Oct 242014

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.


Jul 082012

Inside GCP today

Do a deep dive with Jean-Marcel into GCP’s ‘engine room’. What makes the Programme work? How is it structured and governed? For a geographically dispersed Programme with multi-institutional teams, what’s the trick that keeps the different parts moving and well-oiled to maintain forward motion and minimise friction? Get acquainted (and hopefully ‘infected’) with the ‘GCP Spirit’…

Jean-Marcel Ribaut (pictured) is the GCP Director. His work involves coordinating the research activities and overseeing finances, ensuring that at the end of the day that the overall Programme objectives are met. This means much multitasking, a great asset in running a multi-institutional partnership-based Programme. Jean-Marcel comes from a research background, although the research team he led while at CIMMYT was nothing the size of GCP…

…we’ve moved from exploration to application…underpinned by services and capacity building. To make a difference in rural development, to truly contribute to improved food security through crop improvement and incomes for poor farmers, we knew that building capacity had to be a cornerstone in our strategy.”

How long have you been GCP Director?
Since 2005. My first two years were a steep learning curve!

The GCP tagline – ‘Partnerships in modern crop breeding for food security’  – what does this mean for you?
GCP is a very dynamic Programme. The kind of research that we were doing in 2005 is quite different from what we are doing today. As we implement our strategy, we’ve moved from exploration to application. We therefore revised our tagline to match this evolution, with the Programme now focussing much more on modern crop breeding and related aspects. We had naturally started by looking for diversity in the alleles, then evolved to gene discovery and developing supporting tools and markers alongside capacity building. Now, our focus is on application – using this diversity, markers and tools to progress to the next level, and boost the genetic gains for our nine key crops in challenging environments.

This application is underpinned by a service component through our Integrated Breeding Platform, as well as a strong capacity-building component for both human resources and infrastructure.

To make a difference in rural development, to truly contribute to improved food security through crop improvement and incomes for poor farmers, we knew that building capacity had to be a cornerstone in our strategy.

We take an integrated approach … exploring new avenues but exercising due caution …we are not promoting molecular breeding as the magic bullet and only solution – it’s an additional useful tool for arriving at educated breeding decisions.

One of our objectives was to bridge the gap between upstream and downstream research in the teams we brought together. While we did have some failures where groups worked together for the project duration alone and didn’t continue their collaboration, we have had other cases where the teams we forged then have not only grown but also continued to work together – with or without us.”

Why is GCP’s work important?
Through our Research Initiatives, we focus on several crops, with relatively limited funding for each of them compared, say, to other much larger crop-specific initiatives supported for example by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. So,  we operate on a proof-of-concept model: our goal is to demonstrate the use of new technologies and the application of out-of- the-box strategies which – if proven effective – will be funded and expanded by other agencies, including governments.

We take an integrated approach to problem-solving, exploring new avenues but exercising due caution while so doing. For example, for modern crop breeding which is our current focus, we are not promoting molecular breeding as the magic bullet and only solution – it’s an additional useful tool for arriving at educated breeding decisions.

…more than half our projects are led by scientists in developing countries

…The ‘GCP Spirit’ is visible and palpable: you can recognise people working with us have a spirit that is typical of the Programme.”

For you, what have been the major outcomes of the Programme so far?
Seeing developing-country partners come to the fore, and take the reins of project leadership. During Phase I, most project leaders were from CGIAR and advanced research institutes. However, over time, there has been a major shift and we are proud that today, more than half our projects are led by scientists in developing countries. They’ve moved from the position of implementers to the role of leaders, while CGIAR Centres and universities have taken a back seat, being more in a supporting role as mentors or tutors.

We have created this amazing chain of people, stretching  from the labs to the fields. This ‘human’ component is a terrific living asset, but it is also very difficult to scientifically quantify. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is as a ‘GCP Spirit’ created by the researchers we work with. The Programme’s ‘environment’ is friendly, open to sharing and is marked by a strong sense of community and ‘belonging’. The ‘GCP Spirit’ is visible and palpable: you can recognise people working with us have a spirit that is typical of the Programme.

One of our objectives was to bridge the gap between upstream and downstream research in the teams we brought together. While we did have some failures where groups worked together for the project duration alone and didn’t continue their collaboration, we have had other cases where the teams we forged then have not only grown but also continued to work together – with or without us.

A number of the partnerships we’ve forged have had a win–win outcome for players at opposite ends of the research–development spectrum. For example, academia tends to place a high premium on publications and theory, and relatively lower value on application and the real-world context. GCP provides a window for academics to apply their expertise, which benefits developing-country partners.

GCP’s relationship with project ppartners goes beyond funding. We are not just giving money; we are engaged in partnership with our project teams. We in management consult with them, interact and grapple over the technical issues with them in candour, and we toast and celebrate the successes together. I see our management style as fairly ‘paternal’, particularly for projects led by scientists from developing countries, but paternal in the positive sense of wanting to see these groups of people succeed, and us helping them to do so.

If a research site needs a pump for fieldwork, we work with a local or international consultant who will visit the partner and evaluate their needs, advise them on what type of pump they need, as well as other infrastructure they’ll need for the whole system to be sustainable. We’ll then provide training on how to use the pump most effectively.

It’s an investment in the people as much as in the products they are working on because we are trying to change the system of how science within partnerships is conducted and supported, as much as we are trying tap genetic diversity and breed resilient crops for the developing world.

Our successes have only been possible because of our ‘slim’ structure and the structural support we have enjoyed. With governance and advisory roles vested in an Executive Board and Consortium Committee, and with CIMMYT providing us with a legal and administrative home, we have minimal overheads and much flexibility. This agility has allowed us to adjust rapidly to changes when needed than, say, a classic research institute which would – quite rightly – have more rigid and elaborate obligatory steps, over a much longer time horizon.

…advocacy, persuasion and presenting a compelling business case are all necessary ingredients. Because we cannot be ‘directive’ with our partners in the manner their own institutes can be since they don’t ‘belong’ to us, we need to demonstrate success and convince people to adopt new business models.

How will GCP ensure sustainability?
Through our project Delivery Plans which link up a chain of users of our research products, and our Transition Strategy which shows how our research activities are embedded in the new CGIAR Research Programmes. We also hope to see our nascent communities of practice confer a sense of ownership to community members, and therefore sustainability. All that is on the ‘systematic’ and ‘documentation’ side of things.

Even more compelling is something I mentioned earlier, on the ‘organic’ and community side of things. Although it is completely outside our control, so to speak, it is wonderful to see that some of the partnerships we brought together have acquired a life of their own, and the teams we constituted are working together in other areas that have nothing to do with their GCP projects.

What are some of the lessons learnt so far?
The first one was focus. It’s very difficult to coordinate too many tasks, carried out by too many partners. Midstream in 2008, we had to review the way we were working and change course.

People management is the other. Cultivating relationships with people is critical. The trick is in balancing: by being cordial and friendly managers, we perhaps erode some of our authority over some of our project partners!

Another big lesson is that if it’s not working, don’t push it. Learn the lesson, cut your losses, and move on. Two main lessons have come from both our research and service aspects. For research, we invested in a massive fingerprinting exercise to characterise reference sets for all our 18 mandate crops at the time. [Editor’s note: 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 results were not great, the documentation was poor, and it was very difficult reconciling the different datasets from the work. We ended up incurring extra costs for genotyping, to salvage the investment. Then for building the Integrated Breeding Platform, we’d initially involved all major actors in developing the ‘middleware’ – the ‘invisible’ part that links the tools, services and resources IBP provides to breeders, with the respective crop databases. This did not work, and we subcontracted the work to an external service provider.

In both cases, we erred on the side of inclusiveness since we wanted to have all the players on board, and to also facilitate their capacity-building-by-engagement. We have learnt the need to strike a balance between inclusiveness and capacity building on the one hand, and outsourcing to get the job done on the other.

Then there is behaviour change – changing people’s mindsets to adopt technology, since people tend to be naturally conservative. We’ve learnt that developing the tools and techniques is the easy part. The human component – changing how people do business, getting them to adopt a corporative and cooperative over an institutional focus – is a real challenge, and needs to be strongly demand-driven with clear short-term benefits.

Data management and quality control, their documentation, publication and sharing continue to dog us and it’s probably the greatest challenge, although not unique to GCP.

Finally, advocacy, persuasion and presenting a compelling business case are all necessary ingredients. Because we cannot be ‘directive’ with our partners in the manner their own institutes can be since they don’t ‘belong’ to us, we need to demonstrate success and convince people to adopt new business models.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your position at GCP?
More than one, actually.

We enable people, research teams and institutes to grow, thrive and stand on their own, and this is deeply gratifying; it is very rewarding to see people from developing countries growing and becoming leaders.

Working on different crops, with different partners, in different circumstances, and of different capacities is highly stimulating and brings a lot of diversity. My job is anything but boring!

I also appreciate being sheltered from the administrative burden our multi-institutional approach carries. The administrative load is ably borne by CIMMYT. This allows me to dedicate more of my time to supporting our research partnerships, institutional relationships and services to researchers.

I work with a small and dedicated team. As you can imagine, things are not always rosy, since a small team also means we operate in a ‘tight’ space and occasionally knock knuckles, and we also come from different cultures, but all these work to the good. This cultural diversity is actually a big plus, bringing a broader array of perspectives to the table. And the benefit of the ‘tight’ space is that, when there is a task to be done, the team spirit is incredible – everyone in the group, from management to office assistants, apply themselves to the task at hand. This is a fantastic experience!

Beyond the management and staff group, there is also the real GCP that is out there, which is highly stimulating, and I will end by sharing an excerpt from the external mid-term review report:

“Perhaps the most important value of GCP thus far, is the opportunities it has provided for people of diverse backgrounds to think collectively about solutions to complex problems, and, in the process, to learn from one another.”

Related blogposts

GCP website

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