Building African breeders’ capacities

IITA and the West Africa Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI) have signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at increasing the number of plant breeders in Africa.

Under the agreement, WACCI, a center at the University of Ghana, will send postgraduate students to IITA for three years to carry out research in plant breeding. Students will have access to IITA facilities and will be supervised by senior IITA scientists.

The alliance with WACCI is expected to halt the dwindling number of plant breeders in Africa and boost IITA’s role in building capacity in the continent. Building capacities of breeders is one way of helping ensure food security in Africa.

In its 45 years of existence as Africa’s leading research partner, IITA has trained more than 74,000 people in Africa and elsewhere. Some of these beneficiaries today occupy strategic positions in Africa.

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.