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MSc Plant Breeding for Africa

February 17, 2015

Plant Breeding for Africa

Delegates at the launch of a new MSc programme in Cultivar Development for Africa at UKZN

An exciting initiative, aimed at meeting the urgent need for mid-level practicing plant breeders and scientists in Africa, was recently launched at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Supported by a $12.2 million injection to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) from the Bill and Melinda gates Foundation, the initiative will see three African universities, namely, UKZN, Makerere University in Uganda, and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana partner with Iowa State University in the USA to train 90 MSc students in plant breeding over a five year period. UKZN is poised to receive $2.5 million to train 30 of the students from the Southern African region.

According to Dr Rufaro Madakadze of AGRA there is an increased demand for good quality seed of improved varieties in Africa.  The speed of development of the varieties, however, has lagged behind owing to the small number of plant breeders that can work in both the public and private sector.

‘There is  a growing formal seed sector in sub-Saharan Africa encouraged by AGRA  and other donors that will benefit from the skills of the trained plant breeders to start breeding programmes and improve the quality of hybrid seed production,’ said UKZN Programme Manager, Professor John Derera. Unfortunately, said Derera, there are very few plant breeders in the region and most of these work in the public sector where there is limited funding for developing improved varieties.

UKZN has responded to this need for industry-ready, middle level graduates in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries by launching a two-year MSc degree that will train postgraduate students.

A new curriculum, which advances the development of improved plant varieties, has been jointly developed by Iowa State University (ISU) and the African partner universities.  This curriculum reveals a fresh approach to training – one that emphasises modern breeding and data management technologies and includes a six-month hands-on industry internship.


‘This integration of research and internships with the taught courses will provide students with the practical knowledge of applying modern technologies, such as production of doubled haploids to reduce the breeding cycles, managing spatial and temporal variation in trial fields, and advanced trial designs,’ said Derera.


‘Above all the students will learn hands-on how to use the Integrated Breeding Platform (IBP) to manage plant breeding information systems. The IBP has been developed by the Generation Challenge Program (GCP) and will be made available to the UKZN for use in training MSc students.’


Speaking at the launch of a four-day symposium on the implementation of the new MSc in Cultivar Development, guest speaker Dr Gary Atlin of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said that as UKZN was the premiere university in Africa for Plant Breeding, the programme was very dependent on the collaboration of the university. ‘UKZN has already done a terrific job on educating PhD level Plant Breeders and therefore the key aim of this programme is at developing young plant breeders,’ he said.   


Fellow keynote speaker and industry expert,  Dr Waynand van der Walt from FoodNCropBio, added that it was imperative that government also buy in to the project and support science, especially in the sub-Saharan countries. ‘There is a dire need for training and capacity building,’ he said.  ‘Scientists and academics need to create a communication platform with government and the media in order to create an awareness of these huge gaps that exist in the market, and thus create programmes that educate students of the need for science and scientists in these specialist fields.’


UKZN DVC Teaching and Learning, Professor Renuka Vithal, has thrown her full support behind the new MSc initiative. ‘I think that it is an extremely innovative and ambitious programme that is combining several important elements of any successful learning process, such as an internship programme, and e-learning,’ she said.  ‘This combination will provide the candidates with advanced professional development.’


Vithal’s assessment was corroborated by Professor Mark Laing, Director of UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI).  ‘I am delighted and fully supportive of this Master’s programme,’ he said.  ‘It will fill a real need in Africa and South Africa as there is a dire shortage of students trained at Masters Level in the plant breeding field.’



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Photo:  Swasti Maney

Contact:  Prof John Derera, 033 260 6034/ 072 777 9269;

Dr Sally Frost

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