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17.03.2008 Africa

Discovering new ways to improve African crops

By Accra Mail
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WACCI and Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) welcome inaugural class of agricultural PhD students at Legon.

The first eight doctoral candidates sponsored by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) will be entering their advanced studies at the University of Ghana, Legon, hoping to discover new ways to improve crops across West Africa, officials announced today at a ceremony inaugurating the program.

Prof. Eric Danquah, director of the university's West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), said that the first class of elite students sends a message of hope across the region as well as establishing a groundwork for building a new generation of African scientists—a critical piece in the efforts to stop the “brain drain'' of African researchers leaving the continent for the developed world. The eight were chosen from a pool of several hundred applicants.

“We were extraordinarily impressed with the qualifications of all the applicants, and specifically the eight who were chosen,'' Danquah said. “I look forward to guiding them through world-class agricultural science studies that will, however, focus on indigenous crops that will help the African farmer improve yields.”

Dr. Joe DeVries, head of AGRA's seed programme, said that the students represent a diversity of interests as well as countries. They come from five West African nations – Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria – and are studying seven different types of crops – cassava, cowpea, maize, millet, rice, sorghum, and sweet potato. And each, he said, hold dreams of helping farmers in their countries as well as improving the quality of food for all.

“One essential part of this program is that the researchers have not only committed to two years of study at the University of Ghana, but also will then go back to their countries for three years to put in practice what they learned in the classrooms and laboratories,'' DeVries said. “These students represent the narrowing of the gap in scientific capacity to improve and adapt the crops needed to address Africa's specific food needs. We at AGRA are proud to support this program at the University of Ghana.”

Also speaking at the ceremony in Accra were officials from the Ghana Ministry of Education, the University of Ghana, and Ghana's Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA).

Dr. Rexford Osei speaking for Prof. Dominic Fobih Minister of Education, Science and Sports said: “It is welcome news that AGRA has worked for the establishment of this centre of excellence for training world-class plant breeders. The establishment of this centre of excellence is in line with the African Union (AU) and NEPAD Science and Technology Initiatives as outlined in the AU's Consolidated Plan of Action evolved by the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology.”

AGRA's partnership with the University of Ghana, Legon, as well as the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is envisioned to train 120 promising African plant breeders into PhD scientists over the next decade through studies in Ghana and South Africa. In the end, these crop scientists will help to create the critical mass of knowledge about breeding African-based crops that is needed to end food crises on the continent. The students will enroll in either the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) at the University of Ghana, or in the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

The programme in Ghana will recruit students from western and central Africa, while the South Africa initiative will take students from eastern and southern Africa. The program will cost US $13 million, and is just one of AGRA's new programs to address hunger and poverty on the continent.

AGRA seeks to build partnerships and work across Africa to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families end poverty and hunger. It develops practical solutions to significantly boost farm productivity and incomes for the poor while also safeguarding the environment. AGRA's work addresses the changes needed across all key aspects of the agricultural “value chain”—from seeds, soil health, and water to markets, policy and agricultural education.

In addition to supporting the PhD programs, AGRA's work in education will include educating hundreds of students at a Masters level, and strengthening agricultural extension systems – those national programs that send trained agriculturalists to work with farmers in their fields.

AGRA's impact will be felt by a broad spectrum of Africans, primarily the millions of subsistence farmers, who are mostly women, and who need to be lifted out of poverty.

No one believes in this vision more than these eight students.

“I want to do so well so that the impact is felt by the poor people all over Ghana,'' said Maxwell Darko Asante, who will studying rice breeding. “This is my dream come true.''

A second researcher, Mamadou Coulibaly of Mali, who is working on developing new varieties of sorghum, said that collaboration was critical – especially between researchers and farmers. A farmer's knowledge, he said “is worth gold. They know the earth, they know the weather, and they know the plant.''

Farmers, too, may soon be able to access the work of these PhD candidates.

In a way, the eight students seem to be freely putting pressure on themselves. “We have to feed our people,'' said Ndubuisi Damian Njoku, a Nigerian studying cassava. “We must work hard to feed others.''

Source: AGRA

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