Incorporating women’s needs and preferences into RTB breeding

There have been many cases in which improved crop varieties released by national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES) were poorly received by farmers because they lacked the flavor or another trait that farmers or consumers wanted. To ensure high adoption rates for the varieties they develop, breeding programs usually survey farmers about the traits they prefer, but all too often, those researchers rely disproportionately on the opinions of men. However, specialization of household roles means that women and men have different knowledge about and preferences for varietal traits. Women are usually responsible for food preparation and small scale processing, but their knowledge is rarely used for the varietal development process.

As RTB works to unlock the genetic potential of roots, tubers and bananas for improving food security, nutrition and incomes, it is also supporting field research to document gender-disaggregated trait preferences. The aim is to ensure that the improved RTB varieties developed in the coming years will have as widespread and gender-equitable an impact as possible.

“Next-generation breeding is helping breeders to speed up the process of developing new RTB varieties, but if we overlook the traits that farmers want, if we don’t have the right targets, then next-generation breeding could simply get us to the wrong place faster,” observed RTB Program Director Graham Thiele.

An example of this problem was discovered by CIP gender researcher Netsayi Moris Mudege in a project promoting the cultivation and consumption of nutritious orange-fleshed sweetpotato varieties in Malawi. Farmer consultations had resulted in the release of a variety that produces large roots, which men prefer because they fetch a good market price. However, most women prefer another variety that wasn’t released, because sweetpotato leaves are an important part of the local diet and the lobe-shaped leaves of that variety are better for cooking.

Cornell PhD student Paula Iragaba (fifth from the left) and her colleague, Winifred Candiru (first from the left), together with adult women cassava farmers after a focus group discussion in the Arua district.

Cornell PhD student Paula Iragaba (fifth from the left) and her colleague, Winifred Candiru (first from the left), together with adult women cassava farmers after a focus group discussion in the Arua district.

To avoid such oversights, RTB supported various initiatives in 2014 to get the trait preferences of both men and women into breeding pipelines. For example, Mudege and CIP potato breeder Asrat Amele produced an FAQ sheet on integrating gender into the participatory varietal selection of potato in Ethiopia and organized a training workshop in Addis Ababa for 20 representatives of CIP’s main partners there.

RTB and NEXTGEN Cassava have co-funded the collection of gender-disaggregated trait preference data for cassava in Nigeria, using a methodology developed by NEXTGEN Cassava Project Manager Hale Tufan and IITA Gender Focal Point Holger Kirscht. Tufan and Kirscht coordinated research in 2014 by interdisciplinary teams from IITA and NRCRI in eight farming communities in southeast and southwest Nigeria. The teams interviewed 10 women and 10 men of diverse ages and marital status in each village and conducted sex-disaggregated focus groups with 20-30 participants in most of them.

“We’re trying to bring diverse voices, including those of women and youth, into the breeding process. Because we want to tailor breeding programs for the diversity of users rather than opting for one-size-fits-all solutions,” said Tufan.

Tufan explained that traits mentioned by the farmers range from agronomic advantages such as good yield to things like ‘drawing’ when cooked, which is important for making the traditional cassava dish gari. The goal is to get those most difficult quality traits into selection indices, to translate them into standardized, measureable breeding variables, and to link them to genetic markers for genomic selection. Cassava breeders Peter Kulakow (IITA) and Chiedozie Egesi (NRCRI) have helped to tailor the data collection tools in order to ensure that they yield data that will be useful for breeding.

Paula holding two cassava roots during a visit to cassava farmer (in the white t-shirt) in the Apac district, one of her study sites.

Paula holding two cassava roots during a visit to cassava farmer (in the white T-shirt) in the Apac district, one of her study sites.

RTB and NEXTGEN Cassava are also co-funding Cornell PhD student Paula Iragaba, who returned to her native Uganda in 2015 to conduct gender-differentiated field research on cassava trait preferences.

Iragaba is working closely with Kirscht, CIRAD postharvest expert Dominique Dufour, and breeders at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) to help them incorporate the preferred cassava traits that she documents into their cassava improvement program.

“This is really exciting because there is an opportunity for Paula to provide information and set up a model on how to capture and integrate gendered trait preferences into breeding programs,” said Tufan.

Paula and a farmer picking cassava leaf samples in one of the farmer's cassava gardens to be used for studying genetic diversity of cassava varieties.

Paula and a farmer picking cassava leaf samples in one of the farmer’s cassava gardens to be used for studying genetic diversity of cassava varieties.

Iragaba had an opportunity to explain her research to Bill Gates in October 2014, when Gates visited Cornell’s campus to learn about the work of NEXTGEN Cassava, which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds. Iragaba was one of several graduate students who gave short presentations about their research and answered questions from Gates.

“I talked about how women play a vital role in cassava production and processing in Uganda, and how their role needs to be considered by breeding programs in order to improve the adoption rates of new varieties,” Iragaba said. “I’m sure that if gender issues are taken into consideration by our breeding programs, we are going to have tremendous improvements in adoption rates.”

Find this and other interesting articles in the RTB Annual Report 2014