Irvin E. Widders: Perspectives on CRSP training

Irvin E. Widders, CRSP, MSU. Photo from I. Widders.
Irvin E. Widders, CRSP, MSU. Photo from I. Widders.

Irvin E. Widders is the Director of the Dry Grain Pulses Collaborative Research Support Program (CRSP) based in Michigan State University (Program Management Entity).

Irvin has directed the Pulse CRSP since 2007 and the Bean/Cowpea CRSP from 2000 to 2007. He provides technical leadership to the program and monitors the technical performance of subcontracted projects so as to ensure that the program achieves its global objectives and development goals. He also serves as the primary link with program advisory groups and cultivates collaborative partnerships with institutions involved in pulse research and technology transfer in developing countries of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, as well as with private pulse industry groups.

The Pulse CRSP is supported by the USAID. It is one of the organizers of the 5th World Cowpea Research Conference currently being held in Saly, Senegal.

Tell us about the Dry Grain Pulses CRSP.
The Dry Grain Pulses CRSP aims to contribute to economic growth and food and nutritional security through knowledge and technology generation on pulses (e.g., common bean, cowpea, pigeon pea, lima bean, etc.); sustainable growth, and competitiveness of pulse value chains using socially and environmentally compatible approaches; empowerment and strengthened capacity of agriculture research institutions in countries in Africa and Latin America; USAID’s development objectives as defined by the Feed the Future Initiative; and dual benefits to developing country and US agriculture.

What are its objectives?
The Pulse CRSP’s objectives are to (1) reduce bean and cowpea production costs and risks for enhanced profitability and competitiveness, (2) increase the use of bean and cowpea grain, food products, and ingredients so as to expand market opportunities and improve community nutrition and health, (3) improve the performance and sustainability for bean and cowpea value chains, especially for the benefit of women, and (4) increase the capacity, effectiveness, and sustainability of agriculture research institutions that serve the bean and cowpea sectors and developing country agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

Why a CRSP on pulses?
The international community of scientists in the Dry Grain Pulses CRSP believes that cowpeas are a strategic solution to the global challenges of nutritional security, worldwide climate change, and the sustainability of cropping systems. Cowpea is a staple food, providing fresh peas, leaves, and nutrient-dense dry grain to countless millions of people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is highly tolerant of drought and high temperatures; it biologically fixes nitrogen and generates an economic return for small-scale resource-poor farmers.

What are some of the exciting initiatives of CRSP?

Current research and outreach initiatives are undertaken in partnership with national agriculture research systems and agricultural universities in Africa that benefit stakeholders of cowpea value chains. These include the following:
a. The use of “omics” tools to deploy and manage biological controls for insect pests on cowpea in West Africa.
b. The breeding and dissemination of cowpea varieties with drought tolerance, resistance to economically important biotic constraints and improved grain culinary quality traits.
c. The determination of the influence of natural phytochemical constituents of cowpeas on metabolic, cardiovascular, and chemo-protective human health predictors in in-vitro systems.
d. The assessment of the effects of cowpea and bean consumption by HIV-infected children (through nutritional interventions) on nutritional status and CD-4 counts.

Farmer field school in Niger. Photo from I. Wiiders, MSU.
Farmer field school in Niger. Photo from I. Wiiders, MSU.

Please explain CRSP’s approach to capacity building.
Capacity building of host country collaborating institutions is central to the mandate of the CRSPs since their inception in the early 1980s. The CRSP approach is to empower host country institutions to address agricultural constraints and opportunities through the creation of new technologies and knowledge while concurrently developing human resource capacity and competencies in strategic areas of agricultural science. This leads to institutional self-reliance and sustainability. The CRSPs support the efforts of NARS, agricultural universities in developing countries, and international agricultural research centers to enhance capacity through human resource development, professional consultations, and facilities and infrastructure improvement.
The need for additional professionals to contribute to the development of pulse value chains is never ending. New professions are needed in diverse disciplines to provide leadership to the continued development and competitiveness of the cowpea and bean sectors.

What is CRSP’s strength?
Institutional capacity building is an area where US universities, through the CRSPs, have comparative advantage over other development programs. US universities are academic institutions in the business of human resource development; educating and preparing leaders to face the challenges of an ever-changing and complex world. Universities can effectively design and implement innovative, flexible, and cost-effective institutional capacity building initiatives as well as professional development programs.

What are some of CRSP’s achievements?
If one looks over cowpea and bean research in Africa and Latin America, one would be impressed with the impact of the Bean/Cowpea (1980-2007) and the Dry Grain Pulses CRSP on human resource development—perhaps our greatest legacy. It is estimated that nearly 680 individuals received Master’s and PhD degrees with full or partial support through these CRSPs. The encouraging news is that over 60% of CRSP trainees are back in their home countries and continue to work in support of the cowpea and bean sectors. The most valuable knowledge/skill/attitude acquired through the CRSP training was “the ability to design, conduct, and analyze scientific research” as a result of being mentored by a CRSP university professor.

What are some of CRSP’s challenges?
The program has yet to achieve its intended developmental outcomes and impact. Small-scale resource-poor pulse (cowpea) farmers are still struggling to provide for household food and nutritional security needs, as revealed by the recent food crisis ( The keys to success in technology transfer and to catalyzing the growth of cowpea value chains are complex and often unique for each situation.

The greatest challenge is to achieve sustainable improvements in various sectors of a value chain. It is relatively easy to place quality seeds of improved varieties of cowpea in the hands of large numbers of farmers. However, it is extremely challenging to develop sustainable seed systems in which pulse farmers assume responsibility for the production of quality declared/certified seeds at an affordable price. Many programs have also been unsuccessful in getting farmers to recognize the value of planting quality seeds of specific improved varieties that will provide yield increases, provide grain of types demanded by markets, and with desired culinary traits, thus justifying an increased price and a willingness to pay for “improved seeds”.

How could collaborative programs be more effective in addressing the needs of partners and farmers?
It is imperative that all programs supporting research and technology transfer efforts on pulses (e.g., cowpea), including the private sector, cooperate to ensure more focused attention to priority constraints, to identify technologies and policies that will enable small-scale farmers to compete in domestic and regional markets, and to coordinate their strategy and activities.

To be successful in stimulating the development and growth of functional and sustainable pulse value chains in Africa and Latin America, governments and donors must continue to make balanced investments in both research and technology transfer. Recent advances in science afford opportunities to greatly benefit small holder pulse/cowpea farmers. The cowpea research community must, however, assume greater responsibility to work directly with private sector groups and NGOs to ensure that future outputs of research are appropriate and are extended to the target beneficiaries.

Scott Miller: Guardian of life

Scott Miller, Undersecretary for Science, Smithsonian Institution and Chair, Executive Committee, Consortium for the Barcode of Life. photo courtesy of S. Miller.
Scott Miller, Undersecretary for Science, Smithsonian Institution and Chair, Executive Committee, Consortium for the Barcode of Life. photo courtesy of S. Miller.

As Deputy Undersecretary for Science at the Smithsonian Institution (SI), Scott Miller helps oversee the work of SI’s science units, including the National Museum of Natural History, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and others. He is also Chair of the Executive Committee of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL), and Co-Chair of the US Government Inter-Agency Working Group on Scientific Collections, where he works on science capacity building activities on national and international scales. He maintains an active research program in the systematics and ecology of moths, and the application of that information to conservation and agricultural issues in New Guinea and Africa.

How did you become interested in biodiversity?
I grew up fascinated by nature as a child, and was able to get involved early in insect research projects at a local natural history museum, leading to a career in biodiversity. As I gained a broader perspective, I became especially concerned about helping developing countries to develop the capacity to manage their biodiversity wisely. They lead to my work in Africa.

What will the International Year of Biodiversity achieve?
This is an important opportunity to raise the profile of biodiversity issues. But we have to remember that our reliance on biodiversity is constant, and so must be our attention to understanding and wise management.

Most ecological studies show that biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate worldwide. Could you comment on this?
I agree that biodiversity is being degraded at an alarming rate. While the exact rate can be debated, it is clearly not sustainable.

What is the value of lost biodiversity?
We need much better economic models and data for biodiversity and ecosystem services, but some studies give an idea of the economic importance [Costanza et al. 1997, Pimentel et al. 2000]. One-third of global crop production relies on insect pollinators, valued at some US$ 117 billion. Natural biological control is valued at some $400 billion. Soil arthropods that maintain soil fertility provide trillions of dollars in value to agriculture.

How can Africa reduce the loss of biodiversity?
Action is needed at all levels, from wise government policies, enlightened management of industries that use natural resources, through the empowerment of local people to conserve and benefit from their own natural resources. Wise management requires understanding biodiversity, and valuing conservation to maintain the benefits to society over the long term. The economies of most African countries are based on natural resources, and sustainable development requires wise management. I have always been impressed by the “Working for Water” program in South Africa as a model for integrating landscape scale conservation, invasive species management, economic development and job creation, but there are many other success stories across Africa.

You worked in the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Kenya some time ago. Tell us about your experiences in conservation and sustainable development.
My time in Kenya was a tremendous learning experience for me, and I hope I was able to help build programs that will have lasting impact. I am still involved in Kenya through collaborations with icipe, Mpala Research Centre, and the National Museum. We tried to help local people understand the value of their biodiversity, how to restore degraded landscapes, and how to benefit from the biodiversity resources. Among other things, I was involved in an integrated conservation development project at Kakamega Forest in western Kenya that involved many synergetic components. These included strengthening forest management, replanting degraded lands, reducing the use of wood as fuel (through promoting efficient cooking stoves), developing sustainable income sources (especially “low tech” uses of natural products, and ecotourism), providing microfinance facilities, and enhancing the accessibility of health care and family planning.

What do you think of IITA’s efforts in agrobiodiversity conservation/sustainable agriculture?
Historically, IITA has played a very important role in agrobiodiversity conservation efforts. While some of those efforts remain strong, I am concerned that financial pressures threaten some of them, such as the collections that support biological control research and application in insects and fungi. The institutional infrastructure for understanding biodiversity is very weak in West and Central Africa, and as an international organization, IITA can play a vital role in filling the gap, and building national capacity. I am pleased to see IITA’s leadership in the CGIAR study of biomaterial collections beyond plant germplasm, which recognizes these collections as Global Public Goods.

Do you see the investment in conservation well spent?
IITA’s investment has been critical in the past, and needs to be enhanced to support future agricultural development and pest management. Climate change will bring new challenges to agriculture in Africa, and crop germplasm will be crucial, as well as knowledge of crop relatives, pest organisms, and beneficial organisms. The native forest on IITA’s Ibadan campus is an important biodiversity resource, and the protection that IITA has provided it for many years has been an important service.

What is the contribution of insect diversity to agriculture?
Insects provide vital ecosystem services to agriculture, including pollination, biological control of pests, and the maintenance of soil fertility. A recent study on the impact of CGIAR research in Africa (Maredia and Raitzer 2006) found that 80% of the impact (valued at $17 billion) resulted from four biocontrol programs using insects and mites. All those programs had to solve significant taxonomic problems (e.g., understanding the biodiversity) before they became successful, underscoring the importance of research and documentation.

How does the Consortium for the Barcode of Life contribute to the conservation and protection of biodiversity?
DNA barcoding is a species diagnostic system using short sequences of DNA (, and the Consortium is an international organization promoting the development of standards and the building of the reference library of sequences. Understanding species, being able to identify them, and being able to communicate about them are basic to managing and using biodiversity. Thus, CBOL contributes through allowing fast and accurate identifications in difficult situations such as the immature stages of plant pests, the wood or roots from medicinal plants, or parts of butchered wildlife or fish in the illegal trade.

CBOL works closely with organizations with similar interests, such as BioNET INTERNATIONAL and the Global Taxonomy Initiative of the Convention on Biological Diversity. We are communicating with organizations such as the International Plant Protection Convention to help establish formal protocols for the DNA-based identification of agricultural pests.

Ken Neethling: Biocontrol champion

Ken Neethling, CEO, BCP
Ken Neethling, CEO, BCP

Ken Neethling is the chief executive officer of Biocontrol Products (BCP) based in South Africa. An engineer by training, he started working for BCP 13 years ago. Commercial biocontrol was a relatively new concept then, he says. Along the way, he became exposed to commercial fermentation and the world of microbes. Today, he manages the business and works with a “very competent team”.

BCP started as a biocontrol company, initially producing a fungal nematicide (egg stage) to work alongside those targeted at adult nematodes in an IPM program. In 1997, the Biological Control of Locusts and Grasshoppers (LUBILOSA) project approached BCP to commercially produce Green Muscle®, a flagship product, for the control of locusts, relates Ken. BCP has subsequently used its platforms of research, registrations, and production to bring other microbes to a commercial level. BCP’s range today includes many bacteria, fungi and plant extracts—for a diversity of uses in agriculture, including growth promotion, insecticides, nematicides, fungicides, and nutrition.

What are the prospects of biological control products in Africa?
BCP’s corporate slogan is “restoring nature’s balance”. In many respects this sums up the case for biocontrol products: They’re natural, generally safe to nontargets and already found in nature; they have a smaller environmental footprint and work in harmony with nature; they restore balance; this recognizes that the way we have historically treated our environment was out of balance. Restoring balance also implies sustainability and “subeconomic threshold” control strategies.

Biocontrol products are not a silver bullet—they’re part of a solution. When considering the growing global population that needs to be fed, the fertile soils of Africa are also part of the solution.

If Africa’s decision makers are receptive, then I believe biological control has a bright future in this continent.

IITA was part of the team that developed Green Muscle® years ago. The technology is one product of research that has proved quite successful. Tell us more about Green Muscle®.
I have a very high regard for IITA’s researchers…The development of Green Muscle® was truly a multidisciplinary, multicultural and multinational success story. BCP’s contribution to the development of Green Muscle® was in the areas of production, stability, formulation, costing, packaging, and providing product for trials. Over the years, BCP has also provided training on aspects of quality control and standard operating procedures. We advise on storage and provide analytical services to our Green Muscle® customers. BCP has also contributed to the registration process in some of the affected countries.

Ken Neethling, CEO of Biocontrol Products, South Africa. Photo from K. Neethling.
Ken Neethling with colleague Sifiso showing off one of BCP's industrial fermenters. Photo from K. Neethling.

Why did it take Green Muscle® almost 10 years from development to deployment to get into the market when it was so obviously a very effective product?
BCP is but one of the many champions of Green Muscle®. We worked tirelessly over the last 10 years. There were, and still are, many challenges.

The technology had to break new ground. For example, biocontrol has a completely different mode of action to the commonly used synthetic chemicals—it is slower acting on the knockdown, but with a longer residual and less environmental effect. In the case of Green Muscle®, the locusts stop feeding after 2 days. They become lethargic and, due to predation (they’re safe for birds and mammals to eat) they are quickly picked off. So the challenge was to show that not having hundreds of poisoned locust cadavers lying around was a good result!

The other challenge was cost—I’m sure many can appreciate that a biocontrol product, produced initially in small quantities, would have a very hard time competing in terms of price or cost against chemicals churned out in massive factories. Make no mistake, cost is important and especially in locust control, every dollar needs to be stretched to extract maximum benefit.

However, cost is a much bigger picture than simply the price of the active ingredient per hectare. Recent studies have indicated that the lifecycle cost of chemical control (including disposal of obsolete stock, soil decontamination, loss of pollination services, etc.), is higher than that of biocontrol.

I believe that there is still scope for even wider deployment—for example, preventative treatment campaigns in eco-sensitive breeding grounds that could prove more cost-effective than an emergency response to an outbreak.

What have been your challenges and opportunities in marketing Green Muscle®?
Our main marketing challenge is that we have so many different “customers” to consider.

First and most importantly the general population, who risk losing their food and livelihood to locust swarms of sometimes biblical proportions; the governmental plant protection departments of the various countries, who manage smaller campaigns within their borders; regional (i.e., cross border) emergency outbreak management bodies that largely depend on external funding; the United Nations, which coordinate and disperse donor funding for locust control; and the donor community, who ultimately hold the purse strings that need to be opened in large emergency campaigns.

How much is the demand for Green Muscle® in Africa?
Demand is obviously directly linked to locust outbreaks and contingent donor funding. To be honest, it has been frustratingly sporadic. This is not ideal from a production perspective, as it is more cost-effective to run continuously, with regular planned off-takes. To date, supply has been able to keep up, but we have also had to burn the midnight oil a few times in an emergency.

Is there any interest in the product outside Africa?
Yes there is interest outside Africa. My interpretation of this is that “good news travels fast”. But finding the right partners, doing trials, establishing market potential, drawing up agreements, licensing and all the other factors mean that this type of product can never be expected to be an “overnight success”.

What is the outlook of biocontrol, in general, in Africa? The world?
In summary, I would say the outlook is good, but this needs work and commitment from all stakeholders before it can have a meaningful impact on Africa. The same would apply to the rest of the world, except that consumer awareness (and hence demand) is higher in the developed world.

Do you think biocontrol would become competitive enough against chemical-based control measures?
Historically it can be argued that biocontrol hasn’t challenged chemical-based control measures, but that was partly due to the way we viewed this notion of control. What we have seen is that novel strains and human ingenuity are helping to make biocontrol a worthy alternative to chemicals. We’ve experienced this first hand with Green Muscle® in large-scale control operations, where we have had control comparable to that of the chemicals. In some extreme situations, such as in Algeria, we saw exceptional control, a level greater than 90%.

What would help to popularize the adoption of biocontrol technologies?
This challenge requires total commitment from many diverse stakeholders. But the basic principle, “Use it or lose it,” applies. Biocontrol technologies must be used and must make a difference in areas that count; otherwise they will forever remain in the research domain.

Green Muscle has gone the way of traditional R&D (i.e., research/science -> product development -> commercialization). When should the private sector come in?
Necessity is the mother of invention, so while I lean towards the commercial sector as being more in touch with the needs of the market, there is nothing to say that scientists can’t also fulfill this role. What is important is that there is a clear path to market, with early involvement of a commercial partner and good communication among all stakeholders during the development cycle.

What is needed to push agricultural technologies, such as biocontrol, from the research shelves to the market and eventually to the intended end-users?
A lot of money, for starters! Much more than I think anyone ever estimated. And a lot of time too. It needs product champions across the board: in government, in research, in the media, and in the procurement and purchasing channels.

What would you tell scientists or research organizations, such as IITA, working on biocontrol development?
There is a lot of good work being done by scientists around the world—biocontrol technology development is one of the many exciting and challenging areas with so much potential. The aim of science is to increase knowledge for the purposes of serving humanity and protecting our planet—whatever we research, develop, and commercialize must have these values as their foundation.

O.A. Adenola: More awareness needed on the dangers of aflatoxins

Pastor O.A. Adenola
Pastor O.A. Adenola. Photo by IITA

The president of one of the strongest crop networks in Nigeria, Pastor O.A. Adenola, talks about the need for stakeholders to join forces against aflatoxin spread and other issues. This is an excerpt from his interview with Godwin Atser.

Do farmers understand what aflatoxins are?
They may see the fungus on the maize cob but really many Nigerian farmers do not know the danger in what they see: what it is… what effects it has on people as a result of eating grain that is already contaminated… I think we need a lot of awareness, a lot of teaching to get our farmers to know the dangers of aflatoxins in our foods. The problem is that you don’t see them and their effect physically. If you look at the cassava mealybug, for instance, the farmer sees the plant die. In the case of aflatoxins, you don’t see them causing anything bad to maize; it is the after-effect that damages people’s health.

What can be done to bring the message to the people?
It has to involve a collective effort from all of us: the research institutes, the Agricultural Development Programs, the Maize Association of Nigeria, and the media. We won’t make any progress if we don’t collaborate to get the farmers to know the importance of the effect of aflatoxins on human beings and on animals.

You participated in the Doubling Maize Project. What were your observations?
At the time the project was initiated in 2006, the maize production level on average was 1.5 t/ha. The project target was to double production—from 1.5 to 3 t/ha. A farmer who could not combine production inputs to give us 3 t/ha was not qualified to be involved in the scheme because we did not want to increase the area planted. We wanted to increase production per unit area. The intention was to intensify production so that we could double what was on the ground.

So what happened?
I tell you, farmers made more than 3 t/ha! Also if the technology is properly applied, Nigeria can easily double maize production.

What effort is your association making to disseminate some of the findings of that research to increase maize production?
The maize network is stronger than the networks of other crops in Nigeria, maybe, because of the facilities we have at IITA that are linking us up properly with research and also with Ministries of Agriculture all over the country. And since we were the beneficiaries of the research findings, it was easier for us and for our members to adopt the improved technologies.

All that the researchers were telling us was “You can be better farmers if you take the technology.” I must tell you that every farmer is out there in the field because he wants to make more money. So the benefit is good enough to propel the technology.

How is the collaboration between MAAN and IITA?
Excellent! I have been relating with IITA since 1984 and when this Association was formed in 1992, it was formed in IITA. Since then we have had very good collaboration.

What can IITA do to make this partnership grow?
Whenever there is a need and we call on IITA, they have always answered. The Director General and the maize “chief”, Dr Sam Ajala and his team, have been very cooperative. That collaboration is what is important. If you have a problem and you call your friend and he answers, then you are okay.

Sunday Ekesi: Partnership is about respect

Sunday Ekesi of icipe
Sunday Ekesi of icipe. Photo from icipe

Sunday Ekesi is a research entomologist from Nigeria working at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe). He is currently leading a continent-wide initiative on the African fruit flies that threaten the production and export of fruits and vegetables. Its aim is to develop a cost-effective and sustainable technology for controlling the pest.

What are your research interests and focus?
I have a lot of curiosity for all aspects of reducing damage to crops by arthropod pests to raise productivity, increase income, and improve the livelihood of smallholder growers across Africa. I am interested in integrated pest management (IPM), the development and application of entomopathogens and baiting techniques for managing arthropod pests and their integration into habitat management and other IPM approaches.

The goal is to develop effective, economical, and environmentally sound approaches for managing arthropod pests and to reduce dependence on chemical pesticides.

My research center on the development of an IPM package that encompasses baiting techniques, classical biological control, application of augmentorium, entomopathogens, and postharvest treatment for quarantine fruit flies.

Tell us about the project on fruit flies
icipe and IITA are the pioneering institutions that address the fruit fly menace in Africa. The project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), involves developing and implementing an IPM program for three major mango pests—tephritid fruit flies (e.g., Bactrocera invadens and Ceratitis cosyra), mango seed weevil (Sternochetus mangiferae), and mealybugs (Rastrococcus iceryoides). These tree pests ravage mango, causing losses ranging from 30 to 80%, depending on locality, variety, and season. Fruit flies and mango seed weevil are also quarantine pests and quarantine restrictions limit the export of fruits to lucrative markets abroad.

In the project, icipe, IITA, and the University of Bremen, together with national agricultural research system (NARS) and advanced research institute (ARI) partners in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the USA are developing and implementing IPM programs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Bénin. The project aims to minimize the use of pesticides that lead to unwanted residues, and so to facilitate compliance with the standards required for domestic urban and export markets.

Any insights about partnership?
Partnership is about having common and complementary interests. Capacity and expertise can be strengthened only through partnerships and shared commitments. Partners have to believe that their work will make a difference. The scale and scope of work are usually amplified by the collaboration and it is in the interest of all scientists and centers to work with one another to solve pertinent problems to benefit the growers.

Above all, partnership is about respect for opinion and one another, affection, trust, and generosity. There is a lot that icipe and IITA can do together—projects that take a holistic approach to crop problems in which IPM is only one component.

Sunday Ekesi and a PhD student discuss fruit fly control methods with a mango grower
Sunday Ekesi and a PhD student discuss fruit fly control methods with a mango grower

Who are your other collaborators?
We work with the World Vegetable Center largely on managing red spider mite; also with the International Atomic Energy Agency in developing attractants for fruit fly management and rearing methods in support of the sterile insect technique and with the SP-IPM and other CGIAR centers that are interested in applying IPM for pest suppression.

I work with farmers with established orchards and involve them in formulating any research agenda from day one. Our national partners in all the target countries are the key to identifying farmers and farmer groups. They work with us from project planning to implementation and are vital to the success of the project.

What are your challenges?
I work mostly with alien invasive species where the first choice of management is classical biological control. This involves exploration for natural enemies in their aboriginal home. There are enormous challenges arising from the movement of biological control agents because of restrictions related to the Convention on Biological Diversity. No country is willing to allow any living organism to be taken from their environment for use in another country. Classical biological control is all about international public good yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to take natural enemies from one place to help in another country facing a devastating pest problem. We have not been able to bring in parasitoids of B. invadens to Africa from its putative aboriginal home of Sri Lanka. Similarly, it has been extremely difficult to obtain parasitoids of R. iceryoides from India for managing the pest in Kenya and Tanzania.

Another challenge is working on three complex insect pests at the same time. None of these pests is easy to deal with but by prioritizing the activities, sharing the tasks among partners, and ensuring that the milestones are achievable, we have been able to address the challenges. Coordination has been challenging but the partnership has been wonderful.

There are rewards as well. Being able to find affordable solutions to pest problems and seeing farmers apply the technologies—those make me happy. For example, in one of our project benchmark sites in Kenya, farmers previously could not sell mangoes to urban markets or export to lucrative markets in the Middle East because of the B. invadens problems. They are now able to do so by adopting technologies from the project. This is motivating and rewarding!

Kirsten Jørgensen: Research to help sub-Saharan Africa

Kirsten Jorgensen with her transgenic cassava plants
Kirsten Jorgensen with her transgenic cassava plants

Kirsten Jørgensen obtained her MSc in biology at the University of Copenhagen in 1989. The focus of her Ph.D studies was the identification of auxin-binding proteins in Brassica napus. The work was carried out at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Roskilde. Following her Ph.D. she was employed in Danisco Biotechnology, Holeby, Lolland, Denmark as responsible for the plant biotechnology R&D laboratory. This laboratory bred new varieties of sugar beet, rapeseed, sunflower, and potatoes using biotechnological approaches. The main techniques implemented were transformation, double haploid formation, and micropropagation.

In 2000 she was employed as Associate Professor at the Plant Biochemistry Laboratory, Department of Plant Biology, University of Copenhagen where her work focused on molecular breeding of cassava to achieve acyanogenic-transformed lines high in protein and vitamin content. As an expert in imaging techniques used for tissue, cell, and organellar localization of gene expression, enzymes, and enzyme activities, her network of collaborators is extensive.

She is married with three grown-up daughters, and is now a grandmother to three boys aged 1-3.

Please describe your work on acyanogenic cassava and its importance. What is the status of the research?
I first worked on cassava in 2000 when I started to work in the group of Prof. Birger Lindberg Moeller, together with part-time technician, Christina Mattson. Today, the group consists of Asst Prof. Rubini Kannangara, who takes care of the molecular biology; three technicians: Charlotte Sørensen, Evy Olsen, and Susanne Bidstrup, who assist in all aspects of this project from producing the transgenic plants, analyzing them, and helping in the greenhouse, where our gardener Steen Malmmose takes care of the plants.

The cassava group is a part of a larger group with a focus on cyanogenic glucosides—from the regulation of these compounds in the plant to their end use as a defense system. In cassava, our emphasis is now the “when”, “where”, and “why” the cyanogenic glucosides are found in the plant. We also work on producing an acyanogenic cassava.

We are currently working on producing the third generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and analyzing the second generation in the greenhouses. The first generation was based on antisense technology and the background of the transformed plants was the South American model line Mcol22. When the RNAi technology became available for downregulation (reduction) of specific genes, we used this technique to obtain second generation plants, exhibiting a more complete downregulation of cyanogenic glucoside content (second generation). Eventually we started to work with African elite lines from IITA to be closer to the product that could be used directly after testing the GMO lines in their appropriate environment. In the third generation we have been fine-tuning the downregulation of cyanogenic glucosides to assure that this takes place in the specific cells which express the enzymes involved in their synthesis.

Plants from the first generation, based on Mcol22, have limited utility for field testing as they are far from the cultivars grown today. Our focus has shifted to African lines, either those used today or promising breeding lines from IITA. By now, we have African elite lines (e.g., TME12) downregulated to contain less than 10% of the cyanogenic glucoside content in tubers measured in wild type TME12 growing in the greenhouse. Several lines are completely devoid of cyanogenic glucosides in their leaves.

Kirsten Jorgensen and Rubini Kannangara, Plant Biochemistry Laboratory
Kirsten Jorgensen and Rubini Kannangara, Plant Biochemistry Laboratory

Our next goal is to produce cassava lines with enhanced nutritional value. We have focused on using a storage protein from potato (patatin) and are currently transforming African elite lines with this trait provided by IITA’s Dr Alfred Dixon. Two of these lines have been bred to contain an enhanced amount of carotenoids, the precursor of vitamin A. Our dream is to assemble all these traits—producing cassava that is acyanogenic and nutritious.

What are some of the important tools you use on the job? How would genetic engineering help you meet your research goals?
The tools are all the techniques currently used today in a modern, biotechnology oriented laboratory. The basic knowledge of the synthesis of cyanogenic glucosides gives us the opportunity to strengthen work for an improved cassava. Our group works with basic science, which is then converted to applied research, and ends up, for example, in new cassava lines improved by molecular breeding—another word for genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is just a tool which can be used where it is difficult or impossible to achieve the improvements wanted in a variety. So far, no one has succeeded in obtaining acyanogenic cassava by classical breeding methods. Here genetic engineering comes in as an important tool.

What are some of the challenges in working on this area?
Working with a crop which has limited focus from breeding companies makes it difficult to obtain funding in a nontropical country such as Denmark. Because cassava is a tropical crop, it is difficult to mimic tropical conditions—however, we are pleased that we are able to grow the cassava plants in our greenhouse under conditions where they do produce tubers. So our data are based on measurements on real tubers.

As the scientific community working on cassava is small, we need to share knowledge. On our part we have been open in sharing our techniques. So far Dr Ivan Ingelbrecht, IITA, and Dr Sareena Sahab, Danforth Plant Science Centre, have visited us and been trained on how to carry out cassava transformation using our protocols and regeneration systems.

Who are your partners in this collaborative effort and what are their roles? Who funds the research?
Our collaborator for more than a decade has been IITA with whom our group has collaborated on various projects mostly funded by Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). IITA has also provided important financial support. In the same period we have collaborated with CIAT, Columbia, on molecular markers for the genes encoding the enzymes involved in the synthesis of cyanogenic glucosides. A newer collaboration is with Kenyatta University, Kenya, with whom we have collaborated on the latest DANIDA project “Improvement of the nutritional value of cassava: high storage protein content and no cyanide liberating toxins”.

In addition to the funding from DANIDA we had a project on “Biofortification of Cassava” funded by the Research Council for Technology and Production.

The funding and generous sharing of elite lines from IITA have strengthened the ties between our laboratory and IITA.

How would you describe the collaboration with IITA and other partners working on the project? Any insights on collaboration and partnership?
The close and fruitful collaboration with Dr Ivan Ingelbrecht and Dr Alfred Dixon has helped us a lot, for example, with respect to choosing optimal cassava lines for our transformation work. We really want to work with lines that are of value to African end users. In addition to the collaboration on producing GMO cassava, we have collaborated on the bioinformatics and logistics to design and build a cassava microarray DNA chip. Our collaborations have been very open and enjoyable. For us, it is very important to keep close contact with scientists working in an African environment. This helps us to set the right research priorities.

How would you measure the impact of your work on cassava in SSA?
Our aim is to improve the nutritional value of cassava. This includes reducing its content of cyanogenic glucoside and introducing a higher content of proteins and vitamin A precursors. In our lab we can only go as far as producing these lines and testing them in our greenhouse facilities. Although the lines behave well there, we cannot mimic real tropical conditions and cannot expose the plants to the environmental challenges they encounter when grown in African soils. So we really want to collaborate to have these lines grown in their real environment to observe how the plants behave.

Any personal information or other insights that you want to share with our readers?
Throughout my working life, the emphasis has been to produce new improved crops—both for the European market and now for the African continent in the case of cassava—using biotechnological techniques. It is important always to use the appropriate techniques to reach the goal most efficiently. I am driven by a strong desire to show that high quality basic research provides the way to obtain improved crop plants for the future.

One of my main interests is working with plants—both at work and at home, where I spend a lot of time in the garden and in our summerhouse. The rest of the time is for the family—I look forward at one point to visit Africa and especially IITA.

In my career I have wanted to use my knowledge in applied science. Tissue culture fascinates me—to start from such small pieces of tissue and end up with plants in the greenhouse—I am still amazed at what plants can do.

Jacob Hodeba Mignouna: Leading the way in science

Jacob Hodeba Mignouna

Jacob Mignouna is a molecular biologist/biotechnologist with an MSc degree in chemical engineering and a PhD in molecular biology and genetics, both from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.

He joined IITA in 1992, as a research scientist-biotechnologist. He led the Biotechnology Unit and developed and implemented a research program on the use of molecular genetic tools to improve food crops and efficiently manage crop genetic resources.

He was a distinguished Frosty Hill Research fellow and had worked as visiting scientist at the Institute for Genomic Diversity, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; Research Associate Professor of Biotechnology and co-Director of USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer program in East Africa at Virginia State University, Petersburg, Virginia; and Biosafety Consultant for the USAID Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington D.C., USA.

As Technical Operations Manager at African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF), he identifies opportunities for agricultural technology interventions, assesses the feasibility and probability of success of project concepts, identifies sources of appropriate technologies, negotiates their access and deployment, and provides overall leadership in the implementation of AATF’s project portfolio.

farmers-meetingPlease describe AATF’s work and your work.
AATF is a not-for-profit organization that facilitates and promotes public-private partnerships for the access and delivery of appropriate proprietary agricultural technologies for use by resource-poor smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

The Foundation is a one-stop-shop that provides expertise and know-how that facilitates the identification, access, development, delivery, and use of proprietary agricultural technologies.

AATF works toward food security and poverty reduction in SSA, and its structure and operations draw upon the best practices and resources of both the public and private sectors.

It also contributes to capacity building in Africa by engaging African institutions to work in partnership with others.

AATF strives to achieve sustainable impact at the farm level through innovative partnerships that bring together players all along the food value chain—from smallholder farmers to national agricultural systems, regional and international research organizations, and technology developers.

Currently, AATF is working on biotechnology projects focusing on maize, cowpea, banana, rice, and sorghum—all important crops in Africa. We are also looking at ways to address aflatoxin contamination in peanuts and cereals and processing of cassava.

How did the AATF and IITA partnership come about?
In 2004, IITA approached AATF seeking to access candidate genes conferring resistance against banana bacterial wilt (BXW). IITA had already established contact with Academia Sinica, Taiwan, which held patents to the technology and wanted AATF to negotiate for a license to the ferrodoxin-like protein (pflp) and hypersensitive response assisting protein (hrap) genes from the institute.

In August 2005, IITA, Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), and AATF convened a two-day consultative meeting at which stakeholders, including other national research institutes from the Great Lakes region, including IRAZ and other NARS in the region, drafted a project concept note on developing banana bacterial wilt-resistant germplasm.

Soon after, AATF approached Academia Sinica, Taiwan, to license the pflp and hrap genes to it on humanitarian basis.

The initiative has since grown into a full-fledged project designed to enable smallholder farmers in Africa have access to disease-resistant high-yielding banana developed from East African highland varieties.

The project has two components. One focuses on developing transgenic varieties using the acquired technology and the other on improving the capacity of institutions in the region to produce high-quality disease-free planting materials using tissue culture technique.

AATF coordinates the project, including providing support in management of intellectual property rights and regulatory issues, while IITA leads the research, working with Academia Sinica and various institutions, including NARO-Uganda and IRAZ (the national research institution of Burundi), and public and private tissue culture laboratories in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and DR Congo.

Through the collaborative research, five banana cultivars—Kayinja, Nakitembe, Mpologoma, Sukali Ndizi, and Nakinyika—have been transformed using an Agrobacterium-mediated system. Several transgenic lines have been produced and tested in vitro by artificial inoculation with the pure Xanthomonas campestris pv. musacearum (Xcm) bacterial culture. Some of the promising lines showed no bacterial wilt symptoms. These plants were further analyzed and confirmed to have the transgene pflp integrated into the banana genome.

With progress on banana transformation well under way, AATF will soon commission a biosafety study. The findings will inform stakeholders as they develop a roadmap for the various processes required for regulatory approvals as the project progresses through the product development pipeline.

Farmers preparing cassava leaves for silage. Photo by S. Kolijn
Farmers preparing cassava leaves for silage. Photo by S. Kolijn, IITA

Please share your insights on collaboration and partnership.
First, collaboration works well if there is a clearly articulated and shared need for joint effort.

Secondly, such partnerships work best if roles and responsibilities are well defined. Work in the banana project is governed by a Memorandum of Association that recognizes the capacities of the partner organizations and facilitates each to contribute optimally to the project.

Also important is the need to bring on board potential partners early enough so that they can provide their input into the project design right from the concept stage. In this project, and generally in all AATF initiatives, we have found comprehensive consultations with a wide range of stakeholders, especially at the formative stage to be a critical success factor.

Third is information flow. Building a communication strategy into the project design ensures that the information needs of partners and external stakeholders are adequately met.

Capacity building is core to all AATF partnerships because of the key role it plays in moving the technologies through the entire food value chain, including scaling up of technologies. In this project, the hub of banana transformation work is at Kawanda, where IITA researchers are working with scientists from national research systems and jointly carrying out the transformation work. This kind of collaboration ensures that staff of national agricultural research institutes in the target countries provide continuity of work in their home country.

Another important aspect of partnership is focus on the smallholder farmer. We have found that having a shared commitment to improve the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers—a clear statement about the ultimate focus of our work—enhances stakeholders’ commitment to project activities.

Then, of course there is the need to have clear negotiated ways to deal with conflict, ensure accountability, and other governance issues.

How did AATF handle the licensing agreement for using the genes for developing resistance to Xanthomonas wilt in bananas?
AATF typically follows a strategy in which it takes the role of the principal and “responsible party” in facilitating public-private partnerships. AATF has entered into licensing agreements to access and hold proprietary technologies and to ensure freedom to operate (FTO) for all the components of the technologies. The Foundation then sublicenses partner institutions to carry out research and adapt technologies for regulatory compliance, and to produce and distribute the technologies. After signing the relevant agreements allowing use of the technology, AATF and partners are guided by a business plan that spells out the roles of each partner and how the technology will be used.

As the principal party, AATF monitors compliance with the requirements of sublicenses to minimize the risk of technology failure, and facilitates the work of appropriate partner institutions to ensure that links in the value chain are connected and result in technology products that reach smallholder farmers.

How would this research impact on banana producers and consumers in Africa?
Millions of people across the East African highlands depend on banana for their livelihoods, directly for food and smallholder producers for the market or as traders and other players in the crop’s value chain. Since banana Xanthomonas wilt broke out in the region, it has caused losses estimated at over US$500 million in Uganda, eastern DR Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

In parts of Uganda, where the crop is a staple, some families reported that their banana production had decreased by up to 80%. Given the severity of losses caused by BXW and the fact that the effectiveness of existing remedies is limited, development of disease-resistant varieties will have a huge impact on livelihoods. The benefits can be multiplied many times over by making available clean planting materials to enable farmers to rapidly expand their production.

Increased production will lead to higher incomes for families from sale of the crop, including to the vastly untapped European and American markets, now dominated by South American countries, which account for 60% of the global banana trade.

Scientists inteviewing cassava and maize farmers. Photo by K. Lopez
Scientists inteviewing cassava and maize farmers. Photo by K. Lopez, IITA

What are some of the biggest constraints to adoption of biotechnological tools or products in Africa?
I believe that properly applied agricultural biotechnology holds the key to food security in Africa. Molecular genetics tools should be used not only to improve crops but also to create a better understanding of the abundant diversity of African genetic resources for food, feed, medicine, etc. The biggest constraints to adoption of biotech tools include limited resources—both infrastructural and in terms of trained scientists and other personnel.

Some African countries also lack a regulatory environment conducive to biotech research and development. Although there have been positive changes over the past couple of years, a lot more needs to be done in these areas, including developing regulations to operationalize biosafety laws.

What could be done to take advantage of opportunities that current agricultural technologies provide and harness them for the development of African agriculture or the improvement of food security in SSA?
There are various ways but a key one is by building partnerships, such as those AATF facilitates, that can help access needed technologies, move them from product development and into the hands of farmers. This means different organizations working together to identify and resolve farmer constraints through pooling of available resources where necessary.

We also need to rapidly enhance our capacity to use biotech research. African governments and institutions need to come together and harness their various strengths to develop biotech infrastructure on the continent.

This means training more high-level scientists, equipping laboratories that can serve as centers of excellence and strengthening collaboration among African institutions and between them and research centers and universities abroad.

Lack of awareness about biotech is a major challenge. There is a need for well-designed communication campaigns not only to increase awareness and knowledge of biotechnology, but to increase public acceptance and use of technologies.

You used to head the Biotech Unit at IITA. Please tell R4D Review about your experiences in using biotechnology tools then.
The focus of the Biotechnology Unit, which comprised seven scientists and 45 support staff, was to use the tools that were then available for improving IITA mandate crops. Our work was mainly in two areas. One was developing genetic markers for the characterization of genetic resources, molecular breeding for pests and disease characterization, and exchange of germplasm. The other area was genetic engineering, where we applied tools to address intractable pests and diseases, such as insects that affect cowpea, viral and fungal diseases affecting plantain and banana and cassava mosaic disease. We also addressed diseases and pests in yam, another important food.

What are your aspirations for Africa?
My vision is to see Africa embrace all available tools, including biotechnology and develop the capacity to use them to produce enough food and improve the livelihoods of communities across Africa.


Erostus Njuki Nsubuga: Lessons on partnership

AGT CEO and Managing Director Erostus Nsubuga
AGT CEO and Managing Director Erostus Nsubuga

R4D Review interviewed Erostus Njuki Nsubuga, the chief executive officer and managing director of Agro-Genetic Technologies Ltd (AGT), to get his insights on the IITA-AGT partnership. AGT is the first and only private commercial tissue culture (TC) laboratory in Uganda and so far the biggest single supplier of banana TC planting material in East and Central Africa. It produces up to 8 million tissue culture plantlets per year, of which 1 million are banana plants.

Nsubuga wants to see AGT become well established and profitable by increasing its capacity to provide the region with quality TC planting material at affordable prices and introducing other services such as plant and soil analysis, and produce organic fertilizers. His dream is for AGT to become a one- stop shop that provides total solutions to farmers.

Nsubuga was born in Uganda and spent his early years there. Because of the war, he and his family had to move to other countries in Africa and Europe. He started living on his own at 16, studying in Europe and USA for 24 years to obtain an MSc (Agriculture) and MBA (International Marketing). He worked in international companies and managerial positions for over 20 years but his dream was always to come back, to help his mother who had survived all the wars, to sustain himself and his family, and to contribute to the development of his people and country.

What made you establish AGT?
I had completed one contract and was about to start a new job when I decided to start a TC laboratory at my house. I employed and trained two people to produce TC plants out of my kitchen while I was traveling. At that time (2001–02) banana and coffee wilt diseases were spreading like wildfire in Uganda. It was easy to start with these two crops as there was great demand for disease-free planting material to reduce the spread of diseases and restore healthy plantations. Over time, using my own finances, AGT built a state-of-the-art TC facility and we grew significantly. Our technical team now includes five university graduates and a retired professor. Degree students from Makerere University have been doing their internships at AGT’s laboratory with their programs embedded in our production line.

How did the AGT and IITA partnership come about?
It started when Dr. Thomas Dubois called me out of the blue. IITA was looking for a commercial enterprise to start testing and producing its endophyte-enhanced plants. Under a mutual agreement, AGT and IITA have worked on fine-tuning the enhancement of TC plants with endophytes. We identified and established on-farm trials together, using the same farmers. In the short run, IITA assisted us with laboratory chemicals and AGT also benefited from publicity. In the longer run, production of endophyte-enhanced TC material would be greatly beneficial to AGT and other commercial producers in the region. Now that the original project has expired, we are trying to get this unique product commercialized to supply farmers facing high pest and disease pressure.

Please give some insights on public-private collaboration.
Collaboration can be very important in developing and disseminating research products. For IITA, it has forced them to think commercially from the onset. A good example has been the experimental protocol for endophyte inoculation. After piloting it in my lab, IITA quickly abandoned the use of a nutrient solution in favor of fertilizer-amended soil along the lines of the system used in commercial nurseries. Such partnerships should be developed as early as possible, especially for a technology such as this. This would help AGT to build up its technical, human, and financial capacity to take on the research products once they reach commercialization. Also a very clear agreement has to be drafted and this is sometimes a balancing act.

How could IITA improve its relationship with the private sector?
AGT indicated to IITA that it was open to other research products but wanted to be involved at an early stage. This is what we call a demand-driven research agenda where the consumer is sure of getting research products through private sector involvement. We are now backstopping a socioeconomic study looking at full commercialization of our nurseries in Uganda and Rwanda. At present AGT sells mainly through NGOs and institutions. Direct marketing to farmers would be better.

What lessons have you learned from the partnership with IITA and others?
It is great that research organizations such as IITA have realized the role of private sector involvement in agricultural research and in the product value chain. Such partnerships are relatively new and we still have much to accomplish. Personally, I feel many governments and international research institutions, even IITA, are working too much for the donors, not the farmers. We should tell the donors what needs to be funded. More impact assessment is needed on some research products.

Any suggestions for future collaboration or collaborators?
I hope IITA can do more demand-driven research by including the private sector in the development of research products as early as possible with specific roles for each partner clearly defined.

What do you think makes AGT successful?
I have a professional approach and commitment, with many years of experience in agriculture and entrepreneurship and good relationships, local and international. AGT started when diseases such as banana bacterial wilt and coffee were at their peak, so I was in the right place at the right time.

How else could development organizations and private entities such as AGT help farmers and consumers?
AGT is getting farmers involved in production, distribution, and training by establishing banana nurseries and demonstration gardens owned by local farmers. The farmer then becomes the AGT distributor for that community and the nursery the focal point for training others in modern agricultural practices.

What is your dream for Uganda?
Uganda is the second largest producer but seventy-fifth in banana exports. The Government and all development partners should industrialize this crop and thus lift many out of poverty.

Any thoughts about the world food crisis, food security, GMOs, or development in general?
African countries are the poorest in the world today with many problems. We urgently need biotechnology tools, including GMOs, to address problems. We should not waste time blaming others for creating poverty and hunger but make efforts ourselves to get out of the rut. I still have far to go but I am contributing to the well being of farmers in Uganda and the whole region.