Including women’s preferences to enhance cassava breeding programs – conversing with Bill Gates

Graduate student Paula Iragaba uncovered a major disconnect in the course of her research: While plant breeders in her native Uganda focus on developing cassava varieties with high yield or starch content or disease resistance, the people primarily responsible for processing and cooking the plant – women – have their own priorities.

For those end users, traits such as roots that are easy to pound into flour, or that can be harvested piecemeal, without killing the plant, are especially important. “If women want cassava that is easy to pound, and breeders don’t breed for that trait, at the end of the day, women may not adopt improved varieties,” Iragaba said.

Soon after arriving at Cornell University in August 2014 to begin coursework toward a Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics, Iragaba had the opportunity to discuss her findings with Bill Gates himself. The occasion was a lunch roundtable held during Gates’ learning visit to the Cornell campus on October 1st. During the visit, Iragaba and several other graduate students from Cornell’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences also presented their field research on cassava, as well as maize and wheat. Iragaba described her work in Uganda’s Nakasongola District, where she has documented the different cassava traits that are preferred by men and women.

Paula administering a questionnaire to one of the players in cassava industry in Nakasongola, Uganda

Paula administering a questionnaire to one of the players in cassava industry in Nakasongola, Uganda

In that presentation and in their conversation, she provided Gates with more insight into the importance of making crop breeding gender responsive, which can increase adoption of improved cassava varieties, and thus effectiveness of efforts to combat hunger and poverty, especially for smallholder women farmers.

“Cassava has traditionally been considered a women’s crop,” said Iragaba, adding that it is essential for food security. “Women are the ones who do most of the cassava production and postharvest handling. They know more about cassava than the men, who only become involved when it reaches the market — and women have a long list of preferences.”

“End user preferences are hard to capture, or can vary by region, and are hence very hard to breed for,” explained Hale Ann Tufan, NEXTGEN Cassava manager. “Paula will shape her work around linking end user knowledge to breeder knowledge, and work with the farmers to develop cassava varieties that better suit their needs and preferences.”

Iragaba will return to Uganda in 2015 to undertake further field research in that vein. Her research is supported by the NEXTGEN Cassava project – co-funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development – and the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB). That support is part of a wider collaboration between NEXTGEN Cassava and RTB to tap cassava’s potential to improve food security and livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. “We are very excited by the collaboration with NEXTGEN as it is important to give consideration to gender and user preferences even during very upstream research known as genomic selection,” RTB Director Graham Thiele commented. “We feel that building capacity of younger female scientists like Paula will help this change in emphasis”.

Paula with male cassava farmers as they demonstrated use oxen in land preparation for cassava production

Paula with male cassava farmers as they demonstrated use oxen in land preparation for cassava production

Tufan noted that NEXTGEN Cassava is also working with Holger Kirscht, a social scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), on research into women farmers’ needs and preferences for cassava production in Nigeria.

“We hope that cassava breeding programs can become more gender-responsive, and help put smallholder farmers, especially women, at the center of research and development,” Tufan said.

Paula3

Paula (extreme left in the second line) pose for a photo after a focus group discussion about cassava production and post- harvest handling