26 November 2014 Volume :2 Issue :59

Senior Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Officers Visit UKZN

Senior Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Officers Visit UKZN
Dr Rufaro Madakadze (seated, left), Ms Stacy Mwangala (standing, left), Professor Mark Laing and Dr Yilma Kebede together at UKZN.

Senior officers from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) in the United States spent two days with staff at the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) at UKZN.

The US delegation comprised the Senior Officer for Agricultural Development, Dr Yilma Kebede; the Allianace for a Green Revolution in Africa’s (AGRA) Programme Officer for Education and Training; Dr Rufaro Madakadze, and the Programme Co-ordinator of the Programme for African Seed System (PASS), Ms Stacy Mwangala.

The ACCI, founded in 2002, is situated in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) at UKZN.

It has been funded by the BMGF and the Rockefeller Foundation through AGRA, an organisation set up by the two funding organisations as part of their strategy to improve economic and agricultural sustainability in Africa.

The ACCI trains PhD students primarily in 12 countries in southern and eastern Africa in projects related to plant breeding and crop improvement, to improve 18 staple crops grown in the region. The students are trained with the view of equipping them to return to their own countries, where their research projects are carried out, with the goal of releasing better crop varieties, thereby strengthening the agricultural economy of the whole continent.

Kebede stressed the importance of the ACCI’s continental impact during his visit, saying his vision would be that the centre would take up the mantle of acting as a regional hub of training across multiple fields of agriculture from animal science to crop science to water resource management and more. The School, with its 14 disciplines and multiple specialised centres, would be the ideal place to build this sort of focus.

The ACCI’s innovative approach to the institutionalisation of participatory rural appraisal methods into its curriculum was lauded by Kebede, who has recognised the need for the development of leadership skills in agricultural and plant breeding practitioners operating within their own countries to ensure the productivity of their countries’ agricultural sectors.

The ACCI PhD students spend one year of their studies at the ACCI in Pietermaritzburg acquiring the necessary enabling skills to conduct doctoral research in their own country, including a week engaged in developing leadership skills to better implement the changes they hope to inspire.

Kebede’s two-day visit to the centre was aimed at evaluating the progress of the centre and assessing its sustainability and how best to continue the activities of the ACCI. 

He was shown around the facilities at Ukulinga, the Controlled Environment Facility (CEF) and Cedara Agricultural College to see where students receive their training. He also had discussions with Professor John Derera, one of the first graduates of the ACCI, about the new Master’s programme in Plant Breeding that has been set up by AGRA, to create applied plant breeders.

Kebede was also present at the farewell dinner for the nine PhD students who have completed their enabling training and have now set off to begin their research in their home countries.

Kebede gave a speech to the students highlighting the discussion of philosophies needed to establish a culture of excellence in centres such as the ACCI. He spoke about leadership, ethics, the impact of these studies and the need to ensure that varieties of plants bred through the centre are adopted by the farmers they are intended for. 

Kebede said the ACCI was the best centre of its kind he had ever visited and only wished he had come to see it sooner. He was impressed at how efficiently the centre was run and the results it was obtaining as well as the publication of those results in top journals.

The ACCI has graduated 56 PhD students from 13 African countries, published over 130 research papers, and its graduates have released more than 120 new crop cultivars or lines.

The Centre faces the challenges of ensuring that there is long term commitment at all governmental levels as well as from philanthropic funders such as AGRA, to ensure the sustainability of a programme which seeks to positively impact the livelihoods and food security of people in Africa.

Christine Cuénod

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