Courtesy of Linda L. McCandless

The project, which initiated in 2012, aims to expand understanding of cassava, an indispensable crop in sub-Saharan Africa.

February 20, 2018

Cornell-Led Project Awarded $35 Million to Research Crop Vital to Africa’s Food Security

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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom government collectively awarded $35 million to a Cornell project researching and promoting the use of cassava, a carbohydrate-rich tuber plant, in sub-Saharan Africa.

While cassava is a major staple crop indispensable to food security in Africa, it has received scant attention compared to other crops. Next Generation Cassava Breeding Project, a Cornell-led international project with 11 partner institutions across three different continents, addresses this gap in research and makes the crop more accessible to civilians.

NextGen Cassava emerged in 2012 with the intent to shorten the cassava breeding cycle, improve cassava flowering and seed set, enable greater germplasm exchange and improve information exchange between cassava researchers and breeders, according to the website.

The Foundation and the U.K. government provided $25 million to the project when it was launched in 2012 to fund its first five years of research. The additional funding provided this year aims to support the project for the next five years as the project enters its second phase.

Phase two hopes to “identify traits preferred by farmers and end-users and incorporate them into new cassava lines to ensure that varieties are responsive to people’s needs,” said NextGen project director Prof. Chiedozie Egesi, plant breeding and genetics, in a press release.

In his planned speech at the sixth annual NextGen Cassava meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Thursday, local time, Egesi will elaborate on the importance of taking into account regional as well as crop preferences among men and women in developing new cassava variants, according to a speech transcript obtained by The Sun.

“Researchers must talk but particularly listen to men and especially women farmers and end-users,” Egesi said. “Using the kind of statistical predictive analyses offered through genomic selection and the gender-responsive survey work, new releases of cassava, which used to take a decade or more to develop, are ready in as little as six years.”

Cassava being sold by women at the Kalerwe market in Kampala, Uganda.

Courtesy of Hale Tufan

Cassava being sold by women at the Kalerwe market in Kampala, Uganda.

Egesi noted NextGen Cassava’s emphasis on how different genders prefer certain crops stems from an earlier project.

“This emphasis on gender-responsive breeding … grew out of the Cornell-led Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, beginning in 2008, with our work on breeding rust-resistant wheat varieties in sub-Saharan Africa,” Egesi said. “It led to an emphasis on gender in NextGen when it launched in 2012.”

Phase two of the project also aims to research “implementation for the delivery of improved varieties to smallholder farmers,” communication specialist Samantha Hautea, International Programs projects, told The Sun.

Phase one of NextGen Cassava Project, which spanned from 2012 to 2017, developed an open access database for cassava genetic information, called Cassavabase.

“Cassava researchers all over the world can now compare results and improve breeding programs without duplicating efforts by using Cassavabase,” Egesi said.

Hautea explains that NextGen Cassava has proved that “genomic selection, a comparatively modern technology, is a viable method to improve cassava breeding.”

“This is the first time [genomic selection] has been used for an under-researched crop like cassava, and much work has been accomplished in only 5 years,” Hautea said. “This could make NextGen a model for other similar breeding programs for under-researched crops around the world.”