Incorporating Women’s Needs and Preferences into RTB Breeding – Blog Post from CGIAR RTB Highlights NEXTGEN Cassava Gender Initiative

Thanks to Myriam Vitovec for highlighting the work of NEXTGEN Cassava’s Gender-Responsive Cassava Breeding Initiative in a recent post for the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB):

There have been many cases in which improved crop varieties released by national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES) were poorly received by farmers because they lacked the flavor or another trait that farmers or consumers wanted. To ensure high adoption rates for the varieties they develop, breeding programs usually survey farmers about the traits they prefer, but all too often, those researchers rely disproportionately on the opinions of men. However, specialization of household roles means that women and men have different knowledge about and preferences for varietal traits. Women are usually responsible for food preparation and small scale processing, but their knowledge is rarely used for the varietal development process.

As RTB works to unlock the genetic potential of roots, tubers and bananas for improving food security, nutrition and incomes, it is also supporting field research to document gender-disaggregated trait preferences. The aim is to ensure that the improved RTB varieties developed in the coming years will have as widespread and gender-equitable an impact as possible.

“Next-generation breeding is helping breeders to speed up the process of developing new RTB varieties, but if we overlook the traits that farmers want, if we don’t have the right targets, then next-generation breeding could simply get us to the wrong place faster,” observed RTB Program Director Graham Thiele.

An example of this problem was discovered by CIP gender researcher Netsayi Moris Mudege in a project promoting the cultivation and consumption of nutritious orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties in Malawi. Farmer consultations had resulted in the release of a variety that produces large roots, which men prefer because they fetch a good market price. However, most women prefer another variety that wasn’t released, because sweetpotato leaves are an important part of the local diet and the lobe-shaped leaves of that variety are better for cooking.

Cornell PhD student Paula Iragaba (fifth from the left) and her colleague (first from the left) together with adult women cassava farmers after a focus group discussion in the Arua district.

Cornell PhD student Paula Iragaba (fifth from the left) and her colleague, Winifred Candiru, (first from the left) together with adult women cassava farmers after a focus group discussion in the Arua district.

To avoid such oversights, RTB supported various initiatives in 2014 to get the trait preferences of both men and women into breeding pipelines. For example, Mudege and CIP potato breeder Asrat Amele produced an FAQ sheet on integrating gender into the participatory varietal selection of potato in Ethiopia and organized a training workshop in Addis Ababa for 20 representatives of CIP’s main partners there.

RTB and NEXTGEN Cassava have co-funded the collection of gender-disaggregated trait preference data for cassava in Nigeria, using a methodology developed by NEXTGEN Cassava Project Manager Hale Tufan and IITA Gender Focal Point Holger Kirscht. Tufan and Kirscht coordinated research in 2014 by interdisciplinary teams from IITA and NRCRI in eight farming communities in southeast and southwest Nigeria. The teams interviewed 10 women and 10 men of diverse ages and marital status in each village and conducted sex-disaggregated focus groups with 20-30 participants in most of them.

“We’re trying to bring diverse voices, including those of women and youth, into the breeding process. Because we want to tailor breeding programs for the diversity of users rather than opting for one-size-fits-all solutions,” said Tufan.

Tufan explained that traits mentioned by the farmers range from agronomic advantages such as good yield to things like ‘drawing’ when cooked, which is important for making the traditional cassava dish gari. The goal is to get those most difficult quality traits into selection indices, to translate them into standardized, measureable breeding variables, and to link them to genetic markers for genomic selection. Cassava breeders Peter Kulakow (IITA) and Chiedozie Egesi (NRCRI) have helped to tailor the data collection tools in order to ensure that they yield data that will be useful for breeding.

Paula holding two cassava roots during a visit to cassava farmer (in the white t-shirt) in the Apac district, one of her study sites.

Paula holding two cassava roots during a visit to cassava farmer (in the white T-shirt) in the Apac district, one of her study sites.

RTB and NEXTGEN Cassava are also co-funding Cornell PhD student Paula Iragaba, who returned to her native Uganda in 2015 to conduct gender-differentiated field research on cassava trait preferences.

Iragaba is working closely with Kirscht, CIRAD postharvest expert Dominique Dufour, and breeders at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) to help them incorporate the preferred cassava traits that she documents into their cassava improvement program.

“This is really exciting because there is an opportunity for Paula to provide information and set up a model on how to capture and integrate gendered trait preferences into breeding programs,” said Tufan.

Paula and a farmer picking cassava leaf samples in one of the farmer's cassava gardens to be used for studying genetic diversity of cassava varieties.

Paula and a farmer picking cassava leaf samples in one of the farmer’s cassava gardens to be used for studying genetic diversity of cassava varieties.

Iragaba had an opportunity to explain her research to Bill Gates in October 2014, when Gates visited Cornell’s campus to learn about the work of NEXTGEN Cassava, which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds. Iragaba was one of several graduate students who gave short presentations about their research and answered questions from Gates.

“I talked about how women play a vital role in cassava production and processing in Uganda, and how their role needs to be considered by breeding programs in order to improve the adoption rates of new varieties,” Iragaba said. “I’m sure that if gender issues are taken into consideration by our breeding programs, we are going to have tremendous improvements in adoption rates.”

Find this and other interesting articles in the RTB Annual Report 2014

NEXTGEN Students and Postdoc Attend Genomic Selection Course in Aarhus, Denmark

Ismail Kayondo, Dunia Pino del Carpio, and Olumide Alabi at Aarhus University

Ismail Kayondo, Dunia Pino del Carpio, and Olumide Alabi at Aarhus University

NEXTGEN Cassava PhD students Olumide Alabi (IITA) and Ismail Kayondo (NaCRRI) and postdoctoral fellow Dunia Pino del Carpio (Cornell) recently attended a week-long course at Aarhus University, Denmark, titled “Statistical Models for Genomic Predictions in Animals and Plants.” Below is Olumide Alabi’s report on the course:

Day 1: Background on genomic selection; classical MAS; basic prediction using GWAS; environmental effects
The course started in the morning with a theoretical background and introduction to the topics stated above. A hands-on exercise on the optimization of breeding plans using phenotypic selection and genomic selection was simulated with varying population sizes and marker densities. In the afternoon, a real dataset was provided to work with, from which we individually ran a simple GWAS model using R and later fitted prediction models from the GWAS result after we had identified significant SNP effects. The last exercise of the day was fitting the GWAS model with environmental effects and comparing prediction models using different cross validation schemes.

  • snp_select = which(gwas_BW_results[,4] < 2.7e-5)
  • lm(dat_train$BW ~factor(dat_train$Sex)+factor(dat_train$Batch)+geno_train$V2)

Lessons: Making conclusions from computing predictions from larger sets of SNPs by different thresholds for p-values in the modeling for predictions using the GWAS results obtained

Day 2: Whole-genome SNP regression model; introduction to single-trait and multi-trait GBLUP; cross‐validation systems
With preliminary theoretical discussions on each of the topics listed above, much time was devoted to hands-on exercises on them. The first exercise of the day was the Random Regression with R-BGLR. It was noted that BGLR does not accept missing data, hence, a replacement with the mean genotype (2p: allele frequency). A DMU R package developed by the Danish group was installed, and we used this to run a multi-trait WGRR and GBLUP. Finally, an exercise cross-validation of varying k-fold schemes was carried out.

Day 3: Making, scaling and interpreting Genomic Relationships matrices; single step GBLUP and scaling G and A
I initially found it difficult to comprehend some aspects of the day 3 topics and exercises; however, the given publication (VanRaden, 2008 and Legarra et al, 2015) and additional explanation by the instructor and interaction with colleagues in the class helped somehow. Time was dedicated to the single step approach for genomic evaluation, compatibility of G and A matrix and the single-step in Rdmu using the pedigree file.

Day 4: Bayesian shrinkage models; Bayesian mixture/variable selection models
There was theoretical explanation on posterior distribution and prior distribution information of parameters used for the modeling. Exercises on Mixture model approach were practiced, comparison of different model approach for GWAS and genomic prediction was part of the exercises for the day (LASSO, Bayes A, Bayes B.) using the BGLR and the Rdmu packages. My personal motivation is to read more on Bayesian statistics.

Day 5: Relationships in data; genomic feature models; usual SNP QC
One of the fascinating lessons of the day for me was the Genetic Feature model using the GBLUP models and the Bayesian approach. You can either use a GBLUP model, building G-matrices for SNPs from one chromosome versus the other chromosomes, or a Bayesian model that directly models 19 different variances for the SNPs in each chromosome.

General comments

Olumide Alabi

Olumide Alabi

  • The lessons of the summer course will be very useful for me in the immediate term, as I will hopefully participate fully alongside Marnin and Uche in the NEXTGEN GS Cycle 3 genomic predictions of the IITA GS program.
  • The attendance of this course has filled the gap pointed out to me during my Comprehensive exam by the panel: “Assuming all the support and the associated institutions in my program are not there, how will I cope to implement GS on my own in terms of the predictions, marker system management…”.
  • Although I cannot claim 100% understanding of all the theories and exercises at once, the interactive nature of the course was of immense help to my comprehension of what I could apply in my current research and future endeavours.
  • The concepts learnt in the course will help me in detailing some of the background concepts of several approaches in my final thesis and publication efforts.
  • Meeting several new persons, the exchange of research efforts, and the adventure of getting around some part of Aarhus city after class in the evening time cannot be overemphasized. Although the course was titled “summer course,” it was cold all through, coupled with the experience of very long day hours and short night darkness (~ 4 hours).

I acknowledge the NEXTGEN program management for the capacity-building investment by giving us the opportunity of attending courses that are of relevance to our present research efforts and preparing us for future research endeavours.

Ugandan and Nigerian Scientists Attend CIAT Training in Cali, Colombia

Ugandan and Nigerian scientists attend a training at CIAT in Cali, Colombia

Ugandan and Nigerian scientists attend a training at CIAT in Cali, Colombia

In the framework of the RTB-ENDURE project and in collaboration with the NEXTGEN Cassava Project, Ugandan and Nigerian colleagues from the Ugandan National Agricultural Research Organization, IITA, and IIRR are now in Colombia to attend a training organized by CIAT for strengthening the capacities to assess the postharvest physiological deterioration of cassava and the feasibility of adopting technologies for extending the shelf-life of the roots in Uganda.

New Cornell Greenhouse Houses NEXTGEN Cassava Plants

Thanks to Anja Timm and Craig Cramer for a great post about the new greenhouses on Cornell’s campus that house the NEXTGEN Cassava Project’s cassava plants!

Cassava plant photo by Anja Timm

Cassava plants in the new greenhouse.
Photo courtesy of Anja Timm.

From Anja Timm (, Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (CUAES):

“Cornell researchers now have a new, state-of-the-art greenhouse facility available to house tall crops important to New York State growers, such as corn, trellised peas, alfalfa and biofuel grasses.

Part of the Guterman Greenhouse Range east of the School of Veterinary Medicine, the 8,000-square-foot facility is also home to research projects with international impact, such as the cassava breeding project.

Precision environmental controls, 16-foot double-pane glass side walls, and shade- and insulation-curtains in all eight compartments create a highly energy-efficient research environment…”

Read Anja’s full post.

Guardian Article Covers NEXTGEN Cassava’s Progress

Edith Acengo (42) carries Cassava back to the IDP camp where she lives. Photo by Dan Chung for the Guardian

Photo by Dan Chung for the Guardian

A recent article in The Guardian by Jean-Luc Jannink discusses NEXTGEN Cassava’s objectives and its progress as the project enters its third year. Jean-Luc outlines the importance of cassava production in the developing world, the challenges that cassava farmers face, and the scientific techniques NEXTGEN Cassava is employing to unlock cassava’s true potential in Africa.

Jean-Luc Jannink is a Research Plant Geneticist with the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University. He leads NextGen Cassava’s Genomic Selection objective.

Read the full article.

RTB develops partnerships with US universities for gender research

Lisa Anderberg from Clark University will be the first graduate student to conduct gender analysis directly with a biological scientist working in the RTB Research Program as part of a new partnership between RTB and various US universities.  The initiative, born in late 2014, aims to strengthen the gender responsiveness of research in RTB crops while providing field opportunities for graduate students and collaboration with faculty.
Read the full post at

Chiedozie Egesi, of the Next Generation Cassava, project in the news

Great work from our partners at the National Root Crops Research Institute!  As an Assistant Director and head of the cassava breeding team at the National Root Crops Research Institute, Umudike, Chiedozie Egesi has led efforts at developing and releasing to farmers improved varieties of cassava including pro-vitamin A cassava. His research activities involve the use of cross-cutting biotechnology tools in the genetic improvement of cassava including transgenic technologies. Read full article. Continue reading