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Leading the agricultural revolution from within Africa

Dr. Kilalo has developed a tool to detect the passion fruit woodiness virus (© BecA-ILRI/Valerian Aloo)
Dr. Kilalo has developed a tool to detect the passion fruit woodiness virus
© BecA-ILRI/Valerian Aloo

According to the UNESCO Science Report 2010, on average, only 0.3 per cent of GDP in African countries is dedicated to research and development, seven times less than the investment made in industrialised countries. Further to that, sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) contributes only 0.6 per cent of the world's researchers, a dismal representation from nearly 11 per cent of the global population. But, with a mandate to conduct and host research projects that address key agricultural challenges in eastern and central African countries, the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub has woven a strong capacity-building programme into all of its activities. This ensures not only that new technologies and agricultural strategies are being developed, but that scientific capacity within the continent is being built, together with the know-how to drive the agricultural revolution in Africa.

Africa Biosciences Challenge Fund (ABCF)

The ABCF is an innovative fund which facilitates access to the BecA-ILRI Hub for scientists and students from National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) and universities within eastern and central Africa. Each year, the BecA-ILRI Hub seeks applicants with exceptional ideas for short-term projects related to food and nutritional security or animal health.

Through this programme, early career African scientists receive support for their research fellowships, pilot project grants and training developed within the BecA-ILRI Hub's core competencies, such as genomics, bioinformatics, diagnostics, molecular marker development and applications, DNA sequencing and genotyping, and technical and scientific writing. The ABCF fellows are mentored throughout their placement by scientists at the Hub, from organisations within the CGIAR system and from other leading national and international institutions.

ABCF fellows are mentored throughout their placement by scientists at the Hub (© BecA-ILRI/Ethel Makila)
ABCF fellows are mentored throughout their placement by scientists at the Hub
© BecA-ILRI/Ethel Makila

At its inception in 2010, the ABCF received four research fellows for placements of between 3-6 months. In 2013, in response to a call for applications, over 360 eastern and central African scientists are competing for the 50 fellowships available. Despite the requirement that applicants come from specific countries, the Hub continues to receive applications from beyond the region and from as far as Asia. To date, 45 research fellows (14 female, 31 male) from 14 eastern and central African countries have benefited from this programme.

Science passion bears fruit

There is no doubt that great scientific talent exists in Africa: Dr Charles Masembe, from Makerere University in Uganda, is just one example of the enormous potential that is being exploited through this new approach to research capacity-building. Masembe has recently published breakthrough findings on the discovery of a potential zoonotic disease. As part of his research at the BecA-ILRI Hub, Masembe - working in collaboration with colleagues from icipe, ILRI, BecA-ILRI Hub and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) - demonstrated that domestic pigs are a potential reservoir for Ndumu virus (NDUV). Previous studies have shown that NDUV is transmitted by mosquitoes, but otherwise very little information is available on the virus. Masembe was able to explore new frontiers in microbial science in a world class research facility only 500 kilometres from his home through support from ABCF.

Realising the contribution made by passion fruit production to poverty alleviation among smallscale farmers in Kenya, Dr. Dora Kilalo from the University of Nairobi used the ABCF to develop an effective diagnostic tool to detect the passion fruit woodiness virus. The tool, which is being validated by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services, has enabled Kenyan agricultural organisations to identify virus-free planting materials for distribution to farmers, leading to greater yield and quality of passion fruit. Kilalo's research has also led to her being given a leadership role in a larger project, developing new molecular diagnostic tools for plant viruses at the BecA-ILRI Hub.

Dr Masembe has demonstrated that domestic pigs are a potential reservoir for NDUV (© BecA-ILRI)
Dr Masembe has demonstrated that domestic pigs are a potential reservoir for NDUV

Many more examples of exciting science discoveries are being made through the ABCF as scientists are given the opportunity to drive their research using modern bioscience tools in a nurturing environment. The ABCF has also acted as a platform for collaborative work among scientists across the continent and beyond. Co-funded activities with national governments and regional institutions in new areas of research have arisen from the programme. "The future is bright for Africa," says Dr. Segenet Kelemu, former Director of the BecA-ILRI Hub. "With more African scientists acquiring specialized expertise in agricultural research technology and devoting their talents to addressing regional challenges, the African led agricultural revolution is on the horizon."

The ABCF was established as part of the BecA-Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) partnership with initial funding from the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). Donor investment to the challenge fund has now increased to include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF); Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida); Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture; African Women in Agricultural Research and Development Program (AWARD); the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA); and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Written by: Ethel Makila, BecA-ILRI Hub

Date published: March 2013


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