Access to crop information, advanced analytical methodologies, service laboratories, modern breeding pipelines, networks, and more educational and professional opportunities should empower breeders to enact change on their terms. Ultimately, the future sustainability of any initiative aimed at improving genetic gains in developing countries rests with the ability of National Programs (NARS) to assume leadership, at the national level and at a regional level.
From our (IBP) experience, the process of supporting NARS plant breeders to move to a position where they are in the ‘driver’s seat’ requires two essential ingredients: i) resources to facilitate networks (domestic or regional) and coordinate activities across regional initiatives; and ii) resources to provide ongoing mentoring for NARS plant breeders, such as those facilitated through the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding platform and the USAID Feed the Future (FtF) Innovation Labs. The approach developed during the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme whereby NARS take the leadership and ownership of projects has been carried over, successfully, to the IBP in its development and deployment of the Breeding Management System (BMS).
The capacity for NARS to take ownership of their plant breeding programs varies by country institution, and program. This is not unexpected given that the level of resourcing of different programs and crops varies considerably. However, in our experience, the key driver of change is the mindset of individual plant breeders, their ability and willingness to adopt new technologies, and their appetite to engage with regional and international initiatives. It is also critical to run breeding programmes in developing countries with a Research for Sustainable Investment Approach as the key driver for impact, building on clearly defined breeding objectives and product profiles that reflect local demand.
A country focus
There are a number of examples of projects that aim to build capacity at the national level; for example, the MERCI project (Modernising Ethiopian Research on Crop Improvement) led by the Ethiopian national program with the support of the University of Queensland is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support breeding programs of targeted commodities such as chickpea, common bean, maize, sorghum and wheat. The approach has been to build the foundations for modern breeding programs that focus on generating new varieties with improved traits. The IBP has been engaged in the MERCI project to provide training and support for adoption and use of the BMS across a range of crops and locations. This successful project has reinforced the point about the mindset of plant breeders being an important driver of change, but it has also highlighted the need for commitment by senior management of institutes; an enabling environment is essential to maintain the enthusiasm and drive of individuals. The modernisation of plant breeding programmes is a change management process.
As demonstrated by the success of regional organizations such as CORAF (West and Central African Council for Agriculture Research and Development), it is not uncommon for donors to adopt a regional approach to their funding with the aim to develop networks across countries. As with the country-specific initiatives, the aim is to develop capacity at the NARS level with support and mentorship as outlined above. In this context, it is informative to look at the achievements through partnerships under the GCP ‘true partnership’ model. Previously, in Newsletter #1 we highlighted our work in the EBCA and ABEE projects that reinforces and reflects the partnership model favoured by the IBP.
How do we see the future?
Clearly, the opportunity for a more strategic and coordinated approach to crop improvement in Africa is to empower the NARS to lead and take ownership of their programs; they are best placed to decide upon, and to define, product profiles and target traits (for example) and they need more control over the resources that are available for crop improvement programs. Similarly, there is an opportunity to extract more value from initiatives at the regional level through better coordination of inputs and agreement on joint outcomes. It is here that the GCP (previously) and now the IBP has played an important role in leveraging the outputs of different initiatives. The ‘spillover’ effects are substantial.