Jun 242014

Triumphs and tragedies, pitfalls and potential of the ‘camel crop’Cassava leaf. Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

We travel through space and time, with a pair of researchers who have a pronounced passion for a plant brought to Africa by seafaring Portuguese traders in the 16th century. Fastforwarding to today, half a millennium later, the plant is widespread and deep inland, and is the staple food for Africa’s most populous nation – Nigeria.

Meet cassava, the survivor. After rice and maize, cassava is the third-largest source of carbohydrate in the tropics. Surviving, nay thriving, in poor soils and shaking off the vagaries of weather – including an exceptionally high threshold for drought – little wonder that cassava, the ‘camel’ of crops is naturally the main staple in Nigeria. And with that, it has propelled Nigeria to the very top of the cassava totem pole as the world’s leading cassava producer, and consumer: most Nigerians eat cassava in one form or another practically every day.

Great, huh? But there’s also a darker side to cassava, as we will soon find out from our two cassava experts. For starters, the undisputed global cassava giant, Nigeria, produces just enough to feed herself. Even if there were a surplus for the external demand, farming families, which make up 70 percent of the Nigerian population, have limited access to these lucrative external markets. Secondly, cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) are deadly in Africa. Plus, cassava is a late bloomer (up to two years growth cycle, typically one year), so breeding and testing improved varieties takes time. Finally, cassava is most definitely not à la mode at all in modern crop breeding: the crop is an unfashionably late entrant into the world of molecular breeding, owing to its complex genetics which denied cassava the molecular tools that open the door to this glamour world of ‘crop supermodels’.

Emmanuel Okogbenin (left) and Chiedozie Egesi (right) in  a cassava field.

Emmanuel Okogbenin (left) and Chiedozie Egesi (right) in a cassava field.

But all is not doom and gloom, which inexorably dissolve in the face of dogged determination. All the above notwithstanding, cassava’s green revolution seems to be decidedly on the way in Nigeria, ably led by born-and-bred sons of the soil: Chiedozie Egesi and Emmanuel Okogbenin (pictured right) are plant breeders and geneticists at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI). With 36 years’ collective cassava research experience between them, the two men are passionate about getting the best out of Nigeria’s main staple crop, and getting their hands into the sod while about it: “I’m a plant breeder,” says Chiedozie, with pride. “I don’t just work in a laboratory. I am also in the field to experience the realities.”

Hitting two birds with one stone…two stones are even better!
As Principal Investigators (PIs) leading three different projects in the GCP-funded Cassava Research Initiative, Chiedozie and Emmanuel, together with other colleagues from across Africa, form a formidable team. They also share a vision to enable farmers increase cassava production for cash, beyond subsistence. This means ensuring farmers have new varieties of cassava that guarantee high starch-rich yields in the face of evolving diseases and capricious weather.

Chiedozie is one of cassava’s biggest fans. His affection for, and connection to, cassava is almost personal and definitely paternal. He is determined to deploy the best plant-breeding techniques to not only enhance cassava’s commercial value, but to also protect the crop against future disease outbreaks, including ‘defensive‘ breading. But more on that later…

Emmanuel is equally committed to the cassava cause. As part of his brief, Emmanuel liaises with the Nigerian government, to develop for – and promote to – farmers high-starch cassava varieties. This ensures a carefully crafted multi-pronged strategy to revolutionise cassava: NRCRI develops and releases improved varieties, buttressed by financial incentives and marketing opportunities that encourage farmers to grow and sell more cassava, which spurs production, thereby simultaneously boosting food security while also improving livelihoods.

erect cass1_LS 4 web

Standing tall. Disease resistance and high starch and yield aside, farmers also prefer an upright architecture, which not only significantly increases the number of plants per unit, but also favours intercropping, a perennial favourite   for cassava farmers.

Cross-continental crosses and cousins, magic for making time, and clocking a first for cassava

No one has been able to manufacture time yet, so how can breeders get around cassava’s notoriously long breeding cycle? MAS (marker-assisted selection) is crop breeding’s magic key for making time. And just as humans can benefit from healthy donor organ replacement, so too does cassava, with cross-continental cousins donating genes to rescue the cousin in need. Latin American cassava is nutrient-rich, while African cassava is hardier, being more resilient to pests, disease and harsh environments.

Thanks to marker-assisted breeding, CMD resistance from African cassava can now be rapidly ‘injected’ much faster into Latin American cassava for release in Africa. Consequently, in just a three-year span (2010–2012), Chiedozie, Emmanuel, Martin Fregene of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (USA) and the NRCRI team, released two new cassava varieties from Latin American genetic backgrounds (CR41-10 and CR36-5). These varieties, developed with GCP funding, are the first molecular-bred cassava ever to be released, meaning they are a momentous milestone in cassava’s belated but steady march towards its own green revolution.

Marker-assisted selection is much cheaper, and more focused.” 

On the cusp of a collaborative cassava revolution: on your marks…
With GCP funding, Chiedozie and Emmanuel have been able to use the latest molecular-breeding techniques to speed up CMD resistance. Using marker-assisted selection (MAS) which is much more efficient, the scientists identified plants combining CMD resistance with desirable genetic traits.

“MAS for CMD resistance from Latin American germplasm is much cheaper, and more focused,” explains Emmanuel. “There is no longer any need to ship in tonnes of plant material to Africa. We can narrow down our search at an early stage by selecting only material that displays markers for the genetic traits we’re looking for.” Using markers, combining traits (known as ‘gene pyramiding’) for CMD resistance is faster and more efficient, as it is difficult to distinguish phenotypes with multiple resistance in the field by just observing with the naked eye. This is what makes marker-assisted breeding so effective and desirable in Africa.

GCP’s mode of doing business coupled with its community spirit has spurred the NRCRI scientists to cast their eyes further out to the wider horizon beyond their own borders.

By collaborating with research centres in other parts of the world, Emmanuel and Chiedozie have made remarkable strides in cassava breeding. According to Emmanuel, “GCP helped us make links with advanced laboratories and service providers like LGC Genomics. The outsourcing of genotyping activities for molecular breeding initiatives is very significant, as it enables us to carry out analyses not otherwise possible.”

We can’t afford to sit idle until it comes – we need to be armed and on the ready.”

‘Defensive’ breeding: partnerships to pre-empt catastrophe and combat disease
Closer home in Africa, as PI of the corollary African breeders community of practice (CoP) project, Emmanuel co-organises regular workshops with plant breeders from a dozen other countries (Côte d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya,  Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan). These events are an opportunity to share knowledge on molecular breeding and compare notes.

Of the diseases that afflict cassava, CBSD is the most devastating. Mercifully, in Nigeria, the disease is non-existent, but Chiedozie is emphatic that this is by no means cause for complacency. “If CBSD gets to Nigeria, it would be a monumental catastrophe!” he cautions. “We can’t afford to sit idle until it comes – we need to be armed and on the ready.”

Putting words to action, though this work on CBSD resistance is still in its early stages, more than 1,000 cassava genotypes (different genetic combinations) have already have been screened in the course of just one year. Chiedozie hopes that the team will be able to identify key genetic markers, and validate these in field trials in Tanzania, where CBSD is widespread. This East African stopover, Chiedozie emphasises, is a crucial checkpoint in the West African process. So the cassava CoP not only provides moral but also material support.

And Africa is not the limit. GCP-funded work on CMD resistance is more advanced than the CBSD work, though the real breakthrough in CMD only happened recently, on the international arena within which the African breeders now operate. According to Chiedozie, two entire decades of screening cassava genotypes from Latin America yielded no resistance to CMD. The reason for this is that although it is widespread in Africa, CMD is non-existent in Latin America.

Through international collaborative efforts, cassava scientists, led by Martin Fregene (now based in USA), screened plants from Nigeria and discovered markers for the CMD2 gene, indicating resistance to CMD. Once they had found these markers, the scientists were off and away! By taking the best of the Latin American material and crossing it with Nigerian genotypes that have CMD resistance, promising lines were developed from which the Nigerian team produced two new varieties. These varieties, CR41-10 and CR36-5, have already been released to farmers, and that is not all. More varieties bred using these two as parents are in the pipeline.

“GCP funding has given us the opportunity to show that a national organisation can do the job and deliver.” 


Delivery attracts
The success of the CGP-funded cassava research in Nigeria lies in its in-country leadership. Chiedozie, Emmanuel and Martin are native Nigerian scientists and as such are – in many ways – best placed to drive a research collaboration to benefit the country’s farmers and boost food security. “GCP funding has given us the opportunity to show that a national organisation can do the job and deliver,” says Chiedozie.

This proven expertise has helped NRCRI forge other partnerships and attract more financial support, for example from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a project on genomic selection. GCP support has also bolstered communications with the Nigerian government, which has launched financial instruments, such as a wheat tariff,* to boost cassava production and use.

[Editors note: * wheat tariff: The Nigerian government is trying to reduce wheat import bills and also boost cassava commercialisation by promoting 20 percent wheat substitution in bread-making. Tariffs are being imposed on wheat to dissuade heavy imports and encourage utilisation of high-quality cassava flour for bread.]

“The government feels that to quickly change the fortunes of farmers, cassava is the way to go,” explains Emmanuel. He clarifies, “The tariff from wheat is expected to be ploughed back to support agricultural development – especially the cassava sector – as the government seeks to increase cassava production to support flour mills. Cassava offers a huge opportunity to transform the agricultural economy and stimulate rural development, including rapid creation of employment for youth.”

The Nigerian government is right in step aiding cassava’s march towards the crop’s own green revolution, as is evident in the the Minister of Agriculture’s tweet earlier this year, and in his video interview below. See also related media story, ‘Long wait for cassava bread’.

Clearly, the ‘camel’ crop – once considered an ‘orphan’ in research  –  has travelled as far in science as in geography, and it is a precious asset to deploy for food production in a climate-change-prone world. As Emmanuel observes, cassava’s future can only be brighter!

Slides by Chiedozie and Emmanuel


More links


May 122014


Omari Mponda

Omari Mponda

After getting a good grounding on the realities of groundnut research from Vincent, our next stop is East Africa, Tanzania, where we meet Omari Mponda (pictured). Omari is a Principal Agricultural Officer and plant breeder at Tanzania’s Agricultural Research Institute (ARI), Naliendele, and country groundnut research leader for the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project, implemented through our Legumes Research Initiative.  Groundnut production in Tanzania is hampered by drought in the central region and by rosette and other foliar diseases in all regions. But all is not bleak, and there is a ray of hope: “We’ve been able to identify good groundnut-breeding material for Tanzania for both drought tolerance as well as disease resistance,” says Omari. Omari’s team are also now carrying their own crosses, and happy about it. Read on to find out why they are not labouring under the weight of the crosses they carry…

…we have already released five varieties…TLI’s major investment in Tanzania’s groundnut breeding has been the irrigation system… Frankly, we were not used to being so well-equipped!”

Q: How  did you go about identifying appropriate groundnut-breeding material for Tanzania?
A: We received 300 reference-set lines from ICRISAT [International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics], which we then genotyped over three years [2008– 2010] for both drought tolerance and disease resistance. After we identified the best varieties, these were advanced to TLII [TLI’s sister project] for participatory variety selection with farmers in 2011–2012, followed by seed multiplication. From our work with ICRISAT, we have already released five varieties.

Harvesting ref set collection at Naliendele_w

Harvesting the groundnut reference-set collection at Naliendele. 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.

ARI–Naliendele has also benefitted from both human and infrastructure capacity building. Our scientists and technicians were trained in drought phenotyping at ICRISAT Headquarters in India. One of our research assistants, Mashamba Philipo, benefitted from six-month training, following which he advanced to an MSc specialising in drought phenotpying using molecular breeding. In his work, he is now using drought germplasm received from ICRISAT. In terms of laboratory and field infrastructure, the station got irrigation equipment to optimise drought-phenotyping trials. Precision phenotyping and accurate phenotypic data are indispensable for effective molecular breeding. To facilitate this, ARI–Naliendele benefitted from computers, measuring scales, laboratory ware and a portable weather station, all in a bid to assure good information on phenotyping. But by far, TLI’s major investment in Tanzania’s groundnut breeding has been the irrigation system which is about to be completed. This will be very useful as we enter TLIII for drought phenotyping.


For us, this is a big achievement to be able to do national crosses. Previously, we relied on ICRISAT…we are advancing to a functional breeding programme in Tanzania… gains made are not only sustainable, but also give us independence and autonomy to operate..We developing-country scientists are used to applied research and conventional breeding, but we now see the value and the need for adjusting ourselves to understand the use of molecular markers in groundnut breeding.”

Omari (right), with Hannibal Muhtar (left), who was contracted by GCP to implement infrastructure improvement for ARI Naliendele. See http://bit.ly/1hriGRp

Flashback to 2010: Omari (right), with Hannibal Muhtar (left), who was contracted by GCP to implement infrastructure improvement for ARI Naliendele, and other institutes. See http://bit.ly/1hriGRp

Q: What difference has participating in TLI made?
A: Frankly, we were not used to being so well-equipped, neither with dealing with such a large volume as 300 lines! But we filtered down and selected the well-performing lines which had the desired traits, and we built on these good lines. The equipment purchased through the project not only helped us with the actual phenotyping and being able to accurately confirm selected lines, but also made it possible for us to conduct off-season trials.

We’re learning hybridisation skills so that we can use TLI donors to improve local varieties, and our technicians have been specifically trained in this area. For us, this is a big achievement to be able to do national crosses. Previously, we relied on ICRISAT doing the crosses for us, but we can now do our own crosses. The difference this makes is that we are advancing to a functional breeding programme in Tanzania, meaning the gains made are not only sustainable, but also give us independence and autonomy to operate. Consequently, we are coming up with other segregating material from what we’ve already obtained, depending on the trait of interest we are after.

Another big benefit is directly interacting with world-class scientists in the international arena through the GCP community and connections – top-rated experts not just from ICRISAT, but also from IITA, CIAT, EMBRAPA [Brazil], and China’s DNA Research Institute. We have learnt a lot from them, especially during our annual review meetings. We developing-country scientists are used to applied research and conventional breeding, but we now see the value and the need for adjusting ourselves to understand the use of molecular markers in groundnut breeding. We now look forward to TLIII where we expect to make impact by practically applying our knowledge to groundnut production in Tanzania.

Interesting! And this gets us squarely back to capacity building. What are your goals or aspirations in this area?
A: Let us not forget that TLI is implemented by the national programmes. In Africa, capacity building is critical, and people want to be trained. I would love to see fulltime scientists advance to PhD level in these areas which are a new way of doing business for us. I would love for us to have the capacity to adapt to our own environment for QTLs [quantitative trait loci], QTL mapping, and marker-assisted selection. Such capacity at national level would be very welcome. We also hope to link with advanced labs such as BecA [Biosciences eastern and southern Africa] for TLI activities, and to go beyond service provision with them so that our scientists can go to these labs and learn.

There should also be exchange visits between scientists for learning and sharing, to get up to date on the latest methods and technologies out there. For GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform [IBP], this would help IBP developers to design reality-based tools, and also to benefit from user input in refining the tools.


SLIDES by Omari on groundnut research and research data management in Tanzania


Mar 312014
Vincent Vadez

Vincent Vadez

Today, we travel to yet another sun-kissed spot, leaving California behind but keeping it legumes. We land in Africa for some ground truths on groundnuts with Vincent Vadez (pictured), groundnut research leader for the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) Project. Vincent fills us in on facts and figures on groundnuts and Africa – a tale of ups and downs, triumphs and trials, but also of  ‘family’ alliances not feuds, and of problems, yes,  but also their present or potential solutions. On to the story then! Read on to find out why groundnuts are…

….A very mixed bag in Africa
Groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea L), also called peanuts, are a significant subsistence and food crop in sub-Saharan Africa. There, groundnuts are grown in practically every country, with the continent accounting for roughly a quarter of the world’s production. Despite this rosy African statistic, problems abound: for example, nearly half (40 percent) of the of the world’s total acreage for groundnuts is in Africa, which dramatically dims the 25 percent global production quota.

In Africa, groundnuts are typically cultivated in moderate rainfall areas across the continent, usually by women.

In Africa, groundnuts are typically cultivated in moderate rainfall areas across the continent, usually by women. (See editorial note* at the end of the story)

Clearly then, Africa’s yields are low, borne out by telling statistics which show African production at 950 kilos per hectare, in acute contrast to 1.8 tonnes per hectare in Asia.

…every year, yields worth about USD 500 million are lost”

What ails Africa’s production?
The main constraints hampering higher yields and quality in Africa are intermittent drought due to erratic rainfall, as well as terminal drought during maturation. And that is not all, because foliar (leaf) diseases such as the late leaf spot (LLS) or groundnut rosette are also taking their toll.  Economically speaking, every year, yields worth about USD 500 million are lost to drought, diseases and pests. Plus, the seeding rates for predominantly bushy groundnut types are low, and therefore insufficient to achieve optimal ground cover. Thus, genetic limitations meet and mingle with major agronomic shortcomings in the cultivation of groundnuts, making it…

…. A tough nut to crack
Groundnuts are mostly cultivated by impoverished farmers living in the semi-arid tropics where rainfall is both low and erratic.

Tough it may be for crop scientists, but clearly not too tough for these two youngsters shelling groundnuts at Mhperembe Market, Malawi.

. Tough it may be for crop scientists, but clearly not too tough for these two youngsters shelling groundnuts at Mhperembe Market, Malawi.

“To help double the productivity of this crop over the next 10 years, we need to improve groundnuts’ ability to resist drought and diseases without farmers needing to purchase costly agricultural inputs,” says Vincent.

But the crop’s genetic structure is complex, plus, for resistance to these stresses, its genetic diversity is narrow. “Groundnuts are therefore difficult and slow to breed using conventional methods,” says Vincent. And yet, as we shall see later, groundnuts are distinctly disadvantaged when it comes to molecular breeding. But first, the good news!

…wild relatives have genes for resisting the stresses… molecular markers can play a critical role”

Why blood is thicker than water, and family black sheep are valued
Kith and kin are key in groundnut science. Vincent points out that groundnuts have several wild relatives that carry the necessary genes for resisting the stresses – especially leaf diseases – to which the crop is susceptible. These genes can be transferred from the wild cousins to the cultivated crop by blending conventional and molecular breeding techniques. But that is easier said than done, because cultivated groundnuts can’t cross naturally with their wild relatives owing to chromosomic differences.

Groundnut flower

Groundnut flower

“In modern breeding, molecular markers can play a critical role,” says Vincent. “Using markers, one can know the locations of genes of interest from an agronomic perspective, and we can then transfer these genes from the wild relatives into the groundnut varieties preferred by farmers and their markets.”

[The] ‘variegated’ partnership has been essential for unlocking wild groundnut diversity…”

Partnerships in and out of Africa, core capacities
“Partners are key to this work,” says Vincent. The groundnut work is led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), with collaborators in the target countries, which are Malawi (Chitedze Agricultural Research Centre), Senegal (Institut sénégalais de recherches agricoles ‒ ISRA) and Tanzania (Agricultural Research Institute, Naliendele), Moving forward together, continuous capacity building for partners in Africa is part and parcel of the project. To this end, there have been several training workshops in core areas such as molecular breeding and phenotyping, farmer field days in the context of participatory varietal selection, as well as longer-term training on more complex topics such as drought, in addition to equipping the partners with the critical infrastructure needed for effective phenotyping.

Freshly dug-up groundnuts.

Freshly dug-up groundnuts.

Further afield out of Africa, Vincent’s team also collaborates with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), France’s Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement ‒ CIRAD, and USA’s University of Georgia.

This ‘variegated’ partnership has been essential for unlocking the wild groundnut diversity when about 12 years ago the EMBRAPA team successfully generated a number of ‘synthetic’ groundnuts from their wild relatives. Unlike the wild groundnuts, these synthetic groundnuts can be crossed to the cultivated type, bringing with them treasure troves of beneficial genes pertaining to the wild that would be otherwise unreachable for the cultivated varieties. Taking this one step further, the CIRAD‒ISRA team, in a close North‒South partnership, has used one of the synthetics from the Brazilian programme to generate new genetic diversity in the groundnut cultivar Fleur11. They are using additional synthetics from ICRISAT to further enlarge this genetic diversity in cultivated groundnuts.

These techniques and tools provide signposts on the genome of varieties for characteristics of importance”

A world first for an ‘orphan’, goals achieved, and what next
Among other goals, the team notably achieved a world first: “To produce the first SSR-based genetic linkage map for cultivated groundnuts!” declares Vincent. SSR stands for simple sequence repeat. The map was published in 2009,  followed later on by a groundnut consensus map in 2012.

Youngster bearing fresh groundnuts along River Gambia in Senegal.

Youngster bearing fresh groundnuts along River Gambia in Senegal.

But what do these maps and their publication mean for groundnut production? Vincent explains: “These techniques and tools provide signposts on the genome of varieties for characteristics of importance ‒ for instance, resistance to a disease ‒ and these are used in combination to speed up the development of groundnut varieties that are more resistant to the stresses found in the harsh environments where most of the tropical world’s poor farmers live. Accelerating development means quicker delivery to farmers who are at high risk of going hungry. TLI Phase I produced synthetic groundnuts with new genes for disease resistance.”

In Phase II of the TLI Project which terminates in mid-2014, the team has continued to identify new genetic and genomic resources, for instance new sources of drought resistance from the germplasm and which are currently being used in the development of new breeding stocks. What is significant about this is that groundnuts ‒ like most other members of the legume family ‒ do not have much in the way of genomic and molecular-genetic resources, and are in fact consequently referred to in some circles as ‘orphans’ of the genome revolution. The focus has also been on resistance to rust, early and late leaf spot, and rosette – all economically critical diseases – by tapping the resilience of GBPD4, a cultivar resistant to rust and leaf spot, and introducing its dual resistance to fortify the most popular varieties against these diseases. The team also hopes to scale up these promising examples.

We believe this team is firmly on the way to fulfilling their two-fold project objectives which were: (1) to develop genomic resources and produce the first molecular-breeding products of the crop by injecting  disease resistance (from TLI Phase I work) into farmer- and market-preferred varieties; and, (2)  to lay the foundation for future marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) breeding by tapping on newly identified sources of drought tolerance.

 the genetic stocks that hold the most promise to overcome leaf disease are found in the wild relatives… A thorough reflection is needed to combine good genetics with sound agronomic management”

The future
But the team is not resting on their laurels, as the work will not stop with the fulfillment of project objectives. In many ways, their achievements are in fact just the beginning. The new breeding stocks developed during TLI Phase II need to be evaluated further for their drought tolerance and disease resistance prior to their deployment in breeding programmes, and this activity ‒ among others ‒ is included for the next phase of the work in the proposed Tropical Legumes III project. In particular, the genetic stocks that hold the most promise to overcome leaf disease are found in the wild relatives. Thus, the existing materials need to be fully exploited and more need to be produced to cover the full breadth of potential stresses. Vincent adds “Of course an increasing part of the efforts will be about assuring quality evaluation data, meaning we must continue to significantly enhance the capacity ‒ both human and physical ‒ of our partners in target countries. Last but not least, the good wheat and rice cultivars that directly arose from the green revolution would have been nothing without nitrogen fertiliser and irrigation.” Vincent adds that the same applies to groundnuts: they are cultivated in infertile soil, at seeding rates that are unlikely to optimise productivity.

Groundnut drawing

Groundnut drawing

For this reason, and others explained above, “A thorough reflection is needed to combine good genetics with sound agronomic management,” Vincent concludes, stressing the importance of what he terms as ‘looking beyond  the fence’. Vincent’s parting shot, as our conversation draws to close: “In fact, I have grown increasingly convinced over the past year that we probably overlook those agronomic aspects in our genetic improvements at our peril, and we clearly need a re-think of how to better combine genetic improvement with the  most suitable and farmer-acceptable agronomic management of the crop.”

Much food for thought there! And probably the beginnings of an animated conversation to which a groundnut crop model, on which Vincent and team are currently working, could soon yield some interesting answers on the most suitable genetic-by-management packages, and therefore guide the most adequate targets for crop improvement.


*Editorial note: Erratum – Photo changed on April 8 2014, as the previous one depicted chickpeas, not groundnuts. We  apologise to our readers for the error.

Jun 202012

Breathing life into support services

By addressing the needs at the heart of quality agricultural research, right there on the station, GCP was the first to cotton on to a crucial missing link between researcher, research station, and support services.” – Hannibal Muhtar

Want to cut to the chase and only need the bare bones of this story? Skip over to the short version

“One thing that really energises me,” enthuses GCP Consultant Hannibal Muhtar, “is seeing people understand why they need to do the work, and being given the chance to do the how.” And so was born another wonderfully fruitful GCP collaboration. Hannibal, who describes the assignment as “a breath of fresh air,” was asked to identify, together with GCP project Principal Investigators, African research sites of ongoing or potential GCP Research Initiative projects where effective scientific research might be hampered by significant gaps in one fundamental area: infrastructure, equipment and support services.

Meet Hannibal Muhtar (Audio clip)

As at June 2012, the 19 sites selected were:

Burkina Faso – L’Institut de l’environnement et de recherches agricoles sites at :
1.  Banfora
2.  Farako-Bâ Regional Centre
3.  Hawassa Agricultural Research Station
4.  The Southern Agricultural Research Institute
Ghana – Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Crops Research Institute sites at:
5.  Kumasi
6.  Tamale
7.    Moi University (site 1)
8.    Moi University (site 2)
9.    Egerton University (Njoro site)
10.    Egerton University (Koibatek Farmers Training Centre)
Mali – L’Institut d’Économie Rurale sites at:
11.    Sotuba
12.    Cinzana
13.    Longrola
Niger – ICRISAT site
14.    Sadore
15.    National Cereals Research Institute
National Root Crops Research Institute sites at:
16.    Umudike
17.    Kano
Tanzania – Agricultural Research Institute at:
18.    Naliendele
19.    Mtwara

Flashback to 2010. Picture on the left: Hannibal at a planning session at Sega, Western Kenya, with Samuel Gudu and  Onkware Augustino. Picture on the right: Similarly, at Naliendele, in Tanzania with Omari Mponda.

Flashback to 2010. Picture on the left: Hannibal at a planning session at Sega, Western Kenya, with Samuel Gudu and  Onkware Augustino. Picture on the right: Similarly, at Naliendele, in Tanzania with Omari Mponda.

Embarking on the voyage to change, storms ‘n’ all
Hannibal, armed with years of practical experience in the application of engineering sciences in agriculture and developing countries, as well as an attentive ear to the real needs of researchers, embarked on a series of visits to these research stations in 2010 and 2011, meeting with staff of all levels, departments and functions, carrying out in-depth analyses and draw up concrete recommendations for infrastructure and support service investments for each of the sites so that good-quality field evaluations (‘phenotyping’ in ‘breeder-speak) of GCP-funded projects could be conducted. Thanks to funding from GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP), and to the openness, commitment and energy of research staff on the ground to implement these recommendations, the efforts of multiple cross-cutting partnerships across Sub-Saharan Africa are, in 2012, starting to bear fruit. But it has not all been smooth sailing, and the storms encountered along the way to reach this end goal should not be underestimated.

Weeds, wear and tear, and a walk on the wild side
The obstacles, says GCP’s Director of Research, Xavier Delannay (pictured, can often be mundane in nature – a  lack of or faulty weather stations or irrigation systems, or fields ravaged by weeds or drainage problems and in dire need of rehabilitation, for example. Yet such factors compromise brilliant research. A simple lack of fencing, Xavier and Hannibal expound, commonly results not only in equipment being stolen, but also in roaming cattle and wild animals – boars, monkeys, hippopotamus and hyena, to name but a few – stomping over precious experiment sites and posing serious threats to field staff safety. “The real challenge lies not in the science, but rather in the real nuts-and-bolts of getting the work done in local field conditions,” he explains.’’

Hannibal concurs: “If GCP had not invested in these research support infrastructure and services, then their investment in research would have been in vain. Tools and services must be in place as and when needed, and in good working order. Tractors must be able to plough when they should plough.’’

But a critical change is also needed in mindset and budgeting. ‘’The word ‘maintenance,’’’ a Senegalese partner commented to Hannibal, describing his institute, “does not exist in our vocabulary and is not a line-item on our budget.”

The problem then is not always about limited funds but rather much more on how the funds available are budgeted, excluding the all-essential support services.

Getting down to the brass tacks of local empowerment, and aiming higher
Multi-lingual and fluent in English, Arabic and French, Hannibal employed a multi-faceted customised approach, based on the needs of each site, be it sharing his tricks-of-the-trade and improvising local solutions, or guiding researchers in identifying their specific needs, as well as on where and how to request equipment, just to mention a few examples. In other cases he would teach local station managers to build and apply simple yet revolutionary tools such as land-levellers (referred to as ‘floats’ in industrial-speak), as well as row-markers for more uniform spacing between rows and plants in the field.

In addition, he would organise a training workshops in either English or French, with different content for technicians, machine operators and station managers. The dedication demonstrated by this latter group to both learn and continue these efforts after the training was particularly pertinent for ensuring the long-term sustainability of the investments.

A colourful menu of options, then, for achieving one common overarching objective, which, as summarised neatly by Xavier, is: “The effective running of local experiment stations, for facilitating local research, improving local crops, and ultimately leading to empowerment and self-reliance of local farming communities.”

“At the end of the day, it’s about achieving food security and improving livelihoods,” Hannibal emphasises. Looking back at some of the research stations that are now well-equipped and are being managed well, and the improved crop varieties being produced and projected, Hannibal highlights the “harmonious chain” triggered as a result: “Food security and better livelihoods pave way for healthy, well-fed families, and agriculture growing beyond subsistence into an economic activity,” Hannibal concludes.

Lights, curtain… ACTION!
Much like in theatre, with all the ‘props’ in place, Hannibal reports that field trials are now performing well, thanks to the all-important ‘backstage’ support service elements being in good shape. Hannibal likens the positive feedback from the partners he has worked with to “A glass of cold water, after a long day in the sun!”

And there’s a beautiful simplicity to the impacts described: “With proper infrastructure in place, and with research station staff duly equipped with the hands-on expertise and practical know-how to utilise and apply this infrastructure and training, we’re now seeing field experiments being conducted as they should be, and getting good-quality phenotyping data as a result,” says Xavier. “Moreover,” he continues, “by providing glass-houses or the capacity to irrigate in the dry season, we are enabling breeders to accelerate their breeding cycles, so that they can work all year round, rather than having to wait until the rain comes.” Sites hosting GCP projects on rice in Nigeria, as well as on sorghum and rice in Mali, are just a few examples of those enjoying off-season work thanks to new irrigation systems.

Similar good news is expected soon for cassava in Ghana and in northern Nigeria. And yet more good news: in some cases, the impacts have not been limited to the trials, or even to the research trials and stations alone, as Xavier highlights with an example from Kenya: “The establishment of an irrigation system on a plot at Koibatek Farmer Training Centre – a partner of Egerton University – yielded excellent results for chickpea experiments. We emphasised that we did not want the equipment to be ‘bracketed’ exclusively for science and experiments. So, it was also used to train staff and farmers from the local community as well. This was greatly appreciated.”

Seeing the nuts-and-bolts now firmly in place for the majority of the sites visited, Hannibal believes GCP has facilitated a pioneering approach to local capacity building: “By addressing the needs at the heart of quality agricultural research, right there on the station, GCP was the first to cotton on to a crucial missing link between researcher, research station, and support services,” he reveals.

…Another missing link…
But the job is not quite done. One crucial gap is the sensitisation of upper management – those at the helm of national research institutes and research station Directors – to support and sustain infrastructure, training and related services. In some cases, costs could be easily met by utilising a priceless asset that most institutes already have, and which they could put to greater us – land and a controlled environment.

Upper management needs to be actively on board. “A research institute should work like a good sewing machine,” says Hannibal. “All well-oiled, all parts working well, and everybody knowing what they need to do.”

In the meantime, however, results from the field suggest that researchers in GCP projects are already reaping the benefits from improved infrastructure and support services, and are already off to a good start.

The stage is therefore set: backstage and props are well primed, performance trials are acting like they should, and the ‘theatre directors’ have an eye on sustainability after GCP’s final curtain call in 2014.

So, long may the show go on, with a cautionary word, however, to continually seek ways to not only maintain but also enhance performance!

Relevant links

  • PODCASTS: You can also listen to Hannibal, by tuning into Episode 2 for the entire interview, or zooming in on your particular area of interest in the mini-podcasts labelled Episodes 2.1 to 2.7 c here.
  • Capacity building
  • Research Initiatives
  • Integrated Breeding Platform website


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