowledge is now being used to breed aluminium-tolerant varieties of both sorghum and maize for Africa – and is being applied to rice too.

Maize trials in the field at our partners EMBRAPA, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. The maize plants on the left are aluminium-tolerant while those on the right are not.

Maize trials in the field at our partners EMBRAPA, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation. The maize plants on the left are aluminium-tolerant while those on the right are not.

There are many more examples of the power of comparative genomics, but the real proof will be soon to come in farmers’ fields as these new, anti-acid varieties are tested and released. The world’s poorest farmers generally cannot afford other approaches to dealing with soil acidity, such as treating soil with lime or applying extra phosphorus to their fields, so the comparative approach to cousin crops promises to be a king (or should that be Tyrannosaurus rex?) among soil solutions.

A boy rides his bicycle next to a rice field in the Philippines. With acid soils affecting half the world’s arable fields, acid-beating crop varieties will help farmers feed their families – and the world – into the future.

A boy rides his bicycle next to a rice field in the Philippines. With acid soils affecting half the world’s arable fields, acid-beating crop varieties will help farmers feed their families – and the world – into the future.


Dec 032014
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The latest – and most readily available – tools for breeders are often intangible things, such as ideas, approaches and even software. But they also include new physical tools, such as electronic tablets to make data collection more efficient. Read on to discover how structured user testing paved a path from pioneer to perfection.

This article was first published on the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) website on the 17th of October 2011, and is republished here as a complement to our last blogpost on the Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course (IB–MYC), illustrating yet another facet of our multi-pronged approach to capacity building.

From small and sweet to bigger and better, this ‘cure’ might just do the trick… After initial testing of small electronic handheld devices for field data collection, followed by extensive testing of alternative options on the market, an appropriate digital tablet was identified. Last month (September 2011), 20 tablets were distributed to IBP users from research programmes in Africa and Asia for pre-test. Should this user evaluation be positive, the plan is to distribute more of these tablets in the future, to a total ‘dosage’ of between 100–200 tablets in all, in the course of the next 12 months.

Flashback to February 2011: Pioneer handheld devices

The road behind us

We initially started by piloting smaller handheld devices (Honeywell and HP iPaq) among a small set of selected users, to get feedback from them, and collectively see what would work best to meet their needs. The smaller, handheld devices were piloted in late 2009 into early 2010 for evaluation by users.

Significantly, some institutes such as AfricaRice and IITA even procured additional units at their own cost – an act which speaks for itself. Most of our users reported finding the devices easy to use, simple and straight forward. Plus, they reported that it increases efficiency, saves time and minimises data error because data are recorded in a ready-for-use format. But it wasn’t all a bed of roses and there a few thorns as well: users encountered difficulties in synchronisation between the handheld and their computer due to configuration conflicts. The small screen and keyboard and short battery life also brought no joy, and data collection for multiple samples was a problem.

But enough from us on the pros and cons! Here is what some of the users from the rice and sorghum Research Initiatives (RIs) had to say way back in February 2011. As you will see, almost all of them got incurably ‘digitally infected’ despite the cons reported with the small portable devices.

In their own words: Users speak

Akinwale Gbenga of AfricaRice, Ibadan, Nigeria, pictured in the field recording data using the handheld device

Q: What has been your experience with the handheld device?

akinwale_tabletAkinwale: This device was very timely for us because we were already exploring and experiment with ways to improve the way data were being collected. The handheld device has greatly improved our efficiency. Previously, we’d collect data in a physical workbook then the data would be transferred manually to the computer. The handheld device saves time, guarantees accurate entries with no proofreading required, and safeguards the data: there is no risk of datasheets being lost or misplaced. With this device, what is recorded in the field is what is transferred into the computer without any errors. Whereas when deciphering handwriting, it’s very easy to confuse 3 for 8, 7 for 9, and so on, even when it is your own writing. Also, when working in the lowlands, mud smears and water smudges on the paper sometimes mean that handwritten data cannot be read. In a timed exercise to compare this new method and the usual methods, it took me 35 minutes to enter one trait and the job was fully done. With the usual methods, it would have taken me double the time since I would have had to manually collect and enter data then proofread entries.

Q: What drawbacks or concerns might you have observed about the device, and what would you advise?

Akinwale: The battery lasts four hours, so it is important to ensure it is fully charged before going to the field. Data collection is best done in the morning to avoid reflection and glare from the screen. I’m not sure how long the device will last, but I have no doubt that it is good value for money. Some programming work will also be needed to cater for traits that need multiple measurements.

ibnou_dieng_0Ibonou Dieng, a biometrician, AfricaRice, commented, “The only dataset that is complete at this time is for the station that had the handheld device. This underscores the efficiency of the handheld device. We therefore plan to disseminate the handheld device to all our rice RI partners in Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria. Significantly, management at AfricaRice has committed to buy the device for other projects as well for use in recording dry-season data in March.” Ibnou is one of the Joint Co-ordinators of the of the Data Managers Community of Practice with specific responsibility for Africa.

bashir_mohammedBashir Mohamed, a researcher and data manager at Nigeria’s National Cereal Research Institute at Badeggi, was impatiently waiting for the handheld device and observed, “Manual data collection and entry is extremely laborious. It generally involves three people – a field technician to do the counting, a data manager to do the recording and the breeder. With the handheld device, this job can be done by the data manager singlehandedly.”

aboubacar_diarraAboubacar Diarra, an Assistant Rice Breeder at l’Institut d’economie rurale in Mail noted, “The handheld device promises many advantages, and eases the task of data collection. Generally, it is rare to collect, enter and verify data all on the same day, meaning that should anomalies be noted at verification, the reality in the field may have significantly changed by the time one returns to the site to take a new reading. By easing the job, the handheld device makes it possible to do all three steps in a single day, and therefore to return to the field if need be for verification in good time.”

alexis_traoreAlexis Traore, Institut de l’environnement et de recherche agricole (INERA), Burkina Faso, said, “Data management is indispensable for molecular breeding, and therefore an understanding of data management is absolutely essential. We need training in data management and on new tools such as the handheld device that can help us manage data better. That way, we not only learn but we’ll also train other scientists as well as students who come to our institutes.”

marie-noelle_ndjiondjopMarie-Noëlle Ndjiondjop of AfricaRice, and the Rice Research Initiative Principal Investigator, summed it up thus:“Our riceproject has and will continue to produce a lot of data. The time to think about data management is now. We will ensure that all our rice RI partners receive the handheld device, and we are glad to note that the management at AfricaRice is actively promoting the device and recommending it for all breeding programmes at the Centre.”

But not all the users were complimentary, convinced and converted…

niaba_temeNiaba Teme, a sorghum breeder at L’Institut d’économie rurale, Mali, complained, “The handheld device is difficult to use. For traits like flowering which occurs at different times, you have to scroll to find the plot and flower which is time-consuming. It’s also difficult to work with it outdoors in the sunshine. Pen and paper are easier to use.” Niaba Teme is co-PI for the BCNAM project of the Sorghum Research Initiative.

On balance though, the concept of electronic data collection was clearly appreciated and was creating a ‘positive epidemic’, but clearly, a better tool was needed. Users recommended that IBP explore alternative mobile devices such as the tablet, to address the cons and drawbacks reported by Niaba and others on the small handheld devices. We listened and acted…

Fastforward to September 2011

tablet_photoTaking into account the comprehensive feedback received from users, the IBP team, led by Arllet Portugal, the Informatics Coordinator, set out to identify an appropriate handheld device that would meet the needs of users. They settled on a Samsung Galaxy 10.1-inch digital tablet (pictured) because it uses a common and open Honeycomb Android operating system specially designed for tablets, it has a large clear screen for easy viewing, good battery life and is lightweight and relatively robust. It can also communicate with a bar-code reader.

The 20 partners who received the tablet in September 2011 appeared very pleased with it, and committed to provide systematic and structured feedback over a one-year test period. Terms and conditions apply for this receipt: tablet recipients signed formal contracts whereby they will have to demonstrate that they indeed used the tablet to capture field data. Once preliminary feedback is received from this pioneer set of tablet users and analysed, the circle of evaluators will be expanded by contacting other users interested in trying out digital data-collection devices. And to maximise benefit and mutual learning, the IBP team will organise a forum for tablet users – probably around the next IBP annual meeting – to share experiences and tips, including a data clinic, should there be need.

We shall be following their experience with the tablet, so please watch this space to stay with the story, and travel with our users on what we trust will be a very momentous road ahead!

Nov 132014
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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 242014
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OAweek2014By Eloise Phipps

Imagine the scene: it is the dead of night, and you are engaged on a dangerous mission. You are tense, alert for any noise. You must complete your task without being seen, or risk the shame and humiliation of failure… but it is not a pleasant undertaking!

Your mission? A critical matter of honour. To dispose of your family’s cassava peelings – not with the rest of your household waste, but smuggled into the murky depths of the pit latrine. Why?

“The stigma about cassava is mostly among the Kikuyu people of central Kenya,” explains Henry Ngugi, Kenyan scientist and former Maize Pathologist for Latin America at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). “Traditionally, the Kikuyu are very proud, and self-sufficiency in basic needs such as food is an important factor in this. That is, you cannot be proud if you cannot feed yourself and your family. Now, the other part of the equation regarding cassava is that, traditionally, cassava was eaten during seasons of severe food shortages. It is a hardy and drought-tolerant crop so it would be available when the ‘good food’ was not. This also meant that it was associated with hunger and poverty – inability to feed oneself.”

“Another factor that may have played a role in the way the Kikuyu view cassava is that some of the traditional cultivars produced high levels of cyanide and were toxic [if not properly cooked], so as a crop it was not very highly regarded to start with. Improved cultivars have been bred to remove this problem. But because of these issues, many people would not want their neighbours to know they were so hungry they had to rely on cassava, and would go to great lengths to conceal any evidence!”

The story is not the same everywhere: graceful and strong, this farmer tends her field of cassava, in the village of Tiniu, near Mwanza, northern Tanzania.

Opening up for Open Access Week

This year, 20–26 October is Open Access Week, a global event celebrating, promoting and sharing ideas on open access – that is, making research results, including both publications and data, freely and publicly available for anyone to read, use and build upon. Even more exciting for us, this year’s theme is ‘Generation Open’, reflecting the importance of students and researchers as advocates for open access – a call that falls on fertile ground at the Generation Challenge Programme  (video below courtesy of UCMerced on YouTube).

We at GCP have been reflecting this week on different virtues of openness and transparency, and the perils of shame and secrecy. But before we go on, we’re sticking with cassava (carrying over from World Food Week!) but crossing the globe to China to celebrate the latest open-access publication to join the GCP parade. ‘Cassava genome from a wild ancestor to cultivated varieties’ by Wang et al is still practically a newborn, published on the 10th of October 2014.

The article presents draft genome sequences of a wild ancestor and a domesticated variety of cassava, with additional comparative analyses with other lines. It shows, for example, that genes involved in starch accumulation have been positively selected in cultivated cassava, and those involved in cyanogenic (ie, cyanide-producing) glucoside formation have been negatively selected. The authors hope that their results will contribute to better understanding of cassava biology, and provide a platform for marker-assisted breeding of better cassava varieties for farmers.

The research was carried out by a truly international team, led by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agriculture Sciences (CATAS) and Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Authors Wenquan Wang of CATAS and Bin Liu of CAS are delighted that their publication will be freely available, particularly in a journal with the prestige and high impact of the Nature family. As they observe, the open access to the paper will spread their experience and knowledge quickly to every corner of China and of the world where people have internet connections.

The work incorporated and partially built upon previous work mapping the cassava genome, which was funded by GCP in our project on Development of genomic resources for molecular breeding of drought tolerance in cassava (G3007.03), led by Pablo Rabinowicz, then with the University of Maryland, USA. This provides a perfect example of the kind of constructive collaboration and continuation that open access and sharing of research results can facilitate: by building on what has already been done, rather than re-inventing the wheel or working in isolation, we share, disseminate and amplify knowledge more rapidly and efficiently, with win–win outcomes for all involved.

Cassava farmers in Vietnam.

One thing that makes the latest research even more special is that it was published in Nature Communications, which marked Open Access Week by going 100 percent open access from the 20th of October, making it an open-access flagship within the Nature Publishing Group – a clear indicator of the ever-increasing demand for and credibility of open-access publishing. We congratulate all of our open-access authors for making their work publicly available, and Nature Communications for its bold decision!

A matter of perspective: turning shame to pride and fears to opportunities

No shame here: a little girl clutches a cassava root in Kenya.

Of course, human beings worrying about their social status is old as humanity itself and nothing new. Food has never been an exception as an indicator. Back in mediaeval Europe, food was a hugely important status symbol: the poor ate barley, oats and rye, while only the rich enjoyed expensive and prestigious wheat. Although our ideas about what is luxurious have changed – for example, sugar was considered a spice thanks to its high cost – rare imported foods were something to boast about just as they might be today.

But why are we ashamed of eating the ‘wrong foods’ – like cassava – when we could take pride in successfully feeding our families? Many of the things we tend to try to hide are really nothing to be ashamed of, and a simple change in perspective can turn what at first seem like weaknesses into sources of pride (and there are two sides to the cassava saga, as we shall see later).

Throughout its existence, GCP has been characterised by its openness and transparency. We have worked hard to be honest about our mistakes as well as our successes, so that both we and others can learn from them. The rewards of this clear-eyed approach are clearly noted in our Final External Review: “GCP has taken an open and pro-active attitude towards external reviews – commissioning their own independent reviews (the case of the current one) as well as welcoming a number of donor reviews. There have been clear benefits, such as the major governance and research reforms that followed the EPMR [External Programme and Management Review] and EC [European Commission] Reviews of 2008. These changes sharply increased the efficiency of GCP in delivering benefits to the poor.”

Transparent decision-making processes for determining choices of methods have also improved the quality of our science, while open, mutually respectful relationships – including open data-sharing – have underpinned our rich network of partnerships.

One aspect of this open approach is, of course, our commitment to open access. All of our own publications are released under Creative Commons licences, and we encourage all GCP grant recipients to do the same, or to pursue other open-access options. When exploring our research publications you will note that many are directly available to download. Our website will act as an archive for the future, ensuring that GCP publications remain online in one place after GCP’s closure in December this year. See our Global Access Policy and our policy on data-sharing.

“Open access journals are just terrific,” says Jean-Marcel Ribault, Director of GCP. “It’s great to enable access to publications, and it’s important to promote sharing of data and open up analysis too. The next big challenge is data management, and assuring the quality of that data. At the end of the day, the quality of the information that we share with others is fundamental.”

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

That’s a challenge that many other organisations are also grappling with. Richard Fulss, Head of Knowledge Management at our host CIMMYT is currently working on standards and approaches for the quality and structure of data, with the aim of implementing open access to all data within five years, meeting guidelines being put in place across CGIAR. “The issues to resolve are threefold,” he explains. “You have a licence issue, a technology issue – including building the right platform – and a cultural issue, where you need to build a culture of knowledge sharing and make open access publishing the norm rather than the exception.”

Our partners at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) already have a strong open-access policy, and are debunking some cherished open-access myths.

It’s good to talk: saying no to secrecy

Back to cassava, and of course not everyone feels the same way about the same crop, as there are many sides to any story. In China, demand for cassava is soaring – for food, for animal feed and most of all as a raw material for starch and biofuel production – making breeding of resilient, productive cassava varieties even more important. Even within Kenya, there are those who are quicker to see the crop’s virtues. The Luhya people of western Kenya often mix cassava with finger millet or sorghum to make flour for ugali (a stiff porridge or dough eaten as a staple food in vast swathes of Eastern and Southern Africa). As Henry explains “one reason was that such ugali ‘stayed longer in the stomach’ in literal translation from local parlance meaning it kept you full for longer – which is scientifically sound because cassava has a crude starch that takes longer to digest, and lots of fibre!”

Meanwhile, watch the delightful Chiedozie Egesi, Nigerian plant breeder and molecular geneticist, in the video below to hear all about the high potential of cassava, both as a food in itself and as a raw material to make flour and other products – something some farmers have already spotted. “Cassava can really sustain a nation… we’ve seen that it can,” he says. “You have in Nigeria now some of the Zimbabwean farmers who left Zimbabwe, got to Nigeria, and they changed from corn [maize] to cassava, because they see the potential that it has.”

The power of openness is already showing itself in the case of cassava, as well as other root, tuber and banana crops. Check out RTBMaps, an online atlas developed by the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), using ‘scientific crowdsourcing’ to combine data on a wide range of variables, shared by many researchers, in a single map. Putting all that information together can help people make better decisions, for example on how to target breeding, or where disease threats are likely to be strongest. And for a sweet serving, here’s our humble contribution from Phase I to a world-favourite dessert!

We leave you with one final thought. It is not just cassava that is plagued with pride and prejudice; many foods attract high or low statuses in different regions – or even just variations of the same food. People in Asia and North America, for example, tend to prefer yellow maize, while Africans like their maize white. In fact, yellow maize still carries a powerful stigma in many parts of Africa, as this was the colour of the maize that arrived as external  aid in periods of famine, oftentimes perceived in Africa as animal fodder and not human food in the countries it was sourced from. And thus yellow maize became synonymous with terrible times and the suffering and indignity of being unable to feed oneself and one’s family. Consequently, some of the famine-stricken families would only cook the yellow ‘animal-fodder’  maize in the dead of night, to avoid ‘detection’ and preserve family pride and honour.

This might at first blush appear to be a minor curiosity on colour and coloured thinking, were it not for the fact that when crops – such as sweet potato, cassava, or indeed maize – are bred to be rich in pro-vitamin A, and so provide plenty of the vitamin A that is particularly crucial for young children and pregnant women, they take on a golden yellow-orange hue. When promoting the virtues of this enriched maize in parts of Africa, it’s vital to know that as ‘yellow maize’ it would fall flat on its face, but as ‘orange maize’ or ‘golden maize’ it is a roaring success. A tiny difference in approach and label, perhaps, but one that is a quantum leap in nutritional improvement, and in ‘de-stigmatisation’ and accelerating adoption. Ample proof then that sharing details matters, and that it’s good to talk – even about the things we are a little ashamed of, thereby breathing substance into the spirit of the theme ‘Generation Open’.

Do have some of these uncomfortable but candid conversations this Open Access Week and live its spirit to the fullest every day after that! As for us here at GCP, we shall continue to sow and cultivate the seeds of Generation next for plant breeding into the future, through our Integrated Breeding Platform which will outlive GCP.

A little girl in Zambia gets a valuable dose of vitamin A as she eats her orange maize.

Eyes dancing with past, present or future mischief, two cheeky young chappies from Mozambique enjoy the sweet taste of orange sweet potato enriched with pro-vitamin A.


Oct 152014
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In recognition of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, October 17th, we are reflecting on what poverty means, how crop breeding helps eradicate poverty and transform lives, and how we have tried to maximise and measure those impacts.

In the early days of GCP, we were largely on uncharted seas and needed to chart a course to where our efforts would have the greatest impact, a process documented in our Pathways to impact brief No 1: Where in the world do we start? Instead of using a monetary definition of poverty, since this varies so widely between places and contexts, we took a different approach. As an indicator of true poverty, we used data on the number of stunted – ie, severely malnourished – children, overlaying this on maps showing where drought was most likely to occur. Our thinking was clear and simple: poverty + drought = where GCP needed to be.

Whatever else you may think they may lack, these children in Sibi village, Burkina Faso, definitely have verve, and look full of the energy they need to play!

Whatever else you may think they may lack, these children in Sibi village, Burkina Faso, definitely have verve, and look full of the energy they need to play!

A boy plays with an improvised hoop in Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo.

A boy plays with an improvised hoop in Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Drought routinely reduces harvests, and can be catastrophic. For example, nearly half (40 percent) of Africa’s maize-lands face occasional drought, reducing yields by between 10 and 25 percent, while a quarter suffers frequent drought, with overall losses of up to half the harvest – and total losses for some individual farmers. With climate change making droughts ever more common, drought was a natural priority for GCP from its inception.

Drought-tolerant crops are therefore the most important focus for the breeders of the GCP family, though not an exclusive one. Other key traits our breeders consider include resistance to pests and diseases and nutritional fortification, depending on the crop and location – and of course all varieties should yield well in good years too. Resilient improved varieties are particularly important for the poorest farmers, as they do not usually have access to measures such as irrigation or pesticides to combat environmental menaces. Typically, the poorest farmers also live in the most drought-prone drylands. Helping poor farmers to reap consistently abundant nutritious harvests means more food for their families and often a surplus to sell –reducing child malnourishment, and poverty in general.

A little girl eats fresh roti at home in the district of Dinajpur, Bangladesh.

A little girl eats fresh roti at home in the district of Dinajpur, Bangladesh.

A girl eats rice with her family in the Philippines.

A girl eats rice with her family in the Philippines.

Together we stand

The theme of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty 2014 is Leave no one behind: think, decide and act together against extreme poverty, and it is one that echoes beautifully with the ethos of GCP. Collaboration and partnership have always been hallmarks of our approach, particularly in terms of empowering researchers in developing countries to implement – and lead – cutting-edge science. You can find a wealth of posts on our blog about our partnerships and the ‘GCP spirit’.

Collaboration is particularly important in crop breeding because one crop is often faced by all kinds of threats at once – a selection from the world’s least tasty smorgasbord of drought, heat, waterlogging pests, diseases, soil infertility, and much more. It is likely to be of no use breeding a super-crop that goes untouched by disease if it turns up its toes after a few dry days, or if no one likes the taste. That means researchers with different areas of expertise need to work together – and with farmers and extensionists too. Read the case for collective action in our Pathways to impact brief No 2: A call for collective action in agricultural research.

Girls help in the fields in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Girls help in the fields in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Eyes dancing with past, present or future mischief, two cheeky young chappies from Mozambique enjoy the sweet taste of orange sweet potato enriched with pro-vitamin A.

Eyes dancing with past, present or future mischief, two cheeky young chappies from Mozambique enjoy the sweet taste of orange sweet potato enriched with pro-vitamin A.

Impact by the numbers

GCP believes that using marker-assisted breeding (a range of efficient crop-breeding approaches that use genetic information to work out which plants have useful traits) to create improved varieties faster and more effectively is worth its extra cost, and has a real impact on farmers’ incomes. This cannot be taken for granted however, so get an introduction to the numerical approach in our Pathways to impact brief No 3: Molecular and conventional breeding through an economic lens. Our study found that women in Nigeria reported increased household incomes from growing improved cassava varieties, but also more time spent on cassava-related tasks – emphasising the need for researchers to be aware of the characteristics farmers – in this case predominantly women – value.

Hard at work, a boy helps to peel a mountain of cassava in Nigeria.

Hard at work, a boy helps to peel a mountain of cassava in Nigeria.

As we mark this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, we at GCP are proud to be contributing to the eradication of poverty by creating partnerships, expertise, and ultimately crop varieties that promise abundant harvests for the world’s poorest farmers and their families – helping their children grow up big, strong and free from poverty.

At play: children of the Sao Felix community in the Brazilian Amazon.

At play: children of the Sao Felix community in the Brazilian Amazon.

Enjoy the game, but keep off the plants! Boys play football next to maize fields in Khulungira, central Malawi.

Enjoy the game, but keep off the plants! Boys play football next to maize fields in Khulungira, central Malawi.

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