Tag Archives: yam

Increasing the resilience of roots, tubers & bananas

Given its focus on the resilience of root, tuber and banana crops, Flagship Project 3 (FP3) aims to incorporate environmental, biological, ecological and economic considerations into the various ‘clusters’ – distinct projects within the flagship.

Crop resilience can be compromised in myriad ways, notes James Legg, FP3 leader and a plant virologist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Among them:

  • Biological factors: including pests, diseases and the inevitable introduction of alien invasive species into a new geographical region as a function of increased international trade and people’s global movement patterns
  • Environmental factors: ranging from drought and increased soil salinity to unexpected spikes or drops in temperature
  • Agro-ecological factors: such as the over-exploitation of land through multiple cycles of cropping, which leads to soil degradation, nutrient deficiencies and other problems
  • Social factors: T for example, population growth leading to greater pressure on agricultural land, or the impacts on shareholders of increasingly smaller farming plots
  • Factors related to changing global climate: these effects will differ greatly among crops and could include shortened life cycles and increased economic damage from major pests.

Cassava farmer examines his field infected by cassava witches’ broom disease in Cambodia. Photo G.Smith/CIAT

Across this array of threats to resilience, technology is vitally important for achieving the goals of FP3, Legg says. For example, sequencing DNA from a specific pest can help the team determine which species are present in which locations, leading to more precisely targeted control efforts.

Moreover, the ability to use new tools to diagnose a disease more quickly and cheaply goes a long way toward containing the threat it poses.

“The invasive pathogen Fusarium oxysporum fsp cubense – Tropical Race 4 – was detected for the first time on the African continent, in a single farm in Mozambique, through the use of a molecular diagnostic method using polymerase chain reaction (PCR),” Legg says. “FP3 scientists and their partners are now using these diagnostics in a containment programme that will map the geographic spread of this new pathogen prior to designing a comprehensive control strategy.”

Yellow and wilted leaves are typical symptoms of Fusarium wilt. Photo G.Blomme/Bioversity International

Sometimes, efforts to boost crop resilience occur in isolation from efforts to enhance other desirable traits. Yet that won’t always be the case: Legg observes that increasingly in Phase II, FPs will combine to “bring these two lines of work together so that improved nutritional profiles” – whose development IN orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP), cassava and banana is being addressed in FP2 and FP4 – “will be combined with resistance to major biotic and abiotic threats in new varieties developed and promoted.” In fact there are multiple natural points of intersection among FP3’s focus on resilience and its sister flagships. By the same token, germplasm development work housed under FP2 will dovetail with specific clusters in FP3. In addition, FP3’s project to improve diagnosis and control using phytosanitation of banana bunchy top virus (BBTV) is being linked to other flagships to help scale up efforts to control its spread.

In theory, how long would it take for Legg and the rest of the FP3 team to ascertain if resilience has increased in a given crop? It all depends on the factors against which resilience is being gauged, he says.

For example, since FP3 covers much of RTB’s disease-management work, it might only require two or three growing seasons (ideally in different locations) to measure whether crops now display greater ability to withstand pest and disease pressures. Yet “for factors such as climate change or soil degradation, the period required may be longer,” he says.

“Much of the cross cutting thinking on resilience in FP3 is being undertaken within cluster 3.2, Sustainable Cropping Systems,” Legg continues. “Under this cluster, research is being undertaken that aims to develop resilient production systems. Since this work considers the whole system, with its diversity of crops and environments, there is an inherent complexity. This will mean that it will take several years before systems with enhanced resilience can be developed, and several more years before the robustness of those systems can be confirmed.”

Cassava farmer, Mr. Khalifa Omari Nkrumah, of Mkurangra district, Tanzania inspects his cassava plants for the presence of Cassava Brown Streak Disease. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

As resilience increases, so too can smallholders’ potential economic and social benefits. Yet Legg cautions that there’s no quick path from greater resilience to greater revenue.

“Yield increases can be converted to estimates of economic gain and increased income,” he notes. “Calculating the impact at the community level is significantly more challenging, and requires the implementation of impact studies conducted at the community level both before baseline and after the implementation of resilience-promoting activities.” Typically speaking, community level change is achieved only after a meaningful period of scaling – which is where FP5 Improved Livelihoods at Scale will engage and support.

“The key theme unifying all of the FPs is the development of productive, profitable and sustainable systems that will ensure that roots, tubers and bananas make a major contribution to sustaining and enhancing the livelihoods of the growing number of people living in the tropical parts of the developing world,” Legg says. “In all the FPs, we share a common goal, and we are working closely together to achieve that.”

This is the third in a series of blogs showcasing the new Flagship Projects of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. The next edition will examine Flagship 2 on ‘Adaptive Varieties and Quality Seed‘. By Amy Rogers Nazarov

Nutritious foods and added value for health and wealth

“It starts with the person who wants to eat affordable, safe, nutritious food,” says Simon Heck, the Mozambique-based sweetpotato project leader for the International Potato Center and the leader of RTB’s Flagship Project 4 on Nutritious Food and Added Value. “The urban consumer will [represent] the majority [of consumers] soon, and we must focus on how they” – along with the smallholders raising and selling the crops – “attain the benefits of roots, tubers and bananas.”

With that vision in mind, this flagship has an important focus on promoting utilization and uptake of biofortified crops – those bred for maximum nutrients – such as orange-fleshed sweetpotato (OFSP), cassava, potato and potentially banana and yam too.

Levels of beta carotene in both OFSP and cassava – which the body converts to Vitamin A – is an area of special interest considering its role in the health and development of young children. Lacking sufficient Vitamin A, tens of millions of children in developing countries suffer from stunted growth which limits mental development, as well as premature death and blindness.

Children under five years of age eating OFSP. Photo credit: HKI

While work to enhance OFSP is well underway in RTB, other biofortification efforts show a great deal of promise. Among them: boosting iron and zinc levels in Irish potato and breeding cassava that (like OFSP) contains higher levels of beta carotene. While “cassava doesn’t respond as quickly” as OFSP does, Heck notes, it’s just as critical a crop to smallholders in certain regions.

To that end, geography and economics figure into which crops warrant biofortification research within FP4. “You might say, well, OFSP is much richer in beta carotene than cassava – but cassava can grow in places where nothing else grows,” Heck notes. Indeed OFSP can contain more concentrated levels of beta carotene, “but it’s limited in terms of its distribution.” Potato may be able to modified to contain more zinc, but the higher costs of raising potato may limit the benefit that nutritional boost can have.

Approaches to promoting biofortification in one crop can be deployed in the service of another, Heck says. “You build on what has been achieved,” he says. “It’s one of the values of how RTB approaches this work: in our platform, we can exchange scientific methods to accelerate progress across [multiple] crops. We owe it to the farmers [growing crops] and to the children [consuming them] to make full use of what each of us knows.”

For all crops, the effectiveness of crop processing and storage methods will affect smallholders’ outcomes and consumers’ health, too. The best varieties and harvesting techniques mean little if half the crops are lost due to spoilage or pests, so FP4 is looking closely at best practices in these areas as well. Methods ranging from pureeing OFSP for distribution in vacuum packed bags, to processing zinc-rich potato into flour, to storing harvested crops underground or at ambient temperatures to better support their preservation may be suitable, depending on a region’s climate, topography, financial stability, electrical grid health and other factors, Heck says.

FP4 is also paying close attention to improving the efficiency and reducing the energy and environmental footprint of cassava processing. Great strides have been made to understand how the higher efficiency of large scale cassava processing plants in Asia could be replicated at a much smaller scale in Africa and Latin America, opening up an important space for south-south learning.

Cassava starch processing in Vietnam. Photo N.Palmer/CIAT

In its clusters, FP4 must also pay heed to gender roles that may have long dictated tasks around growing and selling crops.

“Two domains that are often separate in many countries come together [under the auspices of FP4],” Heck says. “Men’s domain roles tend to be perceived to be around agriculture, while those of women are perceived to be around caregiving and feeding. Now, a lot of our assumptions seem to imply that somehow a benefit generated in one sphere will translate into benefits in another sphere, but we know it is not that easy.” The question becomes: “How do we involve both men and women in both spheres?”

Remember: a lot of OFSP, for example, is actually grown by women, Heck notes. By the same token, “we want to involve men in childcare, nutrition, materials extension and activities.” While gender-based roles are certainly bound by tradition, “they are never written in stone.” Working with more organizations that already have credibility in checking these assumptions is key to breaking down gender-based barriers.

Loading OFSP on a bike in Western Kenya. Photo credit: HKI

In addition to working with organizations that can help examine gender-based assumptions, FP4 will develop partnerships with local health clinics and government agencies services. These organizations are often ideally placed to enable consumers to understand the healthful benefits of RTB through programs such as:

  • Teaching adults how to prepare these foods, processed or not
  • Working with pregnant women and mothers to help them learn about the role Vitamin A and other micronutrients play in the health of the developing fetus, infant and child
  • Measuring health outcomes within a given community over time

FP4 is largely about “overcoming barriers of acceptance of crops,” Heck concludes. “One good thing about the biofortification strategy is that the crops you are biofortifying are ones that already exist, that are accepted [in the region]. People already know how to cultivate them; they’re already part of people’s recommended diets. We can tap into the capacity that is already there” – and, partnering with Flagship 5 on ‘Improved livelihoods at scale’ and others, scale up efforts to amplify biofortification’s potential to boost crop nutrition, hardiness and stability in a changing, hungry world.

This is the second in a series of blogs showcasing the new Flagship Projects of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas. The next edition will examine Flagship 3 on ‘Resilient Crops‘. By Amy Rogers Nazarov

The nuts and bolts of collaborative research on roots, tubers and bananas: RTB Annual Meeting

As the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) kicks off Phase II, the team came together in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for an annual review and planning meeting from March 11 – 12.

The meeting built on the momentum from the RTB World Café on Scalable Technologies which took place the day before, and along with updates of progress, focused on refining the nuts and bolts of collaboration to build effective flagship project and cluster teams. 

The event brought together over 80 researchers from across RTB’s five program partner centers – International Potato CenterInternational Institute of Tropical AgricultureBioversity International, International Center for Tropical Agriculture and Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD) – along with colleagues from other partners including Wageningen University.

Over 80 participants from RTB partner centers came together for the annual meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

Graham Thiele, RTB Program Director set the scene with an analysis of strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the program, and some key responses to the address the points identified in the analysis.

“RTB is entering its second phase in a strong position. We had one of the highest rated proposals for Phase II, we have clear impact pathways to reach our targeted outcomes by 2022 and our alliance model means we have cemented, effective partnerships that will be critical to allow us to reach those goals. However, we also have areas to improve upon – The cost and complexity of coordinating such a large-scale program with over 350 partners is a challenge, as is the need to carefully steward our W2 funding and  mobilize funding for cross cutting opportunities,” explained Thiele.

“We also need to strengthen flagship leader’s roles in science quality and knowledge management, and cluster leader’s roles in project management, along with maintaining the ‘glue’ of collaboration in cross cutting areas,” he added.

Anne Rietveld shared a program update on gender research, highlighting the successful collaboration with the Gender Responsive Researchers Equipped for Agricultural Transformation (GREAT) project, which provided training to agricultural researchers from sub-Saharan Africa on gender-responsive research for root, tuber and banana crops in 2016.

Claudio Proietti explained the progress of the new Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Platform launched at the end of 2016 as an all-in-one modular platform for improving planning, management, monitoring, evaluation, and reporting. 

Holly Holmes presented progress in RTB communications and outreach, including tracking digital analytics and engagement, and highlighting RTB’s interactive 2015 Annual Report website.

Conny Almekinders (center) of Wageningen University, summarizes key discussion points from the Flagship Project 2 session with the broader group. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

Flagship project leaders held interactive groupwork sessions with their teams, which are ordinarily geographically dispersed. A key output of the lively groupwork was a one-year timeline for each flagship detailing key upcoming events and moments in the project calendar, together with ideas for resource mobilization. As each FP presented their timeline and key discussion points to the broader group, members of other flagships identified areas of synergy and cross-flagship collaboration.

Simon Heck, Flagship Project 4 (FP4) leader, noted that the meeting had helped the team to come together and build some momentum.

“This was the first physical meeting of the FP4 team. We discovered that our different crop research groups are already working towards similar goals – strengthening the consumer focus of our research, supporting innovation that diversifies the use of RTB crops, and finding solutions for managing the perishability and environmental footprint of RTB crops as the food systems become more complex,” Heck explained.

Simon Heck (center left) and members of the FP4 team in group discussion. Photo H.Holmes/RTB

“The session gave us a sense of common purpose, and greater confidence that, by working together in the flagship, we can address these large questions more effectively and realistically. As an immediate next step, scientists from all partners and clusters are now contributing to a compelling cross-cutting research agenda for the flagship and are committing to joint research proposals on some key research issues affecting several RTB crops. It was a real energizer for FP4 and many of us will meet again in June to produce the first set of joint outputs,” he added.

Other participants divided into small groups to discuss practical guidance and next steps on the following areas:

  • Coordination and communication of, and between, clusters
  • Strategic Innovation fund
  • Monitoring and Evaluation
  • Big Data Platform
  • Excellence in Breeding Platform

The outputs of these discussions can be found in the annual meeting report.

In order to improve the lives of millions of men and women who depend on root, tuber and banana crops by 2022, it’s essential to ensure we have the nuts and bolts in place for an effective program team. To this end, the RTB Annual Review and Planning Meeting helped to solidify new flagship and cluster teams, and position the group for a strong start to Phase II.

For more detailed information about the meeting, please see the RTB Annual Review and Planning Meeting Report.

RTB Impact Assessment team take stock of progress and plan for Phase II

Assessing the impact of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas’ (RTB) research and development initiatives is a core part of the program’s work. To take stock of progress on RTB’s impact assessment studies currently underway and identify upcoming opportunities for the program’s second phase, RTB’s Impact Assessment team came together in Boston on July 31.

Representatives from RTB partner centers, including Bioversity International, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the International Potato Center (CIP) presented updates on ongoing RTB related impact assessment activities.

Updates were shared on working papers on strategic research priorities for potato, sweetpotato, cassava, yam and banana.

Potential areas of collaboration for RTB’s second phase were also highlighted: including investigating the global impact of root, tubers and banana crops, modeling and analyzing impacts of sustainable intensification and on rural transformation, and meta-analysis of post-harvest losses for all RTB crops.

The meeting also provided an opportunity to look at potential partnership strategies for future work with MSU and Virginia Tech.

“During the first phase, RTB centers worked together on the strategic assessment of RTB research priorities and advancing critical impact studies for each crop. We need to keep the momentum in the second phase, but we will need to focus on the impact on the system as a whole and beyond the farm-gate. For this, we will need good partnerships to develop and apply appropriate methods,” said Dr. Guy Hareau, Agricultural Economist, International Potato Center.

An enumerator from CIP surveying a C88 potato farmer. Photo: CIP

An enumerator from CIP surveying a C88 potato farmer. Photo: CIP

The meeting followed the CGIAR’s Standing Panel of Impact Assessment (SPIA) meeting from July 29 – 30, during which Dr. Hareau presented the preliminary results of the adoption of the Cooperation 88 (C88) potato variety in China.

Developed through a collaboration between CIP and Yunnan Normal University (YNU) with the goal of breeding a high quality, late blight resistant variety, C88 was named and released as a cultivar in 1996. By 2009, it covered 186,667 hectares and was the most widely grown variety in Yunnan, China.

To measure the impact of the variety, a collaborative effort funded by SPIA and with additional funding from RTB, was undertaken by CIP, Virginia Tech and YNU. The study aims to verify previous adoption estimates of C88 in Yunnan and determine the economic benefits it has brought to consumers and producers in China.

During the SPIA meeting, Dr. Enoch Kikulwe of Bioversity International also presented an overview of RTB’s planned impact assessment activities under the program’s newly developed Flagship Project 5 on ‘Improving Livelihoods at Scale’.

Learn more about RTB’s Impact Assessment work

Root, tuber and banana breeding in Africa shows wide-scale adoption of improved varieties

Crop breeding and the dissemination of improved varieties has been a cornerstone of research for development in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) for decades, and scientists from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) contributed to research on the impact of this work which is featured in the book Crop Improvement, Adoption, and Impact of Improved Varieties in Food Crops in Sub-Saharan Africa, published in 2015. This ambitious review contains a wealth of information on decades of cassava, yam, potato and sweetpotato improvement in SSA, and it holds lessons for strengthening future efforts to tap the potential of RTB crops for improving food security, nutrition and livelihoods.

The book, which covers the development and distribution of improved varieties of 20 crops in 30 countries, grew out of the ‘Diffusion and Impact of Improved Varieties in Africa’ study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It confirms the important role that RTB centers have played in strengthening crop improvement in SSA, but also shows that it takes a long time to develop and disseminate improved varieties, which is why RTB has prioritized innovations that accelerate the breeding process.

Read the full story on RTB’s 2015 Annual Report website

Gender, breeding and genomics workshop – Open call for case studies

You are invited to submit an abstract for a case study of plant or animal breeding that has successfully incorporated gender considerations into its strategies and end products, demonstrating attention to contrasting needs and preferences of men and women end users (producers or consumers) by May 15, 2016. 

A small number of case study authors will be invited to present their study at the upcoming workshop ‘Gender, Breeding and Genomics‘ that will take place in Nairobi, Kenya from October 18- 21, 2016. Travel and accommodation expenses for the authors of selected case studies will be covered by the workshop organizers. Authors of other cases of interest to the workshop may be contacted with respect to inclusion of the case in a book-length or journal publication and/or presentation of a poster at the workshop, which is organized by the CGIAR Gender and Agriculture Research Network’s Gender and Breeding working group.

The workshop aims to identify the essential, ‘must have’ ingredients of successful, gender- responsive breeding initiatives and to explore implications of the revolution in genomics for new opportunities and entry points in the breeding research cycle for effective integration of gender.

Gender responsive root, tuber and banana breeding

There have been many cases in which improved crop varieties released by national agricultural research and extension systems 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 The CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (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 crop varieties developed in the coming years will have as widespread and gender-equitable an impact as possible.

Read more about RTB’s work to incorporate women’s needs and preferences into root, tuber and banana breeding. 

For more information about the upcoming workshop and how to submit a case study, please visit the Gender Network website.

Linkages between staple crops research and poverty outcomes

The Independent Science and Partnership Council’s (ISPC) Science Forum 2016 from 12 – 14 April in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, will focus on the contribution of agriculture to reducing poverty under the topic: “Agricultural research for rural prosperity: rethinking the pathways”.

Co-hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the forum will rethink the pathways for agricultural research to support inclusive development of rural economies in an era of climate change, collecting evidence and building on lessons learned to suggest an updated list of priority research areas and approaches.

A breakout session during the forum will concentrate on the linkages between research on the staple crops of roots, tubers, bananas, maize, rice and wheat, and poverty outcomes.

A young woman sells root and tuber crops at a roadside market in Kampala, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

A young woman sells produce including root and tuber crops at a roadside market in Kampala, Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

A collaborative endeavor jointly organized by the CGIAR Research Programs on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Wheat, Maize, and Rice (GRISP), the session will begin with a presentation by Jeff Alwang of Virgina Tech, jointly delivered with Elisabetta Gotor (Bioversity International), Guy Hareau (International Potato Center), Jordan Chamberlin (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) and Graham Thiele, Program Director, RTB. Following the presentation, the session will review theories of change and build on evidence that demonstrates the impact that international agricultural research working on these staple crops has had on reducing poverty.

“Innovations in root, tuber and banana crops have tremendous impact on poverty reduction by increasing farmers’ income through raised productivity, providing and strengthening linkages to markets, adding value and enhancing rural employment with better incomes through processing – which is often predominantly a woman’s activity,” explains Graham Thiele.

Growth in agricultural productivity, generating employment, and increasing farmers’ incomes are major pathways that link research to poverty reductions.

“Increasing productivity can also lower the cost of these nutritious staple foods for poor consumers and is essential for more viable value chains which generate employment especially for youth and women,” Graham adds.

A woman and man harvesting banana in Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

A woman and man harvesting banana in Uganda. Photo S.Quinn/RTB

To date, impact analysis has largely focused on the ‘economic surplus approach’ to estimate standard rates of return to the research. However, donors want to be better informed about impact more closely related to development goals of food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. Assessing the impact of agricultural research is also critical for reasons of accountability, attribution, strategic planning and allocation of resources.

Despite the increasing interest and several ex ante assessments, including poverty dimensions, examples of ex post poverty assessments are scarce in the literature.

After reviewing the impact pathways for staple crop research and their supporting evidence, the session will draw on small group discussion among attending experts and develop a short paper synthesizing the key findings and conclusions of the session.

RTB’s ‘Foresight and Impact’ cluster of activity, led by Elisabetta Gotor, aims to enhance the program’s impact by guiding current and future investments of donors, policymakers, researchers and other practitioners on major opportunities and threats for RTB innovations at crop and systems levels.

Elisabetta Gotor comments that “the cluster’s research in this area will improve the targeting and tailoring of RTB innovations for next and end users, by providing insights on existing and future drivers of technology adoption.”

Read and download RTB’s current impact assessment reports for root, tuber and banana crops on our Impact Assessments page.

Lukas Mueller: Ace of Bases

By Patricia Waldron

Yam farmers in Africa may soon benefit from a large collection of genetic information contributed by local breeders and researchers but compiled half a world away. Associate Professor Lukas Mueller will soon add Yambase to the list of genomic databases he leads.

Yams play an important role, both culturally and nutritionally, in the lives of people living in West and Central Africa. Each year, the average person eats about 134 pounds of this starchy tuber, which provides fiber, vitamin C and essential minerals. But yam production has dropped in some areas due to higher labor costs, diminishing soil fertility and attacks from beetles, blights and viruses. Local breeders and researchers plan to work together to create pest-resistant yams with higher yields using modern genetic techniques.

“Despite its role as a key staple in West Africa and other tropical regions of the world, yam has been one of the most under-researched crops with very few genomic resources available,” said Robert Asiedu, head of crop improvement at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), based in Ibadan, Nigeria, and a principal investigator on the project.

Photo by Antoshananarivo

Photo by Antoshananarivo


Creating new yam varieties is a challenging and time-consuming endeavor. Using conventional techniques, a breeder may spend six to 10 years working on a new type. The plant produces few offshoots and requires relatively large fields for experiments.

The Yambase database will allow users to access the yam genome browser hosted by the Iwate Biotechnology Research Center in Japan and will house information about desirable yam characteristics and tools for breeders. Mueller already leads the SOL Genomics network, a collaborative website that compiles genome data from Solanaceae species, including tomato, potato and pepper, as well as Cassavabase, a database composed of cassava breeding information.

“It is truly a ‘one-stop-shop’ for the global yam breeding community,” said Ismail Rabbi, a geneticist at IITA and member of the new yam project. “We adopted an ‘open data’ policy and therefore people can access the data from anywhere and help in the improvement of the crop.”

Mueller received funding from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, as part of its project Africa Yam: Enhancing yam breeding for increased productivity and improved quality in West Africa. The IITA receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In addition to Yambase, Mueller will also create a banana database, called Musabase, with a similar goal to improve banana breeding. Musabase has funding from the IITA’s Improvement of Banana for Smallholder Farmers in the Great Lakes Region of Africa project.

“These are hugely important crops for many food insecure farmers in Africa and there are new threats from pests and diseases which we need to be ready for,” said Graham Thiele, director of the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas, who collaborates with Mueller on Cassavabase. “RTB is also keen to build a community of scientists around shared platforms and tools, across all our crops. We really appreciate Dr. Mueller’s openness to collaboration and have a shared interest in rolling out a suite of tools similar to Cassavabase, which can bring the RTB community closer together and accelerate scientific progress.”

Video produced by IITA

Originally posted on the Boyce Thompson Institute website.

Yams: Raising the profile of the “King of Crops”

Yam is a very important and popular RTB crop in West Africa, with 99% of the world production coming from just five countries in that region (Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo). The traditional staple crop has deeply-rooted cultural significance: while yam festivals are held in African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, its cultivation is also a tradition in Latin American and Asian-Pacific countries such as Colombia, Jamaica, Philippines, Fiji, Indonesia and Vietnam. However, the potential of the “King of Crops” – as it is known in Nigeria – seems to have been underexploited, something that could change thanks to recent initiatives.

Yams for sale/CIRAD

Yams for sale/CIRAD

After RTB was launched in early 2012, the yam-breeding unit of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) started working on several initiatives. Since then, various advances have been made, starting with a propagation technique that uses vertical sacks with vine cuttings, which allows for an earlier recommendation of new varieties, speeding up the process. The time it takes for IITA to recommend varieties to the national systems could be reduced from 9 to 4 years using this technique. We have also discovered, for the first time, plants free of viruses, coming from true seed, which opens a new window to determine the real yield potential of yam, and also improves possibilities for germplasm exchange. It also has facilitated improved screening protocols for nematode, drought and atrachnose resistance.

In a partnership with the United Nations International Trade Centre, based in Geneva, IITA also developed a participatory methodology that led to the development of a national yam value chain strategy in Ghana. IITA started consultations with Ghanaian institutions in 2010 to support the development of the strategy, which aimed at creating business and industry development with social impact while ensuring food security. It included the participation of all the value chain stakeholders, who decided about markets, areas, products and demands for support institutions. Ghana was the first country to adopt such a strategy, partly because yam was one of the crops that the Ministry of Trade and Industry selected to support export diversification and private sector development.

The Ghana Yam Strategy was launched following the first ever Global Conference on Yams, held in Accra October 3-6, 2013. The event, which was attended by more than 150 participants from 20 countries, was an opportunity for stakeholders to explore recent innovations in yam improvement, share lessons learned, identify research and development needs, and develop global alliances. In the words of Dr. Robert Asiedu, IITA Director for Western Africa, RTB Leader and the convener of the conference: “The event provided a platform for consultation and development of a global strategy for improving the yam sector based on genetic enhancement; crop protection and mitigation of risks due to pests, diseases and climate change; conservation of genetic resources; prevention of postharvest losses; improved seed systems; crop diversification; and enhancing the industrial potential of yam and improved market access.” All of these are RTB priorities.

Yams in Ghana/IITA

Yams in Ghana/IITA

Both the conference and the Ghana yam value chain strategy demonstrate the level of interest in tapping the unexploited potential of yam and in raising its profile as a global crop. For Antonio López-Montes, IITA yam breeder, this is only the beginning. Other countries have expressed interest in elaborating yam strategies similar to Ghana’s with the help of IITA and ITC. “We are in the process of finding funds to support the development of yam value chain strategies for Nigeria, Benin, DR Congo, and Togo in Africa; and Colombia, Jamaica and Cuba in the Caribbean and Latin America, ” he explained.

As for RTB research on yams, it is moving forward. The yam genome sequence should be released next year, and a yam metabolomics platform is in process. A catalogue of elite varieties is scheduled to be published in 2014, along with a publication on farmers’ agroecological knowledge about yam, climate change and soil fertility. And to please palates and develop market opportunities, IITA is currently working with the private sector in West Africa to incorporate yam flour into noodle production. Bread with 20% to 40% yam flour is already a reality: it was launched with the value chain strategy in Ghana when an IITA baker taught a group of local bakers how to make yam bread, biscuits, cupcakes and chips, among other products.

By Véronique Durroux-Malpartida