Agricultural and development based agencies Tuesday launched Africa’s first plant breeding academy in Nairobi.
The academy is aimed at helping farmers improve livelihoods by increasing food production.
The African Plant Breeding Academy, with an initial Sh3.4 billion ($40 million dollars) in-kind contributions will mainly focus on helping farmers access seeds and seedlings of ‘orphaned’ crops and trees that are locally available and have proved to be hardy in the harsh climatic conditions around Kenya.
The academy, to be based at Nairobi’s World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) was launched by the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) that brings together plant breeding firms, development agencies as well as world leading agricultural research institutions.
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 a higher nutritional content.
'Orphan crops' are African food crops such as millet, sorghum and cassava, among others, that are mainly grown for subsistence as they are not commercially viable thereby making researchers neglect them.
The 100 targeted crops are the 'back garden' crops of rural Africa, home to 600 million people.
Improving production of such crops will greatly improve the diets of Africa's children, helping to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, which is prevalent among the children of rural Africa.
The consortium said it would train 250 plant breeders and technicians over a five-year period in genomics and marker-assisted selection for crop improvement to create improved planting materials that will then be offered to smallholder farmers throughout Africa.
The academy seeks to develop highly nutritional food crops which can better withstand climate changes, pests and disease.
These varieties and the information will be made public through a process managed by the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture.
"This represents an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the training programs developed for plant breeders in Africa," said Mr Allen Van Deynze who is the Director of Research at UC Davis' Seed Biotechnology Centre.
World Agroforestry Centre Director General Professor Tony Simons, said the project would move swiftly to alleviate hunger by providing farmers in the “most malnourished, poorest, rural and the least forested areas in Africa with a chance to use the latest technologies 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 is expected to help rural and urban people achieve their full cognitive and physical potential of fighting desertification via environmental conservation and afforestation,” he said.