Educating a new generation of African cassava breeders

Mercy Elohor Diebiru-Ojo

In Africa, cassava is the second-most important source of carbohydrates after maize, but the plant’s flowering and breeding processes are not well understood.

Mercy Elohor Diebiru-Ojo, of Lagos, Nigeria, organized a team to phenotype cassava flowering in more than 700 genotypes in two locations for three years. Her efforts and those of the West African Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) greatly advanced understanding of variation in cassava flowering for the Next Generation Cassava Breeding (NextGen) project at Cornell University.

“Mercy’s work contributes directly to NextGen’s goal of improving the flowering and seed set of cassava,” said Tim Setter, professor and chair of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' (CALS) Section of Soil and Crop Sciences in the School of Integrative Plant Science, who was one of Diebiru-Ojo’s mentors at WACCI. “No other continent depends on cassava to feed as many people as does Africa, where 500 million people consume it daily.”

Diebiru-Ojo, who had been pursuing her Ph.D. at WACCI, at the University of Ghana, received a fellowship from the Borlaug Leadership Enhancement in Agriculture Program to spend six months conducting preliminary research in Setter’s laboratory.

Diebiru-Ojo will continue to work as international trials manager of the BASICS project (Building an Economical Sustainable Integrated Cassava Seed System) in Nigeria, developing improved cassava stem multiplication systems and managing production of cassava breeder seed.

“I am thrilled to have taken this important step toward realizing my dreams of being among the generation of plant breeders who will work toward upholding and ensuring food security in Africa,” said Diebiru-Ojo. “It was the successful use of plant hormones as plant growth regulators that produced the most promising and significant results in generating new genetic information underlying the control of flowering trait in cassava, and inducing floral production.”

Said Chiedozie Egesi, adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell, who manages the NextGen project: “Understanding flowering mechanisms is essential in cassava breeding, because many elite cassava genotypes flower poorly, if at all. If cassava does not flower, it cannot be used in crossing. Some very promising cassava lines cannot then be used in breeding programs. Improved flowering and seed set would allow breeders to fully mobilize the genetic resources in their cassava breeding programs. Mercy’s work contributes directly to this objective.”

Diebiru-Ojo’s degree represents a convergence of two Cornell-related projects in CALS – WACCI and NextGen Cassava.

“WACCI was birthed out of the urgent need for plant breeders to address the low productivity of crops in West Africa,” said Ronnie Coffman, the Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor, director of International Programs in CALS (IP-CALS), and principal investigator for the NextGen and WACCI projects. “It was founded in 2007 as a partnership between the University of Ghana and Cornell University, and has evolved into an advanced learning center for training Ph.D.-level plant breeders who now come from 16 countries in West Africa. WACCI’s mission aligns perfectly with NextGen’s mission to train the next generation of plant breeders in Africa.”

Diebiru-Ojo is the first of 10 doctoral students supported by NextGen to graduate from WACCI. In addition to Diebiru-Ojo and three other students at WACCI, NextGen funds six doctoral students based at Cornell, and eight M.Sc. students at Makerere University, Uganda. When trained, these plant breeders will build capacity for cassava breeding in partner countries and beyond.

Canaan Boyer is project support specialist for the NextGen Cassava team in IP-CALS.

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Joe Schwartz