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April 15, 2008

Second group of AGRA-sponsored PhD scientists graduate in South Africa

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)’s sponsored second group of agricultural PhD candidates from a number of African countries have just graduated from their advanced studies program at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

The graduates, expected to employ the knowledge gained in their studies to improve African food security across eastern and southern Africa are accredited for initiating a number of programmes.

For example, Dr. Joseph Kamau, a prior graduate student of University’s Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) from Kenya, initiated the first cassava breeding program in his country, and in only three years, developed virus resistant, fast growing, high-yielding varieties that farmers liked for their cooking qualities.

Dr. Francisco Miti from Zambia bred maize for small-scale farmers’ conditions, in other words, for drought and low fertility, acid soils.

In only three years, he has developed maize that shows a dramatic improvement in its yield potential under these harsh conditions, which is what the majority of Zambia’s farmers need.

"This is a real breakthrough,” said Dr. Mark Laing, director of the ACCI. “These students carried out their research with limited facilities and technical support, yet they achieved significant advances in plant breeding for African farmers. AGRA has also guaranteed future funding for productive ACCI graduates, so these scientists now have the knowledge, backing, and confidence to continue their plant breeding work.”

“We look forward to the results we’ll see from these promising scientists as they take their skills back to their home countries, and make real progress for small-scale farmers,” said Dr. A. Namanga Ngongi, President of AGRA. “Ultimately, we hope that their knowledge and training will help to stem poverty and hunger, and improve the lives of Africans.”

Among this year’s graduates, Dr. Albert Changaya Banda of Malawi , has developed pigeon pea varieties that are resistant to a fungal wilt that devastates the crop.He bred these varieties from the farmers' own landraces, so they have the color and taste characteristics that the farmers prefer, which will help ensure a rapid adoption of the new varieties by farmers.

Reacting to this, Laing said “ACCI’s solutions actually make it to the farmer” adding that the farmer is brought in at the beginning and throughout the process, leading to a higher acceptance rate for farmers taking and running with these new seed varieties that hold resistance to the many pests and diseases farmers are fighting everyday.

The ACCI program hopes to fill gaps left by the “brain drain’’ of African researchers leaving the continent and by the paucity of training opportunities in Africa for its scientists. It focuses on crops that are of critical importance to African food security and students have committed to working on staple food crops in their home countries after graduation.

The graduation ceremony took place at the Royal Agricultural Show grounds in Pietermaritzburg.

AGRA’s partnership with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as the University of Ghana, Legon, is planned to transform 120 promising African plant breeders into PhD scientists over the next decade through studies in Ghana and South Africa.

The US$13 million program provides each student with research funding and supervision for their field studies over the course of three years and are conducted in their home country, at their home research station.

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.

Other ACCI graduates in 2008:

Name Country PhD Research Goal

Albert Changaya Banda Malawi Fusarium wilt resistant pigeon peas for Malawi
Philip Onyimbo Kwena Kenya Disease resistant maize for western Kenya
Philip Kipkoech Leley Kenya Drought tolerant maize for eastern Kenya
David Mariote Mozambique Disease resistant, high-protein maize for Mozambique
Francisco Miti Zambia Drought tolerant maize for low fertility soils in Zambia
Clare Mukankusi Uganda Fusarium wilt resistant dry beans for central Uganda
Martin Orawu Uganda Virus resistant cowpeas for eastern Uganda
Geoffrey Kananji Malawi Weevil resistant dry beans for Malawi

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