African students learn advanced cassava breeding skills

Ismail Kayondo, Lydia Chidimma Ezenwaka and Olumide Alabi
From left, Ismail Kayondo, Lydia Chidimma Ezenwaka and Olumide Alabi.

Half of the world’s supply of cassava is grown by smallholder farmers in Africa, where the starchy staple is a critical crop for food and cash.

“At the front of our home was a small orchard where beans, maize and cassava were grown in alternate seasons,” said Ismail Kayondo, who grew up on a small farm in Uganda. “My mother always insisted on having cassava planted, however, so we could be sure of food security and some income.”

Kayondo as well as Nigerians Olumide Alabi and Lydia Ezenwaka enrolled in January in a plant breeding Ph.D. program at the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI). WACCI is a partnership between International Programs in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP-CALS) and the University of Ghana.

The students are part of the Next Generation (NEXTGEN) Cassava Breeding project and will study bioinformatics and plant breeding, genotypic selection for accelerated plant breeding, advanced quantitative genetics in plant breeding, biotechnology in plant breeding, and scientific communication. NEXTGEN Cassava has a five-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.K.’s Department for International Development.

“I want to study cassava breeding because it is the most important source of energy in the diet of people in my country, Nigeria,” said Ezenwaka. “And it has so many other uses; every part of the cassava plant is utilized. The roots are used for livestock feed, bio-ethanol, starch and processed food like gari and fufu. The stems are used as planting materials, firewood when dried, for mushroom growing when they are wet.”

The enrollment of the NEXTGEN Cassava students at WACCI represents efforts by IP-CALS to more fully integrate across projects, says Ronnie Coffman, professor of plant breeding and genetics and IP-CALS director. “International Programs is always searching for ways existing projects, especially ones in the same geographic area, can coordinate and realize all potential opportunities. This allows us to deliver greater impact to more people,” said Coffman.

The NEXTGEN Cassava project aims to revolutionize cassava breeding through genomic selection, a new plant breeding method that uses statistical modeling to predict how a plant will perform before it is field-tested.

“The WACCI program is training the next generation of plant scientists from Africa,” said Eric Danquah, director of WACCI and professor of plant molecular genetics at the University of Ghana. He noted that African students will bring their expertise back to their home country when they complete their degree, an “antidote” to the brain drain of students not returning home after their studies.

“Training at WACCI in cassava breeding provides me the flexibility of working with a crop that is of close proximity and major importance to the livelihoods of smallholder farmers,” said Alabi.

WACCI was recently recognized by the World Bank as one of 15 Africa Centres of Excellence. The program will receive an $8 million grant to bolster postgraduate programs, improve curricula, attract top researchers, offer specialized courses for research scientists, conduct more research and partner with industry and other academic institutions in the region.

“Recognition by the World Bank was a confirmation of the important work we are doing, and it highlights the importance of sustaining WACCI beyond the donor-funded stage which ends in 2018,” said Danquah. “We are launching a $30 million endowment fund to ensure our sustainability and keep training African scientists.”

John Bakum is a communications specialist with International Programs.

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Melissa Osgood