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Oct 122015


Photo: One Acre Fund/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A Kenyan farmer harvesting her maize.

“The map of Kenya’s maize-growing regions mirrors the map of the nation’s acid soils.”

So says Dickson Ligeyo, senior research officer at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO; formerly the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI), who believes this paints a sombre picture for his country’s maize farmers.

Maize is a staple crop for Kenyans, with 90 percent of the population depending on it for food. However, acid soils cause yield losses of 17–50 percent across the nation.

Soil acidity is a major environmental and economic concern in many more countries around the world. The availability of nutrients in soil is affected by pH, so acid conditions make it harder for plants to get a balanced diet. High acidity causes two major problems: perilously low levels of phosphorus and toxically high levels of aluminium. Aluminium toxicity affects 38 percent of farmland in Southeast Asia, 31 percent in Latin America and 20 percent in East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and North America.

Aluminium toxicity in soil comes close to rivalling drought as a food-security threat in critical tropical food-producing regions. By damaging roots, acid soils deprive plants of the nutrients and water they need to grow – a particularly bitter effect when water is scarce.

Maize, meanwhile, is one of the most economically important food crops worldwide. It is grown in virtually every country in the world, and it is a staple food for more than 1.2 billion people in developing countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In many cultures it is consumed primarily as porridge: polenta in Italy; angu in Brazil; and isitshwala, nshima, pap, posho,sadza or ugali in Africa.

Photo: Allison Mickel/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Ugali, a stiff maize porridge that is a staple dish across East Africa, being prepared in Tanzania.

Maize is also a staple food for animals reared for meat, eggs and dairy products. Around 60 percent of global maize production is used for animal feed.

The world demand for maize is increasing at the same time as global populations burgeon and climate changes. Therefore, improving the ability of maize to withstand acid soils and produce higher yields with less reliable rainfall is paramount. This is why the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) invested almost USD 12.5 million into maize research between 2004 and 2014.

GCP’s goal was to facilitate the use of genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve food security in developing countries through the breeding of ‘super’ crops – including maize – able to tolerate drought and poor soils and resist diseases.

 By weight, more maize is produced each year than any other grain: global production is more than 850 million tonnes. Maize production is increasing at twice the annual rate of rice and three times that of wheat. In 2020, demand for maize in developing countries alone is expected to exceed 500 million tonnes and will surpass the demand for both rice and wheat.  This projected rapid increase in demand is mainly because maize is the grain of choice to feed animals being reared for meet – but it is placing strain on the supply of maize for poor human consumers. Demand for maize as feed for poultry and pigs is growing, particularly in East and Southeast Asia, as an ever-increasing number of people in Asia consume meat. In some areas of Asia, maize is already displacing sorghum and rice. Acreage allocated to maize production in South and Southeast Asia has been expanding by 2.2 percent annually since 2001. In its processed form, maize is also used for biofuel (ethanol), and the starch and sugars from maize end up in beer, ice cream, syrup, shoe polish, glue, fireworks, ink, batteries, mustard, cosmetics, aspirin and paint.

Researchers take on the double whammy of acid soils and drought

Part of successfully breeding higher-yielding drought-tolerant maize varieties involves improving plant genetics for acid soils. In these soils, aluminium toxicity inhibits root growth, reducing the amount of water and nutrients that the plant can absorb and compounding the effects of drought.

Improving plant root development for aluminium tolerance and phosphorous efficiency can therefore have the positive side effect of higher plant yield when water is limited.

Photo: A Wangalachi/CIMMYT

A farmer in Tanzania shows the effects of drought on her maize crop. The maize ears are undersized with few grains.

Although plant breeders have exploited the considerable variation in aluminium tolerance between different maize varieties for many years, aluminium toxicity has been a significant but poorly understood component of plant genetics. It is a particularly complex trait in maize that involves multiple genes and physiological mechanisms.

The solution is to take stock of what maize germplasm is available worldwide, characterise it, clone the sought-after genes and implement new breeding methods to increase diversity and genetic stocks.

Scientists join hands to unravel maize complexity

Scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) got their heads together between 2005 and 2008 to itemise what maize stocks were available.

Marilyn Warburton, then a molecular geneticist at CIMMYT, led this GCP-funded project. Her goal was to discover how all the genetic diversity in maize gene-bank collections around the globe might be used for practical plant improvement. She first gathered samples from gene banks all over the world, including those of CIMMYT and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Scientists from developing country research centres in China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Thailand and Vietnam also contributed by supplying DNA from their local varieties.

Photo: X Fonseca/CIMMYT

Maize diversity.

Researchers then used molecular markers and a bulk fingerprinting method – which Marilyn was instrumental in developing – for three purposes: to characterise the structure of maize populations, to better understand how maize migrated across the world, and to complete the global picture of maize biodiversity. Scientists were also using markers to search for new genes associated with desirable traits.

Allen Oppong, a maize pathologist and breeder from Ghana’s Crops Research Institute (CRI), of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, was supported by GCP from 2007 to 2010 to characterise Ghana’s maize germplasm. Trained in using the fingerprinting technique, Allen was able to identify distinctly different maize germplasm in the north of Ghana (with its dry savanna landscape) and in the south (with its high rainfall). He also identified mixed germplasm, which he says demonstrates that plant germplasm often finds its way to places where it is not suitable for optimal yield and productivity. Maize yields across the country are low.

Stocktaking a world’s worth of maize for GCP was a challenge, but not the only one, according to Marilyn. “In the first year it was hard to see how all the different partners would work together. Data analysis and storage was the hardest; everyone seemed to have their own idea about how the data could be stored, accessed and analysed best.

“The science was also evolving, even as we were working, so you could choose one way to sequence or genotype your data, and before you were even done with the project, a better way would be available,” she recalls.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Maize ears drying in Ghana.

Comparing genes: sorghum gene paves way for maize aluminium tolerance

In parallel to Marilyn’s work, scientists at the Brazilian Corporation of Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) had already been advancing research on plant genetics for acid soils and the effects of aluminium toxicity on sorghum – spurred on by the fact that almost 70 percent of Brazil’s arable land is made up of acid soils.

What was of particular interest to GCP in 2004 was that the Brazilians, together with researchers at Cornell University in the USA, had recently mapped and identified the major sorghum aluminium tolerance locus AltSB, and were working on isolating the major gene within it with a view to cloning it. Major genes were known to control aluminium tolerance in sorghum, wheat and barley and produce good yields in soils that had high levels of aluminium. The gene had also been found in rape and rye.

GCP embraced the opportunity to fund more of this work with a view to speeding up the development of maize – as well as sorghum and rice – germplasm that can withstand the double whammy of acid soils and drought.

Photo: L Kochian

Maize trials in the field at EMBRAPA. The maize plants on the left are aluminium-tolerant and so able to withstand acid soils, while those on the right are not.

Leon Kochian, Director of the Robert W Holley Center for Agriculture and Health, United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service and Professor at Cornell University, was a Principal Investigator for various GCP research projects investigating how to improve grain yields of crops grown in acid soils. “GCP was interested in our work because we were working with such critical crops,” he says.

“The idea was to use discoveries made in the first half of the GCP’s 10-year programme – use comparative genomics to look into genes of rice and maize to see if we can see relations in those genes – and once you’ve cloned a gene, it is easier to find a gene that can work for other crops.”

The intensity of GCP-supported maize research shifted up a gear in 2007, after the team led by Jurandir Magalhães, research scientist in molecular genetics and genomics of maize and sorghum at EMBRAPA, used positional cloning to identify the major sorghum aluminium tolerance gene SbMATE responsible for the AltSB aluminium tolerance locus. The team comprised researchers from EMBRAPA, Cornell, the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS) and Moi University in Kenya.

By combing the maize genome searching for a similar gene to sorghum’s SbMATE, Jurandir’s EMBRAPA colleague Claudia Guimarães and a team of GCP-supported scientists discovered the maize aluminium tolerance gene ZmMATE1. High expression of this gene, first observed in maize lines with three copies of ZmMATE1, has been shown to increase aluminium tolerance.  ZmMATE1 improves grain yields in acid soil by up to one tonne per hectare when introgressed in an aluminium-sensitive line.

Photos: 1 – V Alves ; 2 – F Mendes; both edited by C Guimarães

The genetic region, or locus, containing the ZmMATE1 aluminium tolerance gene is known as qALT6. Photo 1 shows a rhyzobox containing two layers of soil: a corrected top-soil and lower soils with 15 percent aluminium saturation. On the right, near-isogenic lines (NILs) introgressed with qALT6 show deeper roots and longer secondary roots in the acidic lower soil, whereas on the left the maize line without qALT6, L53, shows roots mainly confined to the corrected top soil. Photo 2 shows maize ears from lines without qALT6 (above) and with qALT6 (below); the lines with qALT6 maintain their size and quality even under high aluminium levels of 40 percent aluminium saturation.

The outcomes of these GCP-supported research projects provided the basic materials, such as molecular markers and donor sources of the positive alleles, for molecular-breeding programmes focusing on improving maize production and stability on acid soils in Latin America, Africa and other developing regions.

Kenya deploys powerful maize genes

One of those researchers crucial to achieving impact in GCP’s work in maize was Samuel (Sam) Gudu of Moi University, Kenya. From 2010 he was the Principal Investigator for GCP’s project on using marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC) to improve aluminium tolerance and phosphorous efficiency in maize in Kenya. This project combined molecular and conventional breeding approaches to speed up the development of maize varieties adapted to the acid soils of Africa, and was closely connected to the other GCP comparative genomics projects in maize and sorghum.

MABC is a type of marker-assisted selection (see box), which Sam’s team – including Dickson Ligeyo of KALRO – used to combine new molecular materials developed through GCP with Kenyan varieties. They have thus been able to significantly advance the breeding of maize varieties suitable for soils in Kenya and other African countries.

Marker-assisted selection helps breeders like Sam Gudu more quickly develop plants that have desirable genes. When two plants are sexually crossed, both positive and negative traits are inherited. The ongoing process of selecting plants with more desirable traits and crossing them with other plants to transfer and combine such traits takes many years using conventional breeding techniques, as each generation of plants must be grown to maturity and phenotyped – that is, the observable characteristics of the plants must be measured to determine which plants might contain genes for valuable traits.   By using molecular markers that are known to be linked to useful genes such as ZmMATE1, breeders can easily test plant materials to see whether or not these genes are present. This helps them to select the best parent plants to use in their crosses, and accurately identify which of the progeny have inherited the gene or genes in question without having to grow them all to maturity. Marker-assisted selection therefore reduces the number of years it takes to breed plant varieties with desired traits.

Maize and Comparative Genomics were two of seven Research Initiatives (RIs) where GCP concentrated on advancing researchers’ and breeders’ skills and resources in developing countries. Through this work, scientists have been able to characterise maize germplasm using improved trait observation and characterisation methods (phenotyping), implement molecular-breeding programmes, enhance strategic data management and build local human and infrastructure capacity.

The ultimate goal of the international research collaboration on comparative genomics in maize was to improve maize yields grown on acidic soils under drought conditions in Kenya and other African countries, as well as in Latin America. Seven institutes partnered up to for the comparative genomics research: Moi University, KALRO, EMBRAPA, Cornell University, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), JIRCAS and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

“Before funding by GCP, we were mainly working on maize to develop breeding products resistant to disease and with increased yield,” says Sam. “At that time we had not known that soil acidity was a major problem in the parts of Kenya where we grow maize and sorghum. GCP knew that soil acidity could limit yields, so in the work with GCP we managed to characterise most of our acid soils. We now know that it was one of the major problems for limiting the yield of maize and sorghum.

“The relationship to EMBRAPA and Cornell University is one of the most important links we have. We developed material much faster through our collaboration with our colleagues in the advanced labs. I can see that post-GCP we will still want to communicate and interact with our colleagues in Brazil and the USA to enable us to continue to identify molecular materials that we discover,” he says. Sam and other maize researchers across Kenya, including Dickson, have since developed inbred, hybrid and synthetic varieties with improved aluminium tolerance for acid soils, which are now available for African farmers.

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

A Kenyan maize farmer.

“We crossed them [the new genes identified to have aluminium tolerance] with our local material to produce the materials we required for our conditions,” says Sam.

“The potential for aluminium-tolerant and phosphorous-efficient material across Africa is great. I know that in Ethiopia, aluminium toxicity from acid soil is a problem. It is also a major problem in Tanzania. It is a major problem in South Africa and a major problem in Kenya. So our breeding work, which is starting now to produce genetic materials that can be used directly, or could be developed even further in these other countries, is laying the foundation for maize improvement in acid soils.”

Sam is very proud of the work: “Several times I have felt accomplishment, because we identified material for Kenya for the first time. No one else was working on phosphorous efficiency or aluminium tolerance, and we have come up with materials that have been tested and have become varieties. It made me feel that we’re contributing to food security in Kenya.”

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

Maize grain for sale.

Maize for meat: GCP’s advances in maize genetics help feed Asia’s new appetites

Reaping from the substantial advances in maize genetics and breeding, researchers in Asia were also able to enhance Asian maize genetic resources.

Photo: D Mowbray/CIMMYT

A pig roots among maize ears on a small farm in Nepal.

Bindiganavile Vivek, a senior maize breeder for CIMMYT based in India, has been working with GCP since 2008 on improving drought tolerance in maize, especially for Asia, for two reasons: unrelenting droughts and a staggering growth the importance of maize as a feedstock. This work was funded by GCP as part of its Maize Research Initiative.

“People’s diets across Asia changed after government policies changed in the 1990s. We had a more free market economy, and along with that came more money that people could spend. That prompted a shift towards a non vegetarian diet,” Vivek recounts.

“Maize, being the number one feed crop of the world, started to come into demand. From the year 2000 up to now, the growing area of maize across Asia has been increasing by about two percent every year. That’s a phenomenal increase. It’s been replacing other crops – sorghum and rice. There’s more and more demand.

“Seventy percent of the maize that is produced in Asia is used as feed. And 70 percent of that feed is poultry feed.”

In Vietnam, for example, the government is actively promoting the expansion of maize acreage, again displacing rice. Other Asian nations involved in the push for maize include China, Indonesia and The Philippines.

Photo: A Erlangga/CIFOR

A farmer in Indonesia transports his maize harvest by motorcycle.

The problem with this growth is that 80 percent of the 19 million hectares of maize in South and Southeast Asia relies on rain as its only source of water, so is prone to drought: “Wherever you are, you cannot escape drought,” says Vivek. And resource-poor farmers have limited access to improved maize products or hybrids appropriate for their situation.

Vivek’s research for GCP focused on the development – using marker-assisted breeding methods, specifically marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) – of new drought-tolerant maize adapted to many countries in Asia. His goal was to transfer the highest expression of drought tolerance in maize into elite well-adapted Asian lines targeted at drought-prone or water-constrained environments.

Asia’s existing maize varieties had no history of breeding for drought tolerance, only for disease resistance. To make a plant drought tolerant, many genes have to be incorporated into a new variety. So Vivek asked: “How do you address the increasing demand for maize that meets the drought-tolerance issue?”

The recent work on advancing maize genetics for acid soils in the African and Brazilian GCP projects meant it was a golden opportunity for Vivek to reap some of the new genetic resources.

“This was a good opportunity to use African germplasm, bring it into India and cross it to some Asia-adapted material,” he says.

Photo: E Phipps/CIMMYT

Stored maize ears hanging in long bunches outside a house in China.

A key issue Vivek faced, however, was that most African maize varieties are white, and most Asian maize varieties are yellow. “You cannot directly deploy what you breed in Africa into Asia,” Vivek says. “Plus, there’s so much difference in the environments [between Africa and Asia] and maize is very responsive to its environment.”

The advances in marker-assisted breeding since the inception of GCP contributed significantly towards the success of Vivek’s team.

“In collaboration with GCP, IITA, Cornell University and Monsanto, CIMMYT has initiated the largest public sector MARS breeding approach in the world,” says Vivek.

The outcome is good: “We now have some early-generation, yellow, drought-tolerant inbred germplasm and lines suitable for Asia.

“GCP gave us a good start. We now need to expand and build on this,” says Vivek.

GCP’s supported work laid the foundation for other CIMMYT projects, such as the Affordable, Accessible, Asian Drought-Tolerant Maize project funded by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. This project is developing yet more germplasm with drought tolerance.

A better picture: GCP brightens maize research

Dickson Ligeyo’s worries of a stormy future for Kenya’s maize production have lifted over the 10 years of GCP. At the end of 2014, Kenya had two new varieties that were in the final stage of testing in the national performance trials before being released to farmers.

“There is a brighter picture for Kenya’s maize production since we have acquired acid-tolerant germplasm from Brazil, which we are using in our breeding programmes,” Dickson says.

In West Africa, researchers are also revelling in the opportunity they have been given to help enhance local yields in the face of a changing climate. “My institute benefited from GCP not only in terms of human resource development, but also in provision of some basic equipment for field phenotyping and some laboratory equipment,” says Allen Oppong in Ghana.

“Through the support of GCP, I was able to characterise maize landraces found in Ghana using the bulk fingerprinting technique. This work has been published and I think it’s useful information for maize breeding in Ghana – and possibly other parts of the world.”

The main challenge now for breeders, according to Allen, is getting the new varieties out to farmers: “Most people don’t like change. The new varieties are higher yielding, disease resistant, nutritious – all good qualities. But the challenge is demonstrating to farmers that these materials are better than what they have.”


This Kenyan farmer is very happy with his healthy maize crop, grown using an improved variety during a period of drought.

Certainly GCP has strengthened the capacity of researchers across Africa, Asia and Latin America, training researchers in maize breeding, data management, statistics, trial evaluations and phenotyping. The training has been geared so that scientists in developed countries can use genetic diversity and advanced plant science to improve crops for greater food security in the developing world.

Elliot Tembo, a maize breeder with the private sector in sub-Saharan Africa says: “As a breeder and a student, I have been exposed to new breeding tools through GCP. Before my involvement, I was literally blind in the use of molecular tools. Now, I am no longer relying only on pedigree data – which is not always reliable – to classify germplasm.”

Allen agrees: “GCP has had tremendous impact on my life as a researcher. The capacity-building programme supported my training in marker-assisted selection training at CIMMYT in Mexico. This training exposed me to modern techniques in plant breeding and genomics. Similarly, it built my confidence and work efficiency.”

There is no doubt that GCP research has brightened the picture for maize research and development where it is most needed: with researchers in developing countries where poor farmers and communities rely on maize as their staple food and main crop.

More links

Photo: N Palmer/CIAT

A farmer displays maize harvested on his farm in Laos.

Jun 122015
Photo: IITA

Growing cowpea pods.

Each year, millions of people in Senegal go hungry for several months, many surviving on no more than one meal a day. Locals call this time soudure – the hungry period. It typically lasts from June through to September, when previous winter and spring cereal supplies are exhausted and people wait anxiously for a bountiful autumn cereal harvest.

During this period, a bowl of fresh green cowpea pods once a day is the best that many people can hope for. Cowpeas are the first summer crop to mature, with some varieties ready to harvest in as little as 60 days.

While cowpeas provide valued food security in Africa, yields remain low. In Senegal, average cowpea yields are 450 kilograms per hectare, a mere 10–30 percent of their potential. This poor productivity is primarily because of losses due to insects and diseases, but is sometimes further compounded by chronic drought.

In 2007, the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP) brought together a team of plant breeders and geneticists from Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and the USA to collaborate on cowpea. Their goal was to breed varieties that would be higher yielding, drought tolerant and resistant to pests and diseases, and so help secure and improve local cowpea production in sub-Saharan African countries.

Photo: IITA

A trader selling cowpea at Bodija market, Ibadan, Nigeria.

Cowpea production – almost all of it comes from Africa

A type of legume originating in West Africa, cowpeas are also known as niébé in francophone Africa and as black-eyed peas in the USA.  They are well adapted to drier, warmer regions and grow well in poor soils. In Africa, they are mostly grown in the hot, drought-prone savannas and very arid sub-Saharan regions, often together with pearl millet and sorghum.

Nutritionally, cowpeas are a major source of dietary protein in many developing countries. Young leaves, unripe pods and peas are used as vegetables, and the mature grain is processed for various snacks and main meal dishes. As a cash crop, both for grain and animal fodder, cowpea is highly valued in sub-Saharan Africa.

Worldwide, an estimated 14.5 million hectares of land is planted with cowpea each year. Global production of dried cowpeas in 2010 was 5.5 million tonnes, 94 percent of which was grown in Africa.

“In Senegal, cowpeas cover more than 200,000 hectares,” says Ndiaga Cissé, cowpea breeder at L’institut sénégalais de recherches agricoles (ISRA; Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute). “This makes it the second most grown legume in Senegal, after groundnuts.”

In 2011, Senegal experienced its third drought within a decade. Low and erratic rainfall led to poor harvests in 2011 and 2012: yields of cereal crops (wheat, barley and maize) fell by 36 percent compared to 2010. Consequently, the hungry period in 2012 started three months earlier than usual, making gap-fillers like cowpea even more important. In fact, cereal production in sub-Saharan African countries has not seen substantial growth over the last two decades – total area, yield and production grew by only 4.3 percent, 1.5 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively.

Climate change is expected to further compound this situation across sub-Saharan Africa. Droughts are forecast to occur more frequently, weakening plants and making them more vulnerable to pests and diseases.

“Improved varieties of cowpeas are urgently needed to narrow the gap between actual and potential yields,” says Ndiaga. “They will not only provide security to farmers in the face of climate change, but will also help with food security and overall livelihoods.”

Photo: IITA

Farmers in Northern Nigeria transport their cowpea harvest.

Mapping the cowpea genome

For over 30 years, Phil Roberts, a professor in the Department of Nematology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), has been breeding new varieties of cowpea. “UCR has a long history of research in cowpea breeding that goes back to the mid-seventies,” explains Phil. “One of the reasons we were commissioned by GCP in 2007 was to use our experience, particularly in using molecular breeding, to help African cowpea-breeding programmes produce higher yielding cowpeas.”

For seven years, Phil and his team at UCR coordinated the cowpea component of the Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project led by GCP (see box below).  The objective of this work was to advance cowpea breeding by applying modern, molecular breeding techniques, tools and knowledge to develop lines and varieties with drought tolerance and resistance to pests and diseases in the sub-Saharan African countries Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Nigeria and Senegal.

The molecular breeding technology that UCR uses for cowpeas is based on finding genes that help cowpea plants tolerate insects and diseases, identifying markers that can indicate the presence of known genes, and using these to incorporate valuable genes into higher yielding varieties.

“Using molecular breeding techniques is a lot easier and quicker, and certainly less hit-or-miss, than conventional breeding techniques,” says Phil. “We can shorten the time needed to breed better adapted cowpea varieties preferred by farmers and markets.”

Phil explains that the first priority of the project was to map the cowpea genome.

“The map helps us locate the genes that play a role in expressing key traits such as drought tolerance, disease resistance or pest resistance,” says Phil. “Once we know where these genes are, we can use molecular marker tools to identify and help select for the traits. This is a lot quicker than growing the plant and observing if the trait is present or not.”

To use an analogy, think of the plant’s genome as a story: its words are the plant’s genes, and a molecular marker works as a text highlighter. Molecular markers are not precise enough to highlight specific words (genes), but they can highlight sentences (genomic regions) that contain these words (genes), making it easier and quicker to identify which plants have them. Traditionally, breeders have needed to grow plants to maturity under appropriately challenging conditions to see which ones are likely to have useful traits, but by using markers to flag valuable genes they are able to largely skip this step, and test large amounts of material to choose the best parents for their crosses, then check which of the progeny have inherited the gene or genes.

Photo: IITA

Diversity of cowpea seed.

Breeding new varieties faster, using modern techniques


A farmer pleased with her cowpea plants.

The main focus of the cowpea component in TLI was to optimise marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS) and marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC) breeding techniques for sub-Saharan African environments and relevant traits.

MARS identifies regions of the genome that control important traits. In the case of cowpeas, these include drought tolerance and insect resistance. It uses molecular markers to explore more combinations in the plant populations, thus increasing breeding efficiency.

MABC is the simplest form of marker-assisted breeding, in which the goal is to incorporate a major gene from an agronomically inferior source (the donor parent) into an elite cultivar or breeding line (the recurrent parent). Major genes by themselves have a significant effect; it’s therefore easier to find a major gene associated with a desired trait, than having to find and clone several minor genes. The aim is to produce a line made up almost entirely of the recurrent parent genotype, with only the selected major gene from the donor parent.

Using the genome map and molecular markers, the UCR team identified 30 cowpea lines with drought tolerance and pest resistance from 5,000 varieties in its collection, providing the raw material for marker-assisted breeding. “Once we knew which lines had the drought-tolerance and pest-resistance genes we were looking for, we crossed them with high-yielding lines to develop 20 advanced cowpea lines, which our African partners field tested,” says Phil.

The lines underwent final field tests in 2014, and the best-yielding drought-tolerant lines will be used locally in Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Senegal to develop new higher yielding varieties that will be available to growers by 2016.

“While we are still some time off from releasing these varieties, we already feel we are two or three years ahead of where we would be if we were doing things using only conventional breeding methods,” says Ndiaga.

Photo: IITA

A parasitic Striga plant, in a cowpea experimental plot.

The genome map and molecular markers have helped cowpea breeders like Ousmane Boukar, cowpea breeder and Kano Station Representative with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), headquartered in Nigeria, to locate the genes in cowpeas that play a role in expressing desirable traits.

Ousmane, who was GCP’s cowpea Product Delivery Coordinator, says, “We have used this technology to develop advanced breeding lines that are producing higher yields in drier conditions and displaying resistance to several pests and diseases like thrips and Striga. We expect these lines to be available to plant breeders by the end of 2015.

“TLI has had a huge impact in Africa in terms of developing capacity to carry out marker-assisted breeding,” he says. “This form of breeding helps us to breed new varieties in three to five years instead of seven to ten years.”

The Tropical Legumes I project (TLI) was initiated by GCP in 2007 and subsequently incorporated into the Programme’s Legumes Research Initiative (RI). The goal of the RI was to improve the productivity of four legumes – beans, chickpeas, cowpeas and groundnuts – that are important in food security and poverty reduction in developing countries, by providing solutions to overcome drought, poor soils, pests and diseases. TLI was led by GCP and focussed on Africa. Work on cowpea within TLI was coordinated by the University of California, Riverside in the USA. Target-country partners were Institut de l’Environnement et de Recherches Agricoles (INERA) in Burkina Faso, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique and Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA; Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute) in Senegal. Other partners were the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and USA’s Feed the Future Innovation Labs for Collaborative Research on Grain Legumes and for Climate-Resilient Cowpea. Tropical Legumes II (TLII) was a sister project to TLI, led by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) on behalf of IITA and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). It focussed on large-scale breeding, seed multiplication and distribution primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, thus applying the ‘upstream’ research results from TLI and translating them into breeding materials for the ultimate benefit of resource-poor farmers. Many partners in TLI also worked on projects in TLII.

Burkina Faso – evaluating new lines to improve the country’s economy

Cowpea is an important crop for the people of Burkina Faso. Over 10 million farmers produce on average 800,000 tonnes of cowpeas each year, making the country the third largest producer in the world, behind neighbours Nigeria and Niger.

Much of Burkina Faso’s cowpea crop is consumed domestically, but the government sees potential in increasing productivity for export to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in the south. This new venture would improve the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which is the third lowest in the world.

“The government is very interested in our research to improve cowpea yields and secure them against drought and disease,” says Issa Drabo, lead cowpea breeder with the Institut de l’Environnement et de Recherches Agricoles (INERA) in Burkina Faso.

“We’ve been working closely with UCR to evaluate advanced breeding lines that we can use in our own breeding programme. So far we have several promising lines, some of which breeders are using to create varieties for release to farmers – some as early as this year.”

Photo: IITA

Farmers in Burkina Faso discuss cowpea varieties during participatory varietal selection activities.

Outsourcing the molecular work

Issa says his team has mainly been using conventional breeding techniques and outsourcing the molecular breeding work to the UK and USA. “We send leaf samples to the UK to be genotyped by a private company [LGC Genomics], who then forward the data to UCR, who analyse it and tell us which plants contain the desired genes and would be suitable for crossing.”

The whole process takes four to six weeks, from taking the samples to making a decision on which plants to cross.

“This system works well for countries that don’t have the capacity or know-how to do the molecular work,” says Darshna Vyas, a plant genetics specialist with LGC Genomics. “Genotyping has advanced to a point where even larger labs around the world choose to outsource their genotyping work, as it is cheaper and quicker than if they were to equip their lab and do it themselves. We do hundreds of thousands of genotyping samples a day – day in, day out. It’s our business.”

Darshna says LGC Genomics have also developed plant kits, as a result of working more with GCP partners from developing countries. “We would receive plant tissue that was not properly packaged and had become mouldy on the journey. The plant kits help researchers package their tissue correctly. The genotyping data you get from undamaged tissue compared to damaged tissue is a thousand times better.”

Getting the genotyping expertise on the ground

Photo: IITA

A trader bagging cowpeas at Bodija market, Ibadan, Nigeria.

To reduce their African partners’ reliance on UCR, researchers from the university, including Phil, have been training young plant breeders and PhD students from collaborating institutes. Independent of the cowpea project, they have also been joining GCP’s Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) training events in Africa to help breeders understand the new technologies.

“All this capacity building we do really gets at the issue of leaving expertise on the ground when the project ends,” says Phil. “If these breeders don’t have the expertise to use the modern breeding technologies, then we won’t make much progress.”

GCP Capacity Building Theme Leader and TLI Project Manager Ndeye Ndack Diop has been impressed by UCR’s enthusiasm to build capacity in its partner countries. “Capacity building is a core objective for GCP and the TLI project,” says Ndeye Ndack. “While it is built into almost all GCP projects, UCR have gone over and above what was expected of them and contributed towards building capacity not only among its partner institutions, but in many other African national breeding institutes as well.”

Issa Drabo reports that in 2014 two of his young researchers from Burkina Faso completed their training in GCP’s Integrated Breeding Multiyear Course, conducted by UCR and the IBP team.

One of Issa’s researchers at INERA, Jean-Baptiste de la Salle Tignegré, says the course helped him understand more about the background genetics, statistical analysis and data management involved in the process of molecular breeding. “Because of the course, we are now able to analyse the genotype data from LGC,” he says.

Mozambique – insects and drought are the problem

In 2010, the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (UEM) joined the cowpea component of TLI, three years after the project started. “We were a little late to the party because we were busy setting up Mozambique’s first cowpea breeding programme, which only began in 2008,” recalls Rogerio Chiulele, a lecturer at the university’s Faculty of Agronomy and Forestry Engineering and lead scientist for cowpea research in Mozambique for TLI.

That year (2008), UEM received a GCP Capacity building à la carte grant to establish a cowpea-breeding programme for addressing some of the constraints limiting cowpea production and productivity, particularly drought, pests and diseases.

As in Burkina Faso and Senegal, in Mozambique cowpeas are an important source of food, for both protein and profit, particularly for the poor. Cowpeas rank as the fourth most cultivated crop in Mozambique, accounting for about nine percent of the total cultivated area, or an estimated four million hectares of smallholder farms.

Photo: IITA

Cowpea plants infested by aphids.

Rogerio says that farmers in his country, just as in other parts of Africa, struggle to reach their full yield potential because of climate, pests and diseases. “Several insect pests – such as aphids, flower thrips, nematodes and pod-sucking pests – can substantially reduce cowpea yield and productivity in Mozambique,” he says.

“Cowpea aphids can cause problems at any time in the growing season, but are most damaging during dry weather when they infest seedlings that are stressed from lack of water. In wetter parts of the country, flower thrips – which feed on floral buds – are the most damaging insect pest.” These insects are also major pests in Burkina Faso and Senegal, along with hairy caterpillar (Amsacta moloneyi), which can completely destroy swaths of cowpea seedlings.

Rogerio says breeding for insect resistance and drought tolerance, using marker-assisted techniques, improves breeders’ chances of increased cowpea productivity. “Productivity is key to increasing rural incomes, and new resources can then be invested in other activities that help boost total family income,” says Rogerio. “These new breeding techniques will help us achieve this quicker.”

Three high-yielding varieties to hit the Mozambique market in 2015

Photo: IITA

Mature cowpea pods ready for harvesting.

Since 2010, Rogerio’s team have quickly caught up to Burkina Faso and Senegal and plan to release three higher yielding new lines with drought tolerance in 2015. One of these lines, CB46, is based on a local cowpea variety crossed with a UCR-sourced American black-eyed pea variety that displays drought tolerance, which potentially has huge market appeal.

“Local varieties fetch, on average, half a US dollar per kilogram, compared to black-eyed pea varieties, whose price is in the region of four to five US dollars,” says Rogerio. “Obviously this is beneficial to the growers, but the benefits for consumers are just as appealing. The peas are better quality and tastier, and they take half as long to cook compared to local varieties.”

All these extra qualities are important to consider in any breeding programme and are a key objective of the Tropical Legume II (TLII) project (see box above). TLII activities, led by ICRISAT, seek to apply products from TLI to make an impact among farmers.

“TLII focuses on translating research outputs from TLI into tangible products, including new varieties,” says Ousmane Boukar, who works closely with Ndiaga, Issa and Rogerio in TLI and TLII.

Building a community of breeders to sustain success

Photo: C Peacock/IITA

Cowpea flower with developing pods.

Part of Ousmane’s GCP role as Product Delivery Coordinator for cowpeas was to lead a network of African cowpea and soybean breeders, and he champions the need for breeders to share information and materials as well as collaborating in other ways so as to sustain their breeding programmes post-GCP.

“To sustain integrated breeding practices post-2014, GCP has established Communities of Practice (CoP) that are discipline- and commodity-oriented,” says Ndeye Ndack. “The ultimate goal is to provide a platform for community problem solving, idea generation and information sharing.”

Ousmane says the core of this community was already alive and well before the CoP. “Ndiaga, Issa and I have over 80 years combined experience working on cowpea. We have continually crossed paths and have even been working together on other non-GCP projects over the past seven years.”

One such project the trio worked together on was to release a new drought-tolerant cowpea breeding line, IT97K-499-35, in Nigeria. “The performance of this variety impressed farmers in Mali, who named it jiffigui, which means ‘hope’,” says Ousmane. “We shared these new lines with our partners in Mali and Niger so they could conduct adaptation trials in their own countries.”

For young breeders like Rogerio, the CoP has provided an opportunity to meet and learn from these older partners. “I’ve really enjoyed our annual project meetings and feeling more a part of the world of cowpea breeding, particularly since we in Mozambique are isolated geographically from larger cowpea-producing countries in West Africa.”

For Phil Roberts, instances where more-established researchers mentor younger researchers in different countries give him hope that all the work UCR has done to install new breeding techniques will pay off. “Young researchers represent the future. If they can establish a foothold in breeding programmes in their national programmes, they can make an impact. Beyond having the know-how, it is vital to have the support of the national programme to develop modern breeding effort in cowpea – or any crop.”

Setting up breeders for the next 20 years

Photo: IITA

Farmer harvesting mature cowpea pods.

In Senegal, Ndiaga is hopeful that the work that the GCP project has accomplished has set up cowpea breeders in his country and others for the next 20 years.

“Both GCP’s and UCR’s commitment to build capacity in developing countries like Senegal cannot be valued less than the new higher yielding, drought-tolerant varieties that we are breeding,” says Ndiaga. “They have provided us with the tools and skills now to continue this research well into the future.

“We are close to releasing several new drought-tolerant and pest- and disease-resistant lines, which is our ultimate goal towards securing Senegal’s food and helping minimise the impact of the hungry period.”

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Jun 012015

Crop science and collaboration help African farmers feed India’s appetite for chickpeas


Indian chickpea farmer with her harvest.

India loves chickpeas. With its largely vegetarian population, it has long been the world’s biggest producer and consumer of the nutritious legume. In recent years, however, India’s appetite for chickpea has outstripped production, and the country is also now the world’s biggest importer. With a ready market and new drought-tolerant varieties of chickpea, millions of smallholder African farmers are ready to make up India’s shortfall, improving livelihoods along the way and ensuring food security for some of the world’s most resource-poor countries.

GCP achieved real impacts in chickpea by catalysing and facilitating the deployment of advanced crop science, particularly molecular breeding, in the development of drought-tolerant varieties for both Africa and Asia. Over the course of its research, it also contributed to major advances in chickpea science and genomic knowledge.

Although India boasts the world’s biggest total chickpea harvest, productivity has been low in recent years with yields of less than one tonne per hectare, largely due to drought in the south of the country where much chickpea is grown. The country is relying increasingly on exports from producers in sub-Saharan Africa to supplement its domestic supply.

Drought has been hindering chickpea yields in Africa too, however, and this is a major concern not only for Africa but also for India. Ethiopia and Kenya are Africa’s largest chickpea producers, and both countries have been producing chickpea for export. However, their productivity has been limited, mainly because of heat stress and moisture loss, as well as by a lack of access to basic infrastructure and resources.

Indeed, drought has been the main constraint to chickpea productivity worldwide, and in countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya this is often made worse by crop disease, poor soil quality and limited farmer resources. While total global production of chickpea is around 8.6 million tonnes per year, drought causes losses of around 3.7 million tonnes worldwide.

A decade ago, chickpea researchers, supported by the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme (GCP), started to consider the potential for developing new drought-tolerant varieties that could help boost the world’s production.

They posed this question: If struggling African farmers were armed with adequate resources, could they make up India’s shortfall by growing improved chickpea varieties for export? Empowering farmers to stimulate and sustain their own food production, it was proposed, would not only offer food security to millions of farmers, but could ultimately secure future chickpea exports to India.

Photo: S Sridharan/ ICRISAT

An Ethiopian farmer harvests her chickpea crop.

In 2007, GCP kicked off a plan for a multiphased, multithemed Tropical Legumes I (TLI) project, which later became part of, and the largest project within, the GCP Legumes Research Initiative (RI; see box below) – the chickpea component of which would involve collaboration between researchers from India, Ethiopia and Kenya. The scope was not only to develop improved, drought-tolerant chickpeas that would thrive in semiarid conditions, but also to ensure that these varieties would be growing in farmers’ fields across Africa and South Asia within a decade.

“We knew our task would not be complete until we had improved varieties in the hands of farmers,” says GCP researcher Paul Kimurto from the Faculty of Agriculture, Egerton University, Kenya.

The success of GCP research in achieving these goals has opened up great opportunities for East African countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, which are primed and ready to take advantage of a guaranteed chickpea market.

The Tropical Legumes I project (TLI) was initiated by GCP in 2007 and subsequently incorporated into the Programme’s Legumes Research Initiative (RI). The goal of the RI was to improve the productivity of four legumes – beans, chickpeas, cowpeas and groundnuts – that are important in food security and poverty reduction in developing countries, by providing solutions to overcome drought, poor soils, pests and diseases. TLI was led by GCP and focussed on Africa. Work on chickpea within TLI was coordinated by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). Target-country partners were the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), Egerton University in Kenya and the Indian Institute of Pulses Research. The National Center for Genome Resources in the USA was also a partner. Tropical Legumes II (TLII) was a sister project to TLI, led by ICRISAT on behalf of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). It focussed on large-scale breeding, seed multiplication and distribution primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, thus applying the ‘upstream’ research results from TLI and filtering them downstream into breeding materials for the ultimate benefit of resource-poor farmers. Many partners in TLI also worked on projects in TLII.

How drought affects chickpea

Chickpea is a pretty tough customer overall, being able to withstand and thrive on the most rugged and dry terrains, surviving with no irrigation – only the moisture left deep in the soil at the end of the rainy season.

Yet the legume does have one chink in its armour: if no rain falls at its critical maturing or ripening stage (otherwise known as the grain-filling period), crop yields will be seriously affected. The size and weight of chickpea legumes is determined by how successful this maturing stage is. Any stress, such as drought or disease, that occurs at this time will reduce the crop’s yield dramatically.

In India, this has been a particular problem for the past 40 years or so, as chickpea cropping areas have shifted from the cooler north to the warmer south.

“In the 1960s and 1970s when the agricultural Green Revolution introduced grain crops to northern India, chickpeas began to be replaced there by wheat or rice, and grown more in the south,” says Pooran Gaur from the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), headquartered in India. Pooran was an Activity Leader for the first phase of TLI and Product Delivery Coordinator for the chickpea component of the Legumes RI.

This shift meant the crop was no longer being grown in cooler, long-season environments, but in warmer, short-season environments where drought and diseases like Fusarium wilt have inhibited productivity.

“We have lost about four or five million hectares of chickpea growing area in northern India in the decades since that time,” says Pooran. “In the central and southern states, however, chickpea area more than doubled to nearly five million hectares.”

Escaping drought in India

“The solution we came up with was to develop varieties that were not only high yielding, but could also mature earlier and therefore have more chance of escaping terminal drought,” Pooran explains.

“Such varieties could also allow cereal farmers to produce a fast-growing crop in between the harvest and planting of their main higher yielding crops,” he says.

New short-duration varieties are expected to play a key role in expanding chickpea area into new niches where the available crop-growing seasons are shorter.

“In southern India now we are already seeing these varieties growing well, and their yield is very high,” says Pooran. “In fact, productivity has increased in the south by about seven to eight times in the last 10–12 years.”

The southern state of Andhra Pradesh, once considered unfavourable for chickpea cultivation, today has the highest chickpea yields (averaging 1.4 tonnes/hectare) in India, producing almost as much chickpea as Australia, Canada, Mexico and Myanmar combined.


Indian chickpea farmer with her harvest.

Developing new varieties: Tropical Legumes I in action

GCP-supported drought-tolerance breeding activities in chickpea created hugely valuable breeding materials and tools during the Programme’s decade of existence, focussing not only in India but African partner countries of Ethiopia and Kenya too. A key first step in Phase I of TLI was to create and phenotype – i.e. measure and record the observable characteristics of – a chickpea reference set. This provided the raw information on physical traits needed to make connections between phenotype and genotype, and allowed breeders to identify materials likely to contain drought tolerance genes. This enabled the creation in Phase II of breeding populations with superior genotypes, and so the development of new drought-tolerant prebreeding lines to feed into TLII.

A significant number of markers and other genomic resources were identified and made available during this time, including simple sequence repeats (SSRs), single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and Diversity Array Technologies (DArT) arrays. The combination of genetic maps with phenotypic information led to the identification of an important ‘hot spot’ region containing quantitative trait loci (QTLs) for several drought-related traits.

Two of the most important molecular-breeding approaches, marker-assisted backcrossing (MABC) and marker-assisted recurrent selection (MARS), were then employed extensively in the selection of breeding materials and introgression of these drought-tolerance QTLs and other desired traits into elite chickpea varieties.

Photo: L Vidyasagar/ ICRISAT

Developing chickpea pods

Markers – DNA sequences with known locations on a chromosome – are like flags on the genetic code. Using them in molecular breeding involves several steps. Scientists must first discover a large number of markers, of which only a small number are likely to be polymorphic, i.e. to have different variants. These are then mapped and compared with phenotypic information, in the hope that just one or two might be associated with a useful trait. When this is the case, breeders can test large quantities of breeding materials to find out which have genes for, say, drought tolerance without having to grow plants to maturity.

The implementation of techniques such as MABC and MARS has become ever more effective over the course of GCP’s work in chickpea, thanks to the emergence and development of increasingly cost-effective types of markers such as SNPs, which can be discovered and explored in large numbers relatively cheaply. The integration of SNPs into chickpea genetic maps significantly accelerated molecular breeding.

The outcome of all these molecular-breeding efforts has been the development and release of locally adapted, drought-tolerant chickpea varieties in each of the target countries – Ethiopia, Kenya and India – where they are already changing lives with their significantly higher yields. Further varieties are in the pipeline and due for imminent release, and it is anticipated that, with partner organisations adopting the use of molecular markers as a routine part of their breeding programmes, many more will be developed over the coming years.

Molecular breeding in TLI was done in conjunction with target-country partners, with at least one cross carried out in each country. ICRISAT also backed up MABC activities with additional crosses. The elite lines that were developed underwent multilocation phenotyping in the three target countries and the best-adapted, most drought-tolerant lines were promoted in TLII.

The project placed heavy emphasis on capacity building for the target-country partners. Efforts were made, for instance, to help researchers and breeders at Egerton University in Kenya and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) in Ethiopia to undertake molecular breeding activities. At least one PhD and two Master’s students each from Kenya, Ethiopia and India were supported throughout this capacity-building process.

The magic of genetic diversity

One of the important advances in chickpea science supported by GCP, as part of TLI and its mission to develop drought-tolerant chickpea genotypes, was the development of the first ever chickpea multiparent advanced generation intercross (MAGIC) population.

It was created using eight well-adapted and drought-tolerant desi chickpea cultivars and elite lines from different genetic origins and backgrounds, including material from Ethiopia, Kenya, India and Tanzania. These were drawn from the chickpea reference set that GCP had previously developed and phenotyped, allowing an effective strategic selection of parental lines. The population was created by crossing these over several generations in such a way as to maximise the mix of genes in the offspring and ensure varied combinations.

MAGIC populations like these are a valuable genetic resource that makes trait mapping and gene discovery much easier, helping scientists identify useful genes and create varieties with enhanced genetic diversity. They can also be directly used as source material in breeding programmes; already, phenotyping a subset of the chickpea MAGIC population has led to the identification of valuable chickpea breeding lines that had favourable alleles for drought tolerance.

Through links with future molecular-breeding projects, it is expected that the investment in the development of MAGIC populations will benefit both African and South Asian chickpea production. GCP was also involved in developing MAGIC populations for cowpea, rice and sorghum, which were used to combine elite alleles for both simple traits, such as aluminium tolerance in sorghum and submergence tolerance in rice, and complex traits, such as drought or heat tolerance.

Decoding the chickpea genome


Chickpea seed

In 2013, GCP scientists, working with other research organisations around the world, announced the successful sequencing of the chickpea genome. This major breakthrough is expected to lead to the development of even more superior varieties that will transform chickpea production in semiarid environments.

A collaboration of 20 international research organisations under the banner of the International Chickpea Genome Sequencing Consortium (ICGSC), led by ICRISAT, identified more than 28,000 genes and several million genetic markers. These are expected to illuminate important genetic traits that may enhance new varieties.

“The value of this new resource for chickpea improvement cannot be overstated,” says Doug Cook from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), United States. “It will provide the basis for a wide range of studies, from accelerated breeding, to identifying the molecular basis of a range of key agronomic traits, to basic studies of chickpea biology.”

Doug was one of three lead authors on the publication of the chickpea genome, along with Rajeev Varshney of ICRISAT, who was Principal Investigator for the chickpea work in GCP’s Legumes RI, and Jun Wang, Director of the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) of China.

“Making the chickpea genome available to the global research community is an important milestone in bringing chickpea improvement into the 21st century, to address the nutritional security of the poor – especially the rural poor in South Asia and Africa,” he says.

Increased food security will mean higher incomes and a better standard of living for farmers across sub-Saharan Africa.

For Pooran Gaur, GCP played the role of catalyst in this revolution in genomic resource development. “GCP got things started; it set the foundation. Now we are in a position to do further molecular breeding in chickpea.”

The chickpea genome-sequencing project was partly funded by GCP. Other collaborators included UC Davis and BGI-Shenzhen, with key involvement of national partners in India, Canada, Spain, Australia, Germany and the Czech Republic.

In September 2014, ICRISAT received a grant from the Indian Government for a three-year project to further develop chickpea genomic resources, by utilising the genome-sequence information to improve chickpea.

 Photo: L Vidyasagar/ICRISAT

Indian women roast fresh green chickpeas for an evening snack in Andhra Pradesh, India.

Chickpea success in Africa: new varieties already changing lives

With high-yielding, drought tolerant chickpea varieties emerging from the research efforts in molecular breeding, GCP’s partners also needed to reach out to farmers. Teaching African farmers about the advantages of growing chickpeas, either as a main crop or a rotation crop between cereals, has brought about a great uptake in chickpea production in recent years.

A key focus during the second phase of TLI, and onward into TLII, was on enhancing the knowledge, skills and resources of local breeders who have direct links to farmers, especially in Ethiopia and Kenya, and so also build the capacity of farmers themselves.

“We’ve held open days where farmers can interact with and learn from breeders,” says Asnake Fikre, Crop Research Director for EIAR and former TLI country coordinator of the chickpea work in Ethiopia.

“Farmers are now enrolled in farmer training schools at agricultural training centres, and there are also farmer participatory trials.

“This has given them the opportunity to participate in varietal selection with breeders, share their own knowledge and have their say in which varieties they prefer and know will give better harvest, in the conditions they know best.”

EIAR has also been helping train farmers to improve their farm practices to boost production and to become seed producers of these high-yielding chickpea varieties.

“Our goal was to have varieties that would go to farmers’ fields and make a clearly discernible difference,” says Asnake. “Now we are starting to make that kind of impact in my country.”

In fields across Ethiopia, the introduction of new, drought-tolerant varieties has already brought a dramatic increase in productivity, with yields doubling in recent years. This has transformed Ethiopia’s chickpea from simple subsistence crop to one of great commercial significance.

“Targeted farmers are now planting up to half their land with chickpea,” Asnake says. “This has not only improved the fertility of their soil but has had direct benefits for their income and diets.”

Varieties like the large-seeded and high-valued kabuli have presented new opportunities for farmers to earn extra income through the export industry, and indeed chickpea exports from eastern Africa have substantially increased since 2001.

Photo: A Paul-Bossuet/ICRISAT

“The high yields of the drought-tolerant and pest-resistant chickpea, and the market value, meant that I am no longer seen as a poor widow but a successful farmer,” says Ethiopian farmer Temegnush Dabi.

“Ultimately, by making wealth out of chickpea and chickpea technologies in this country, people are starting to change their lives,” says Asnake. “They are educating their children to the university level and constructing better houses, even in towns. This will have a massive impact on the next generation.”

A similar success story is unfolding in Kenya, where GCP efforts during TLI led to the release of six new varieties of chickpea in the five years prior to GCP’s close at the end of 2014; more are expected to be ready within the next three years.

While chickpea is a relatively new crop in Kenya it has been steadily gaining popularity, especially in the drylands, which make up over 80 percent of Kenya’s total land surface and support nearly 10 million Kenyans – about 34 percent of the country’s population.

Photo: GCP

Drought tolerance experiments in chickpea at Egerton University, Njoro, Kenya.

“It wasn’t until my university went into close collaboration with ICRISAT during TLII and gained more resources and training options – facilitated by GCP – that chickpea research gained leverage in Kenya,” Paul Kimurto explains. “Through GCP and ICRISAT, we had more opportunities to promote the crop in Kenya. It is still on a small scale here, but it is spreading into more and more areas.”

Kenyan farmers are now discovering the benefits of chickpea as a rotational or ‘relay’ crop, he says, due to its ability to enhance soil fertility. In the highlands where fields are normally left dry and nothing is planted from around November to February, chickpea is a very good option to plant instead of letting fields stay fallow until the next season.

“By fixing nitrogen and adding organic matter to the soil, chickpeas can minimise, even eliminate, the need for costly fertilisers,” says Paul. “This is certainly enough incentive for cereal farmers to switch to pulse crops such as chickpea that can be managed without such costs.”

Households in the drylands have often been faced with hunger due to frequent crop failure of main staples, such as maize and beans, on account of climate change, Paul explains. With access to improved varieties, however, farmers can now produce a fast-growing chickpea crop between the harvest and planting of their main cereals. In the drylands they are now growing chickpeas after wheat and maize harvests during the short rains, when the land would otherwise lie fallow.

“Already, improved chickpeas have increased the food security and nutritional status of more than 27,000 households across the Baringo, Koibatek, Kerio Valley and Bomet areas of Kenya,” Paul says.

It is a trend he hopes will continue right across sub-Saharan Africa in the years to come, attracting more and more resource-poor farmers to grow chickpea.

Chickpea’s promise meeting future challenges

Beyond the end of GCP and the funding it provided, chickpea researchers are hopeful they will be able to continue working directly with farmers in the field, to ensure that their interests and needs are being addressed.

“To sustain integrated breeding practices post-2014, GCP has established Communities of Practice (CoPs) that are discipline- and commodity-oriented,” says Ndeye Ndack Diop, GCP’s Capacity Building Leader and TLI Project Manager. “The ultimate goal of the CoPs is to provide a platform for community problem solving, idea generation and information sharing.”

Ndeye Ndack has been impressed with the way the chickpea community has embraced the CoP concept, noting that Pooran has played an important part in this and the TLI projects. “Pooran was able to bring developing-country partners outside of TLI into the CoP and have them work on TLI-related activities. Being part of the community means they have been able to source breeding material and learn from others. In so doing, we are seeing these partners in Kenya and Ethiopia develop their own germplasm.

“Furthermore, much of this new germplasm has been developed by Master’s and PhD students, which is great for the future of these breeding programmes.”

“GCP played a catalytic role in this regard,” explains Rajeev Varshney. “GCP provided a community environment in ways that very few other organisations can, and in ways that made the best use of resources,” he says. “It brought together people from all kinds of scientific disciplines: from genomics, bioinformatics, biology, molecular biology and so on. Such a pooling of complementary expertise and resources made great achievements possible.”

Photo: A Paul-Bossuet/ ICRISAT

An Ethiopian farmer loads his bounteous chickpea harvest onto his donkey.

For Rajeev, the challenge facing chickpea research beyond GCP’s sunset is whether an adequate framework will be there to continue bringing this kind of community together.

“But that’s what we’re trying to do in the next phase of the Tropical Legumes Project (Tropical Legumes III, or TLIII), which kicks off in 2015,” explains Rajeev, who will be TLIII’s Principal Investigator. TLIII is to be led by ICRISAT.

“We will continue to work with the major partners as we did during GCP, which will involve, first of all, upscaling the activities we are doing now,” he says. “India currently has the capacity, the resources, to do this.”

Rajeev is hopeful that the relatively smaller national partners from Ethiopia and Kenya, and associated partners such as Egerton University, EIAR and maybe others, will have similar opportunities. “We hope they can also start working with their governments, or with agencies like USAID, and be successful at convincing them to fund these projects into the future, as GCP has been doing,” he says.

“The process is like a jigsaw puzzle: we have the borders done, and a good idea of what the picture is and where the rest of the pieces will fit,” he says.

Certainly for Paul Kimurto, the picture is clear for the future of chickpea breeding in Kenya.

“Improvements in chickpea resources cannot end now that new varieties have started entering farmers’ fields,” he says. “We’ve managed to develop a good, solid breeding programme here at Egerton University. The infrastructure is in place, the facilities are here – we are indeed equipped to maintain the life and legacy of GCP well beyond 2015.”

This can only be good news for lovers of the legume in India. With millions of smallholder farmers in Kenya and Ethiopia poised to exploit a ready market for new varieties that will change their families’ lives, chickpea’s potential for ensuring food security across the developing world seems more promising than ever.

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