Few plant breeders in the world work on indigenous African crops. In fact, the lack of research on these nutritious and locally valued plants has been almost total. But Dr Enoch Achigan-Dako, a researcher from Benin, is working on four at the same time. He is equally passionate about each and, between training sessions at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), expounds on them one by one.
“Amaranthus can never disappear from our farms,” says the senior lecturer at the University of Abomey- Calavi. “Within one month, you have your plant. But I want to cross Amaranthus cruentus with A. dubius for bigger leaves and taller plants. I also want to delay the flowering time, because once the plant flowers, vegetable sellers think it is old. They want tender leaves.”…Read more
Dr Benjamin Dowiya Nzawele, 42, arrived at the World Agroforestry Centre, also known as ICRAF, in Nairobi with an important brief from his national agricultural research institute: To “identify orphan crops not currently taken into account by INERA, their contribution in the context of climate change and how to improve them”.
The scientist from the L’Institut National pour l’Etude et la Recherche Agronomique (INERA) station at Mulungu in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had come to ICRAF to attend the African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA), where he and 28 other senior plant breeders from Africa are learning new genomic methods for plant breeding. But he had already been out of his duty station for some time.
“I started my search for orphan crops from Yangambi where there was a large research station during the colonial period. It still has a herbarium. Then I went into the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Pygmies were the ones showing me the forest. These pygmies do not cultivate fields but collect everything they need. They follow the season by the fruit. They know everything.”
UC Davis is partnering in a global plant-breeding consortium that is fighting malnutrition and poverty in Africa by improving the traditional crops of the continent.
The African Orphan Crop Consortium — conceived by Howard Shapiro, a senior fellow at UC Davis and the chief agricultural officer at Mars, Incorporated — is making great strides in its ambitious attempt to map and make public the genomes of 101 indigenous African foods.
These “orphan” crops are crucial to African livelihood and nutrition, but have been mostly ignored by science and seed companies because they are not traded internationally like commodities such as rice, corn and wheat.
The genomic data on African orphan crops will help plant breeders more quickly select for traits that improve the nutritional content, productivity and resilience of Africa’s most important food crops.
UC Davis, in partnership with the African Orphan Crops Consortium, is working to improve the indigenous crops of Africa in order to eradicate stunting, a medical condition resulting from malnutrition and chronic hunger.
The African Orphan Crops Consortium was launched in 2012 by Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, a senior fellow at UC DavisCollege of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and chief agricultural officer at Mars, Incorporated, who took on the task of sequencing the genomes of 101 indigenous African foods in order to help plant breeders improve these foods’ nutritional content, productivity and resiliency.
“We were told, in order to have any impact on nutrition, we would need to improve at least 100 crops,” Shapiro said in a press release. “In the end, we went with 101 crops, including the baobab tree, which can survive even the worst drought. You can eat its leaves, which are actually quite tasty.”