Jan 122015
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 072015

Beyond chickpeas to embrace beans, chickpeas, groundnuts and pigeonpeas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspecting maturity, Koibatek FTC, Bomet_R Mulwa_Sep'12_w

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



May 302014
Rogério Chiulele

Rogério Chiulele


Today, we travel the Milky Way on a voyage to Mozambique. Our man along the Milky Way is Rogério Marcos Chiulele (pictured), a lecturer at Mozambique’s Universidade Eduardo Mondlane’s Crop Science Department. He is also the lead scientist for cowpea research in Mozambique for the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project. This gives Rogério a crucial tri-focal down-to-earth and away-from-the-clouds perspective on cowpea pedagogy, research and development. It is through this pragmatic triple-lens prism that Rogerio speaks to us today, once he’s captained us safely back from the stars to Planet Earth, Southeast Africa. After the protein and profit, next stop for him and team is ridding cowpeas of pod-sucking pests, among other things slated for the future. But back from the future to the present and its rooted realities…Problems, yes, but also lots of good scores, plus a deft sleight of hand that are bound to have you starry-eyed, we bet.

…cowpeas rank fourth as the most cultivated crop…”

Q: Tell us about Mozambique and cowpeas: are they important?

The devastating effects of nematodes on cowpea roots.

The devastating effects of nematodes on cowpea roots.

In Mozambique, cowpeas are an important source of food, for both protein and profit, particularly for the resource-poor households that benefit from cowpea income and nutrition. In terms of cultivation, cowpeas rank fourth as the most cultivated crop after maize, cassava and groundnuts, accounting for about 9 percent of the total cultivated area, and estimated at nearly four million hectares of smallholder farms. The crop is produced for grain and leaves, mostly for household consumption but it is becoming increasingly important as a supplement for household income.

But while its potential for food, protein and income is recognised, the realisation of such potential is still limited by drought due to irregular and insufficient rain; affliction by pests such as aphids, flower thrips and nematodes; diseases such as cowpea aphid mosaic virus and cowpea golden mosaic virus; and cultivation of low-yielding and non-improved varieties.

…we backcross to varieties with traits that farmers prefer…”

Q: And on cowpea research and breeding?
Since 2008, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane [UEM] established a cowpea-breeding programme for addressing some of the limiting constraints affecting cowpea production and productivity. This has been possible through collaboration with different funding institutions such as the Generation Challenge Programme.

Photo: UEM

2008: Screening of the 300 genotypes.

That same year [2008], a UEM research team that I coordinate qualified for a GCP capacity-building à la carte grant. In this project, we screened 300 Mozambican cowpea lines for drought tolerance. From these, we identified 84 genotypes that were either high-yielding or drought-tolerant. We further evaluated the 84 genotypes for another three seasons in two locations. From the 84, we identified six genotypes that not only had the two sought-after traits, but were also adapted to different environments.

In 2010, the UEM team joined the TLI project. For the six pre-identified genotypes, the UEM breeding programme is using marker-assisted recurrent selection [MARS] and marker-assisted backcrossing [MABC], combining drought tolerance and resistance to major biotic stresses occurring in Mozambique. In MABC, we are conducting a backcross to varieties with traits that farmers prefer, which includes aspects such as large seeds, early maturity and high leaf production.

…we conducted a farmers’ participatory varietal selection to glean farmers’ perceptions and preferences on cowpea varieties and traits…”

Q: What is the main focus in your work, and how and when do farmers come in?
The breeding work conducted by UEM is targeting all Mozambican agroecologies, but with particular focus on southern Mozambique which is drought-prone. In addition to drought, the area is plagued by many pests such as aphids, flower thrips, nematodes and pod-sucking pests. So, in addition to drought tolerance, we are conducting screening and selection for resistance to aphids, flower thrips and nematodes. In the near future, we will start screening for resistance to pod-sucking pests.

2009: field screening of the 84 genotypes in diff locations.

2009: Rogério during field screening of the 84 genotypes in different locations.

In 2009, we conducted a farmers’ participatory varietal selection to glean farmers’ perceptions and preferences on cowpea varieties and traits. From the study, six of the lines passed participatory variety selection with farmers, as they were large-seeded with good leaf production which provides additional food.

we hope to release three varieties in 2015…Our involvement with GCP has not only increased our exposure, but also brought along tangible benefits… I firmly believe black-eyed peas can really make a difference.”

Q: To what would you attribute the successes your team is scoring, and what are your goals for the future, besides screening for pod-sucking pests?
The success of the work that the Eduardo Mondlane team is doing is partly due to the collaboration and partnership with USA’s University of California, Riverside [UCR]. UCR sent us 60 lines from the GCP cowpea reference set* [Editorial note: see explanation at the bottom], which we evaluated for drought tolerance for four seasons in two locations – one with average rainfall and the other drought-prone. As these lines were already drought-tolerant, we tested them for adaptation to the local environment, and for high yield. From the set, we hope to release three varieties in 2015. In addition, for evaluating the different varieties, we also crossed the local varieties with black-eyed peas, which have a huge market appeal: local varieties fetch roughly half a US dollar per kilo, compared to black-eyed peas whose price is in the region of four to five US dollars.

2013: multilocation trials.

2013: multilocation trials.

Our involvement with GCP has not only increased our exposure, but also brought along tangible benefits. For example, previously, nothing was being done on drought tolerance for cowpeas. But now we receive and exchange material, for example, the black-eyed peas from UCR that we received through GCP, which are set to boost production and markets, thereby improving lives and livelihoods. Amongst the varieties we are proposing to release is one black-eye type. I firmly believe black-eyed peas can really make a difference.

In addition, besides funding a PhD for one of our researchers, Arsenio Ndeve, who is currently at UCR, the Generation Challenge Programme, contributed to improvement on storage and irrigation facilities. We purchased five deep freezers for seed storage and one irrigation pump. Presently, we have adequate storage facilities and we conduct trials even during the off-season, thanks to the irrigation pump provided by GCP.


And on that upbeat note even as the challenge ahead is immense, today’s chat with Rogério ends here. To both pod-sucking pests and all manner of plagues on cowpeas, beware, as thy days are numbered: it would seem that Rogério and team firmly say: “A pox on both your houses!”

*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


Mar 042014
‘Made (up) in Ghana’

In the world of crop research as in the fashion industry, there are super-models, mere models, spectators and rank outsiders. Make no bones about it, trusty old cassava (Manihot esculenta) is a crop of very modest beginnings, but now finally strutting the research catwalk alongside the biggest and the best.

Elizabeth Parkes

Elizabeth Parkes

An ancient crop thought to have been first domesticated in Latin America more than 10,000 years ago, it was exported by Portuguese slave traders from Brazil to Africa in the 16th century as a cheap source of carbohydrates. From there, today we travel half a millennium forward in time – and in space, on to Ghana – to catch up with the latest on cassava in the 21st century.

Come on a guided tour with Elizabeth Parkes (pictured), of Ghana’s Crops Research Institute (CRI, of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, CSIR), currently on leave of absence at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

A hard-knock life, but still going strong
In keeping with its humble heritage, cassava is a crop which has long been reputed for being more than a little worn through at the elbows, commonly known as a “poor man’s crop” according to GCP cassava breeder and researcher, Elizabeth Parkes. However, much like a dishevelled duffle coat, what the crop lacks in shimmer and shine, it makes up for in sturdiness and dependability, rising to the occasion time and again by filling a critical gap – that of putting food in bellies – with a readiness and ease that its more sophisticated crop relatives have often struggled to keep up with. Elizabeth explains:  “It has kept people alive over the years.” By the same token, the crop – now one of Africa’s most important staples – is fondly known in Ghana as bankye, meaning a ‘gift from the government’, thanks to its reliability and capacity to meet needs that other crops cannot. There is even a popular song in the country which pays homage to the crop as an indefatigable evergreen, conquering even the most willful and wily of weeds!

However, as cassava experts such as Elizabeth know only too well, behind this well-intentioned lyrical window dressing is the poignant story of a crop badly in need of a pressing pick-me-up. Hardy as it may seem on the surface, cassava is riddled with myriad problems of a political, physiological, environmental and socioeconomic nature, further compounded by the interactions between these. For starters, while it may be a timeless classic and a must-have item at the family table for a good part of Africa, à la mode it is not, or at least not for short-sighted policy-makers looking first and foremost to tighten their purse strings in straitened times, or for quick-fix, rapid-impact,  silver-bullet solutions: “African governments don’t invest many resources in research. Money is so meager, and funds have mostly come from external agencies looking to develop major cereals such as rice. Cassava has been ignored and has suffered a handicap as a result – it’s more or less an orphan crop now,” Elizabeth laments. Besides having to bear witness to their favourite outfit being left on the funding shelf, cassava breeders such as Elizabeth are also faced with a hotchpotch of hurdles in the field: “In addition to factors such as pests and disease, cassava is a long-season and very labour-intensive crop. It can take a whole year before you can expect to reap any rewards, and if you don’t have a strong team who can step in at different points throughout the breeding  process, you can often find unexpected results at the end of it, and then you have to start all over again,” Elizabeth reveals. Robust as it may be, then, cassava is no easy customer in the field: “After making crosses, you don’t have many seeds to move you to the next level, simply because with cassava, you just don’t get the numbers: some are not compatible, some are not flowering; it’s a real bottleneck that needs to be overcome,” she affirms.

No time for skirting the issue
And at the ready to flex their research muscles and rise to these considerable challenges was Elizabeth and her Ghanaian CRI  team, who – with GCP support and in unison with colleagues from across Africa and the wider GCP cassava community – have been working flat out to put cassava firmly back on the research runway.

Thanks to funders such as GCP, who recognised that we couldn’t afford to turn a blind eye to the plight of this struggling crop, cassava has been given a voice…cassava is no longer just a poor man’s staple” 

A cassava farmer in Northern Ghana.

A  cassava farmer in Northern Ghana.

Elizabeth walks us through the team’s game plan: “GCP socioeconomist Glenn Hyman and team undertook a study to identify the best area in Ghana for supporting cassava flowering [Editor’s note: Glenn works at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT]. Armed with that information, we have been applying grafting techniques, using hormones to induce flowering in Ghana and beyond.” The initiative is starting to bear fruit: “At the IITA–Nigeria Ubiaja site, for example, flowering is underway at factory-like efficiency – it’s a great asset. The soil has also greatly improved – we haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact cause yet, but what we’ve seen is that all cultivars there will now flower,” she reveals. Elizabeth’s team has been making steady progress in biotechnological techniques such as DNA extraction: thanks to work led by then GCP cassava comrade Martin Fregene (then with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT, and now with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center) and colleagues, focusing on the development of more reliable and robust simple sequence repeat (SSR) markers, Elizabeth was able to carry out genetic diversity diagnosis work on cassava, collecting germplasm from all over Ghana for the global GCP cassava reference set. [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]

Similar work was also conducted in Nigeria and Guatemala. So has this tremendous and tenacious teamwork proved strong enough to drag cassava out of the doldrums? Elizabeth certainly seems to think so: “Thanks to funders such as GCP, who recognised that we couldn’t afford to turn a blind eye to the plight of this struggling crop, cassava has been given a voice. Having worked together to understand the peculiarities of this crop, cassava is no longer just a poor man’s staple: beyond subsistence, it is becoming a crop of high starch quality, and of real use for industry, confectionary and even biofuels,” she enthuses.

Thankfully, it’s a most welcome change of tide that shows no sign of abating any time soon.  Human capacity, Elizabeth says, is going from strength to strength, with three GCP-funded Ghanaian postgraduate students advancing well, two of them working on PhDs in what would normally be considered, according to Elizabeth, a ‘no-go area’ of cassava research – that is, cassava drought tolerance and post-harvest physiological deterioration (PPD), as well as bio-fortification. Efforts by the CRI team have resulted in the release of some 14–15 new drought-tolerant and PPD-resistant varieties in Ghana to date; all are anticipated to have a long shelf-life, and other varieties are also in the pipeline. Biofortified seeds are in the making, with a view to soon mainstream biofortification in the team’s breeding activities. The biofortification work is in collaboration with a sister CGIAR Challenge Programme, HarvestPlus.

The impact of our GCP-supported research on cassava has been remarkable. Above all, it’s been the community spirit which has moved things forward so effectively; in this respect, I think researchers working on other crops might want to borrow a leaf from the cassava book!”

Molecular masterstrokes, a leaf to lend despite cold shoulder, and a ‘challenge crop’ befitting Challenge Programmes
Forthcoming plans for Elizabeth and her cassava companions in Ghana include a GCP Cassava Challenge Initiative project which will seek to unearth new marker populations and materials which are drought-tolerant and resistant to cassava mosaic virus and cassava bacterial blight. The team has successfully introgressed materials from CIAT into their landraces, and the next step will be to gauge how best the new genes will react to these traits of interest. In terms of people power, the CRI biotechnology laboratory built with GCP support – and now a regionally accredited ‘Centre of Excellence’ – is a hive of activity for local and international scientists alike, and is consequently bolstering cassava research efforts in the wider subregion. “The impact of our GCP-supported research on cassava has been remarkable. Above all, it’s been the community spirit which has moved things forward so effectively; in this respect, I think researchers working on other crops might want to borrow a leaf from the cassava book!” Elizabeth ventures.

Reflecting back on the conspicuous cocktail of constraints which mired the crop in the early days of her research career – challenges which often resulted in a cold shoulder from many of her research peers over the years – Elizabeth recalls affectionately: “At first, people didn’t want to work on cassava since it’s truly a challenge crop: the genetics of cassava are really tricky. Colleagues from around the globe often asked me: ‘Why not go for a smooth crop which is friendly and easy?’” Her commitment, however, has been unfaltering throughout: “I’ve stuck with cassava because that’s my destiny! And now I see SNPs being developed, as well as numerous other resources. Once you clean something up it becomes more attractive, and my thanks go out to all those who’ve remained dedicated and helped us to achieve this.”

Thus, dusted down and  ‘marked-up’ with a molecular make-over well underway, all evidence now suggests that this once old-hat subsistence crop is en route to becoming the next season’s big research hit, with shiny new cassava varieties soon to be released at a field station near you! Go, Ghana, go!



Feb 282013

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

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

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

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

A deeper dig: the root of the matter

Godwill Makunde

Godwill Makunde

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

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

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

Kennedy Simango

Kennedy Simango

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: CBI

Godwill doing what he does best: bean breeding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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