Meet man who will not rest until he sees farmers growing 101 neglected crops

Friday May 26 2017

Prof Howard-Yano Shapiro, the global director of Plant Science and External Research at Mars Incorporated.

Prof Howard-Yano Shapiro, the global director of Plant Science and External Research at Mars Incorporated, which founded African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC). PHOTO | LEOPOLD OBI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By LEOPOLD OBI
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Prof Howard-Yano Shapiro is the global director of Plant Science and External Research at Mars Incorporated, which founded African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) that is currently working to improve neglected African crops. Leopold Obi spoke to him on what needs to be done to encourage farming and consumption of crops like cassava

The growing of traditional crops like cassava seem to have stalled to the point that they are considered orphaned. What is the problem?

Traditional crops are easily adaptable and very nutritious, the only problem is that farmers cannot get high-yielding and quality seeds of these varieties of the crops.

This is the reason we came up with a consortium which is currently researching on at least 101 orphaned crops to promote them.

The consortium has successfully improved 29 different varieties of these crops whose seeds will be available in the market in the next few months. Besides food crops, we are also sequencing 27 tree crops like custard apple, baobab and African plum.

Others are macadamia, guavas, marula, avocados and traditional vegetables.

I believe that if we are to benefit from advances in agricultural productivity, investments in the “orphan crops” are crucial.

How far are you with the breeding work?

We have set up Africa plant breeding academy here in Nairobi where we have so far trained over 80 planting breeders from 2014.

The plant breeders are basically mid-career plant breeding scientists from 19 African countries. After graduating, they are tasked with researching and breeding of orphaned crops and fruit trees from their respective countries.

We graduated our first class of scientists in 2015 and we plan to train more than 200 scientists going forward.

To make their breeding work easier, we have acquired new DNA sequencing machine known as HiSeq4000.

This is the first machine of this kind in the continent and it is 150 times faster than the DNA sequencing machines we have in the continent right now.

Scientists will, therefore, send their materials in the lab and in the next three days they will have their results as compared to the past when they had to wait for three months or so.

How did you arrive at the 101 orphaned crop varieties?

We engaged a number of researchers from across the continent after surveys conducted by African scientists, nutritionists and plant breeders together with farmers who identified the crops as of great significance.

It should be noted that once research is done, information on the genomes of the 101 crops will be made public to scientists and plant breeders interested in breeding them.

What is the role AOCC in the world of plant breeding and research?

AOCC was established in Nairobi in 2011 with the sole purpose of spearheading research on ‘neglected African crops’ such as finger millets, pumpkins, dolichos beans (njahi), amaranth, tamarind (mkwanju) and oil palm, among other traditional crops to improve them and make them broadly available to African smallholder farmers. 

The consortium is made up of various research institutions such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), Mars Incorporated, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), Illumina, Life Technologies, World Wildlife Fund, and University of California Davies, among others.