DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA – On February 22, 2018, scientists and officials from Cornell University and the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture officially inaugurated the second phase of a project with a lofty ambition: to revolutionize breeding programs and agriculture in Africa through cassava.
“Another five years will help us strengthen the long-term global sustainability of cassava — a crop important for food security and predicted to stand up to climate change and extended periods of drought or rain,” said Ronnie Coffman, international plant breeder and director of Cornell’s International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who administers the Next Generation Cassava Breeding Project (NextGen Cassava).
“We have the next five years to be very courageous in delivering best bet varieties resilient to major diseases for African farmers,” said Chiedozie Egesi, project manager for NextGen Cassava. “Cassava can be the engine that will revolutionize agriculture in Africa.”
In some ways, cassava may seem an unlikely focus for a flagship project: typically considered a “poor man’s crop” and under-researched, it is the fourth most consumed staple in the African continent after maize, rice and wheat. Yet it is exactly in this gap of knowledge that the possibility for innovation exists.
In the first five years of the project, funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid, NextGen Cassava researchers and partners made major strides in understanding cassava’s genome and flowering, shortened the time to develop new cassava varieties from eight years to five, identified user preferences important to men and women to incorporate into breeding targets, and established Cassavabase, an open-access database for cassava genomic information.
In the second phase of the project, greater emphasis will be placed on delivering improved cassava varieties to smallholder farmers and end-users throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The first varieties from NextGen will be available to farmers in Nigeria within the next 18-24 months.
“A key goal in Phase 2 is to identify traits important to a diverse range of users–including women and marginalized groups–and to engage farmers as research partners to breed new varieties that are adopted and equitably impactful. It is to everyone’s benefit to hear women’s voices and tap into their knowledge about product quality to breed better cassava for everyone,” Coffman said.
“I consider this a very important investment for the people of Tanzania, Nigeria and Uganda, especially the farming community,” said Mansour Hussein, director of R&D at the Ministry of Agriculture in Tanzania. “I believe the approach taken by NextGen will ensure that the concerns of farmers will be addressed.”
Like many African countries, agriculture plays an important role in Tanzania’s economy, employing over 75 percent of the country’s workforce and accounting for 25 percent of the National Gross Domestic Product. Cassava’s contribution to this sector is limited by lack of access to disease-free planting materials, use of poor farming practices, high post-harvest losses, and low-yielding varieties.
Other notable guests at the ceremony included Jim Lorenzen, NextGen Cassava program officer at the Gates Foundation; Joseph Ndunguru, director, Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute; Betty Maeda, research and production advisor, USAID-Tanzania; Geoffrey Mkamilo, coordinator for root and tuber crops research, Tanzania; Patrick Ngwendiaji, CEO, Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute; and Victor Manyong, director R4D, IITA East Africa Hub.
Towards innovation in breeding programs
The inauguration took place during the sixth annual NextGen Cassava meeting, held Feb. 19-24 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. During the meeting, NextGen project members and collaborators met to share and discuss achievements in Year 5 and identify opportunities and strategies to improve and move forward in Phase II.
For the next five years, NextGen Cassava will be structured into three major divisions.
The Breeding Division, led by Egesi, serves as the fulcrum of the project. “Four breeding programs in Africa will implement improved breeding pipelines: the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Nigeria; the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Nigeria (with additional support from IITA/Uganda); the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI ) in Uganda; and the Tanzanian Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) in Tanzania,” said Egesi.
Additional activities to support the breeding programs will be carried out in South America at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), and at the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Pacific West and the University of Hawaii at Hilo in the USA. In addition, Cornell University, the West African Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI) at the University of Ghana, and Makerere University in Uganda will provide training and support for African cassava breeders for capacity development in target countries.
The Survey Division and its activities will be spearheaded by Hale Ann Tufan, NextGen Cassava’s gender initiative lead in Phase I. “Successful adoption of cassava varieties depends on meeting diverse user preferences” said Tufan. “We will support the Breeding Division in decision-making and trait prioritization, generating product profiles with measurable breeding targets. Engaging large numbers of diverse farmer groups will enable us to evaluate new varieties on farm, at scale. Gender analysis of participatory evaluation, gender training and trait-level impact analysis on members of participating households will underpin our strategy to ensure new varieties are developed that benefit men, women, boys and girls equally.”
NextGen researchers will work closely with another Gates Foundation project, Breeding RTB Products for End User Preferences (RTBfoods), to jointly carry out survey activities.
The Research Division will be led by Jean-Luc Jannink, research plant geneticist with the USDA-ARS and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell. “Our primary activities will be to identify, develop, and implement technologies that can be used to deliver improved varieties rapidly and efficiently. We will provide support to the breeding programs to improve their processes, and may propose new technologies to benefit their work,” said Jannink. Among the activities overseen by this division are flowering and seed set, breeding scheme optimization, Cassavabase development, genomic prediction and decision analysis support, and bioinformatics for improving prediction accuracies
The Gates Foundation has made a significant investment in cassava, funding several projects that address various aspects of improving this food security crop.
When farmers modernize the tools they use for agriculture, it can trigger a socio-economic shift in their lives. “Economic transformation begins with agricultural transformation,” said Lorenzen. “At the Gates Foundation, we see agriculture as key to rural development and reducing poverty.”
To identify opportunities for collaboration, several NextGen Cassava-linked projects and institutes also participated in the meeting, including the RTBfoods Project, African Cassava Whitefly Project, Excellence in Breeding, PhenoApps, New Sources of CBSD Resistance in Cassava, the West African Virus Epidemiology Project, Disease Diagnostics for Sustainable Cassava Productivity in Africa, Cassava Source Sink, NARO Uganda, and Bioversity International.
NextGen Cassava is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid from the United Kingdom.