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Cassava rising: International project inaugurates 2nd phase in Tanzania

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 from the UK government, 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.

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Mansour Hussein, director of R&D at the Ministry of Agriculture in Tanzania, addresses the audience at the 2018 NextGen annual meeting. Photo by Catherine Njuguna

“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 2.

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 1. “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 UK government

2018 NextGen Cassava Annual Meeting Workshops

From February 19-24, NextGen cassava partners and collaborators will be in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for the 6th Annual Meeting of NextGen Cassava. This will serve both to share results from the fifth year of the project and to set goals and targets for the next five years.

On the last two days of the NextGen Cassava meeting, participants had the opportunity to participate in workshops and go on field visits.

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2018 NextGen Cassava Annual Meeting, Day 4 Recap

 

From February 19-24, NextGen cassava partners and collaborators will be in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for the 6th Annual Meeting of NextGen Cassava. This will serve both to share results from the fifth year of the project and to set goals and targets for the next five years.

On February 22, NextGen Cassava inaugurated its second phase in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

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2018 NextGen Cassava Annual Meeting, Day 3 Recap

From February 19-24, NextGen cassava partners and collaborators will be in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for the 6th Annual Meeting of NextGen Cassava. This will serve both to share results from the fifth year of the project and to set goals and targets for the next five years.

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2018 NextGen Cassava Annual Meeting, Day 2 Recap

From February 19-24, NextGen cassava partners and collaborators will be in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for the 6th Annual Meeting of NextGen Cassava. This will serve both to share results from the fifth year of the project and to set goals and targets for the next five years.

Day 2 sessions continued with presentations from team leaders on roadmaps for the next phase of the project.

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2018 NextGen Cassava Annual Meeting, Day 1 Recap

From February 19-24, NextGen cassava partners and collaborators will be in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for the 6th Annual Meeting of NextGen Cassava. This will serve both to share results from the fifth year of the project and to set goals and targets for the next five years.

After a brief introduction and scene-setting, Chiedozie Egesi, NextGen project director, delivered a presentation highlighting some of the key achievements of the first 5 years of the project.

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Cornell receives $35M to support cassava development for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa

Cassava is vital to the food security of millions of Africans who eat some form of the root crop daily. Although cassava breeders are making progress, they still face significant challenges in developing disease-resistant varieties that also increase overall yield and respond to the needs of smallholder farmers and processors. Cornell University will expand international efforts to deliver improved varieties of cassava to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with $35 million in new funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid from the United Kingdom.

“This grant funds a second five-year phase that will allow us to build on previous work and focus on getting improved varieties into farmers’ fields,” said Ronnie Coffman, international plant breeder and director of Cornell’s International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who leads the project.

During Phase 1 of the Next Generation Cassava Breeding project — also funded by the Gates Foundation and UK aid from 2012 to 2017 — researchers shortened the breeding cycle for new cassava varieties by improving flowering and using genomic selection. Through analyzing plant genotypes and identifying cassava lines with desirable traits, such as resistance to cassava brown streak disease or high dry matter content, breeders also improved their ability to make selections based on genetics and probability without having to wait for seedlings to reach adulthood. These methods save breeding time for a crop where flowering and sexual propagation are issues.

Another goal of Phase 1 was to make cassava genomic information publicly accessible on an open database. Cassava researchers all over the world are now comparing results and improving breeding programs without duplicating efforts by using Cassavabase. To reduce cost per progeny and improve the quality of data uploaded to Cassavabase in Phase 2, NextGen researchers will use additional methods of whole genome sequencing.

“Our focus for the next five years will be to translate this research into breeding practices to increase impact,” said Chiedozie Egesi, NextGen project director and adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell, who is based at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria. “We have a strong gender component to Phase 2. A key goal will be to identify traits preferred by women farmers and end-users and incorporate them into new cassava lines.

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Field technician Tessy Uwangue, and Chiedozie Egesi, project leader for the Next Generation Cassava Breeding project, check field plots of cassava at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria for signs of disease. PHOTO PROVIDED

Egesi said, “We believe we will accelerate genetic gain as well as adopted genetic gain, increase the yields and resilience of cassava production by smallholder farmers, and move African cassava breeding toward greater capacity.”

“Among the 30 new clones developed at IITA using our methods, 10 had higher dry matter yield than any clone currently available for smallholder farmers in Nigeria,” said Jean-Luc Jannink, a research plant geneticist with the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and Cornell adjunct associate professor in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell. “Dry matter yield is a close proxy to food yield. Conservatively, we believe that we will increase the rate of genetic gain in cassava by 30 to 50 percent.”

Said Peter Kulakow, IITA cassava breeder and geneticist: “Genetic gain is a measure of the improvement of plant performance between generations and a goal of most modern breeding programs. Swifter improvements mean more new varieties can be tested and released.”

At the sixth annual Next Gen Cassava meeting, Feb. 19-24 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, teams of NextGen breeders, geneticists, data analysts, computer programmers, food technologists, social scientists and crop protectionists will be focusing on goals for Phase 2 and discussing how to better coordinate and leverage the exchange of germplasm and genotypic and phenotypic data from each other.

Developing capacity for sustainable breeding programs

Compared with other major staples like maize, rice and wheat, cassava has undergone few advances in productivity and yield over the last 50 years, making it an ideal candidate for breeding improvement. Because cassava is clonally propagated and has a low multiplication rate, it can take almost six to eight years before a new cassava variety makes it from breeders’ nurseries through field trials to farmers’ fields. Most breeding efforts focus on product development — goals set by scientists and researchers without accounting for the preferences of farmers. In practice, this can result in poor adoption of new varieties and unrealized potential.

“It is critical for breeders to be able to incorporate the diverse needs and preferences of end users into new varieties,” said Hale Ann Tufan, Survey Division Lead for NextGen Cassava. “Our trials in Nigeria and Uganda have revealed that there are significant differences in preferred traits between men and women, as well as various regional cassava processing methods. By understanding how descriptors for ‘good’ varieties, such as softness and texture, can be translated into phenotypes, we can develop methods to efficiently evaluate them along with traits such as disease resistance and climate resilience.”

Strengthening the capacity of national breeding programs will be critical in achieving self-sustaining breeding systems in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the next five years, NextGen researchers will continue to train the next generation of sub-Sahara African cassava breeders in modern plant breeding techniques like genomic selection and improved breeding methods.

International and regional partnerships are another important element of sustainability. NextGen researchers are reaching out to their counterparts in Ghana, Rwanda, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo to create a broader network of researchers who can work together to improve livelihoods and food security.

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Sharon Motomura, Chiedozie Egesi and Joana Norton, of the Next Generation Cassava Breeding project, flash the ’shaka’ sign of ‘aloha’ in front of an international hybridization plot at the University of Hawaii in Hilo. The plot is planted with high-yielding cassava from Africa that is resistant to viruses and elite material from South America with high dry matter and high beta carotenes. The site provides a disease-free environment for testing. PHOTO PROVIDED

In Africa, NextGen collaborators include the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and the National Root Crops Research Institute in Nigeria; the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement in Ghana; the National Crops Resources Research Institute and Makerere University in Uganda; and the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute in Tanzania. In South America, collaborators include Embrapa in Brazil and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia. In the US, collaborators are Cornell University (who leads the project), the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell, the University of Hawaii, and the USDA-ARS in Ithaca.

For more information, visit www.nextgencassava.org