13 April 2017 Volume :5 Issue :21

Bumper Crop of PhDs Promise African Food Security for the Future

Bumper Crop of PhDs Promise African Food Security for the Future
UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) had 14 students receive their PhDs for research into Plant Breeding.

UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) produced a bumper crop of doctoral candidates at this year’s Graduation ceremony, with 14 students from nine different African countries receiving PhDs for their Plant Breeding research. 

Each of the students who graduated focused on developing new varieties of the crops they studied, and through the ACCI’s PhD training programme, were equipped with the skills they needed to investigate their crops and improve on their resilience in their home countries. This focus of the ACCI allows students to improve crops for an African environment in order to contribute towards improved food security back home.

The graduates all spoke highly of the ACCI training programme, describing how the initial coursework element, undertaken at UKZN before they began fieldwork in their home countries, enabled them to approach their research with the necessary tools to complete their PhDs successfully.

Nine of the 14 were funded by a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA). Of this cohort, four hailed from Rwanda.  ‘This is a special contribution by UKZN’s ACCI to improve Rwanda’s agricultural research and development,’ said Professor Hussein Shimelis. 

Dr Simon Martin Mvuyekure’s research focused on resistance breeding against rice sheath rot disease. This disease poses a threat to the rice sector in Rwanda affecting most of the dwarf varieties that have been grown by farmers. Mvuyekure developed promising rice populations after rigorous genetic analysis through field and SNPs evaluations, and introgression of resistance genes through backcross breeding. ‘The selected lines will be released in Rwanda,’ said Shimelis.

Fellow Rwandan countryman and emerging cassava breeder Dr Athanase Nduwumuremyi’s research focused on the genetic processes that affect the storage life of cassava roots. He succeeded in the development of several new cassava clones with delayed PPD, resulting in a longer shelf life.

Dr Alphonse Nyombayire initiated a maize breeding project in Rwanda and developed superior test hybrids through extensive crosses and evaluation.  ‘Maize breeding in Rwanda has not been promoted previously, and most farmers use seed of unimproved local landraces, or introduced maize varieties that are poorly adapted and have low yield potential,’ explained Shimelis. ‘Nyombayire’s seeds will be made available to farmers after the formal variety registration and release process.’

The fourth Rwandan, Dr Clement Urinzwenimana undertook the first major research project on Ascocyta leaf spot, a crop disease that affects dry beans grown by the 500 000 small-scale farmers in the highland areas of Rwanda.  After studying the inheritance of resistance to Ascochyta, Urinzwenimana initiated a participatory breeding programme and developed a number of Ascochyta resistant bush and climbing bean varieties, incorporating farmer preferred traits.

The five remaining AGRA-funded PhD graduates come from Mozambique, Kenya, Malawi, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Dr Pedro Silvestre Chaúque focused on breeding maize for combined heat and drought stress tolerance to enhance maize productivity in his home country, Mozambique.  He developed experimental maize hybrids with heat and drought tolerance, which have been recommended for stability tests and release.

Kenyan national Dr Regina Mumbua Tende, developed promising maize hybrids with dual resistance for maize borer and maize weevil, for use by smallholder farmers in Africa and for utilisation in breeding programmes to enhance the existing germplasm. Maize borer and maize weevil are important field and post-harvest pests that cause yield losses in the lowland tropics and mid-altitude maize growing zones of Kenya.

Dr Michael Chipeta of Malawi studied plant resistance to cassava brown streak disease in a series of field trials. He designed a breeding strategy and was able to develop a number of high yielding, cassava brown streak resistant clones. The cassava brown streak virus threatens cassava production and the livelihood of many communities in East and Southern Africa; and plant resistance is the only remedy against this devastating disease at this stage.

Dr Mizan Tesfay Abraha evaluated the drought-tolerance of diverse Tef varieties, the leading crop in Ethiopia for human food and animal feed.  She systematically bred novel varieties with high yield potential and adaptation to drought stress for release in Ethiopia.

The final AGRA-funded student, Dr Didas Kimaro of Tanzania, focused his research on breeding pigeonpea in Tanzania. Pigeonpea is an important food security and cash crop throughout the country. Kimaro concentrated his research on the most serious disease affecting this crop, namely Fusarium wilt. ‘The genetic information collected in this study will benefit pigeonpea breeders in years to come,’ said Shimelis.

Three South African students were funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC).  Dr Sandiswa Figlan looked at the phenotypic characterisation and QTL mapping of adult plant resistance to leaf rust and stem rust of wheat (Triticum aestivum L.), as these diseases are the main causes of yield and quality losses of wheat in South Africa and globally.

Twenty-six best performing wheat lines were selected for breeding or large-scale production in South Africa.

Fellow South African Dr Jacob Mashilo investigated pre-breeding of bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria [Molina] Standl.), which is one of the unique plant genetic resources of South Africa grown for its fresh or dry fruits, seed and succulent leaf vegetable; whilst Dr Vuledzani Ndou looked at maize breeding, in particular a genetic analysis of maize hybrids that had better yield under high population density.   

Also funded by the NRF, Dr Learnmore Mwadzingeni of Zimbabwe undertook a genetic analysis of drought tolerance in selected bread wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) genotypes.

Last but not least, Namibian Dr Lydia Horn researched the breeding of Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata [L.] Walp.) for improved yield and related traits using gamma irradiation.  Cowpea is an important grain legume in sub-Saharan Africa for food and feed and Horn’s research was supported by the Government of Namibia and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Sally Frost


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