Cassava is one of the most important staple crops in sub-Saharan Africa, yet it stands out from other crops in many ways.
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.
Cassava breeders/researchers through a fund made available by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and UK Aid from the United Kingdom in the NextGen Cassava project launched from 2012 to 2017 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.
With the expiration of the five-year timeline, the project secured yet another fund from the same donors for the second phase of the project for another five-year timeline with the lofty ambition to revolutionize breeding programs and agriculture in Africa through cassava.
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 with Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania highlighted as major beneficiaries.
Speaking at the project’s inauguration during the sixth annual NextGen Cassava meeting recently in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the director of Cornell’s International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP CALS), who administers the Next Generation Cassava Breeding Project (NextGen Cassava), Ronnie Coffman, said a key goal in the second phase of the project was to identify traits important to farmers and to engage them as research partners to breed new varieties that are adopted and equitably impactful.
Coffman, an international plant breeder, said: “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.
“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.”
In his remarks, the director of research and development at the ministry of agriculture in Tanzania, Dr Mansour Hussein, said he considered the project a very important investment for the people of Tanzania, Nigeria and Uganda, especially the farming community.
The director of the NextGen project and adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell, who is based at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria, Chiedozie Egesi, said cassava could be the engine that would revolutionize agriculture in Africa, saying the next five years would provide the opportunity of delivering best bet varieties resilient to major diseases for African farmers, adding the first varieties from NextGen would be available to farmers in Nigeria within the next 18-24 months.
The second phase of the NextGen cassava project is structured into three major divisions which include the breeding, research and survey divisions respectively.
Egesi who leads the breeding division, serves as the fulcrum of the project. He explained: “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.”
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 NextGen Cassava’s gender initiative leader in Phase I, Hale Ann Tufan who said successful adoption of cassava varieties depended on meeting diverse user preferences. “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,” Tufan added,
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 research plant geneticist with the USDA-ARS and adjunct associate professor in the department of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell, Jean-Luc Jannink. He said : “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.” 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.