Written by Raymond Gichuki
The African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) Tuesday opened the African Plant Breeding Academy in Nairobi, Kenya to help improve the livelihoods of Africa's smallholder farmers and their families, reduce hunger and boost Africa's food supply.
The Academy will train 250 plant breeders and technicians in genomics and marker-assisted selection for crop improvement over a five-year period. The work will drive the creation of improved planting materials that will then be offered to smallholder farmers throughout Africa.
AOCC's goal is to use the latest scientific equipment and techniques to genetically sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes of 100 traditional African food crops to guide the development of more robust produce with higher nutritional content.
It will provide scientists and technicians with a dedicated place to sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes to help develop food crops with higher nutritional value and which can better withstand climate changes, pests and disease.
The data derived from this collaborative effort will be made publically available with the endorsement of the African Union through a process managed by the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture.
'Orphan crops' are African food crops and tree species that have been neglected by researchers and industry because they are not economically important on the global market.
The consortium includes the African Union - New Partnership for Africa's Development (AU-NEPAD Agency); Mars, Incorporated; World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF); BGI; Life Technologies Corporation; World Wildlife Fund; University of California, Davis (UC Davis); iPlant Collaborative; and Biosciences eastern and central Africa - International Livestock Research Institute (BecA - ILRI Hub).
"The African Orphan Crops Consortium and the new African Plant Breeding Academy represent an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the training programs we have developed for plant breeders in Africa," said Allen Van Deynze, Director of Research at UC Davis' Seed Biotechnology Center. "The partnerships allow African breeders to take advantage of the latest technologies to rapidly advance development of crops that are important to African diets and health."
"I am delighted that we are hosting this new initiative," said Prof. Tony Simons, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre. "For the continent that is the most malnourished, the poorest, the most rural and the least forested, the AOCC gives Africa a chance through new science and its application to address many of its perennial problems of development. To date, the entire world has genetically sequenced 57 plant species and this uncommon public-private collaboration, based in Africa with Chinese and US support, will nearly triple this number over the next four years. The addition of so many tree species in the list, which can help rural and urban people achieve their full cognitive and physical potential, is ground breaking, and these perennial solutions to nutrition will reinforce the progress Africa is making in so many other fields."
The 100 targeted crops are the 'back garden' crops of rural Africa, home to 600 million people. So improving them will greatly improve the diets of Africa's children, helping to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, which causes stunting. Stunting - short stature for age and incomplete neurological development - is rife among the children of rural Africa.
"The NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency has as its primary thematic area food and nutrition security; rightly so because of the issue of low agricultural productivity that impacts on this," said NEPAD CEO, Dr. Ibrahim Mayaki. "Malnutrition is a direct product of food insecurity. A large number of Africans suffer from deficiencies of micronutrients such as minerals, iron and vitamin A with devastating effects on population including high mortality and morbidity rates and blindness among children, agricultural labour reduction and poor quality of life."
Mars, Incorporated previously led a similar uncommon collaboration that sequenced, assembled and annotated the cacao (cocoa) genome and made these data publically available on the Internet to all researchers in 2010.
"In 2010, I learned for the first time that malnutrition and chronic hunger cause a devastating condition called stunting in children. It was shocking to try and grasp the scale of this tragedy, with more than 35% of the children in Africa affected. Today, we are opening an Academy that will place fundamental science that can help in fighting chronic hunger and malnutrition in the hands of many more practitioners. This is huge leap forward for the diversity and sustainability of African agriculture and the start of a very different future for rural and urban food consumption patterns," said Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars, Incorporated, who made the case for the AOCC at the opening of the Plant Breeding Academy.
The first orphan crop to be sequenced, assembled and annotated at the Academy will be baobab, which can be used as a dried fruit powder for consumer products. Baobab is called 'the wonder tree' in Africa because its gluten-free fruit has ten times the antioxidant level of oranges, twice the amount of calcium than spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges, four times more potassium than banana, antiviral properties and much more. By sharing knowledge of the genome sequences of baobab and other African crops, scientists and technicians working at the Academy will inform plant breeders and farmers of species varieties that are more nutritious, productive and robust.
"Life Technologies is proud to be part of this global humanitarian effort to help improve the health of future generations in Africa," said Gregory T. Lucier, Chairman and CEO of Life Technologies, which developed the advanced sequencers that will be used in the program. "We are committed to this important work and know that the Ion Proton sequencers we have provided will make a tangible difference in this life-changing endeavor designed to leverage the knowledge gained from genomics."
With this collaboration, BGI will make its sequencing and bioinformatics expertise available for scientists and researchers in Africa. "BGI is dedicated to using genomics technology for the benefit of human beings," said Prof. Jian Wang, President of BGI. "Having contributed to the sequencing of many critical crops including rice, maize, soybean, potato, pigeonpea and foxtail millet, we are confident that the combination of capabilities, experience and resources within AOCC will yield great scientific breakthroughs in African crops research and bring advancement to develop improved crop varieties, thus to contribute to the wellbeing of local society."
"We are truly honored to be part of this groundbreaking initiative as it fits within our remit of research, capacity building and technologies applications in support of African National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) to drive biosciences innovations aimed at improving the livelihood in small holder farming communities and other vulnerable communities," said Appolinaire Djikeng, Director of the BecA-ILRI Hub in Nairobi, Kenya.
AOCC was officially launched at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) annual meeting in 2011 as an effort to improve the nutrition, productivity and climatic adaptability of some of Africa's most important food crops. In June 2013, during the G8 International Conference on Open Data for Agriculture held in partnership with World Bank Group in Washington D.C., AOCC announced it would be making its data publically available to scientists, plant breeders and farmers. At the 2013 CGI meeting, Howard-Yana Shapiro, who gave an opening speech, confirmed that AOCC had raised approximately $40 million USD in-kind contributions to date to support its work.