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CIMMYT empowers a new generation of maize breeders in Zambia

Photo: Participants in the maize breeding course in Zambia. Photo: Cosmos Magorokosho/CIMMYT.

Photo: Participants in the maize breeding course in Zambia. Photo: Cosmos Magorokosho/CIMMYT.

CIMMYT recently conducted an intensive three-week training course in Zambia for 38 young maize breeders–including 12 women–to provide them the knowledge and skills needed to apply modern maize breeding methods in their agricultural research and development programs. Participants from national programs and private seed companies from 12 African countries and Pakistan attended the course.

Moses Mwale of the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI) officially opened the course, and said the training was critical as agriculture contributes over 40% of Zambia’s gross domestic product and provides 70% of all employment in Africa; up to 80% of the African population lives in rural areas and is heavily dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods.

According to Mwale, “Despite its immense potential, maize has underperformed in Africa in recent years. The major cause is lack of investment, reliance on rainfed agriculture, low usage of improved seed, and the lack of adequate agricultural research and development, resulting in low production, productivity, and high transaction costs in agribusiness ventures.”

For the first time, a significant part of the course was devoted to the subjects of crop management and gender mainstreaming in maize research and development.

CIMMYT agronomist Isaiah Nyagumbo presented the crop management practices recommended to boost yields, productivity, and income, and to conserve natural resources. He emphasized that investments in maize breeding pay off when crop management on farm is improved. Nyagumbo also demonstrated new land preparation equipment recommended for use with conservation agriculture, including jab planters, dibble sticks, Li seeder or planting hoe, and animal traction rippers.

Vongai Kandiwa, CIMMYT gender specialist, spoke about “Leveraging Gender Awareness in Maize Breeding and Seed Deployment.” Revealing existing evidence of gender gaps in technology awareness and adoption, she highlighted the importance of developing maize technologies that meet the needs of both men and women farmers. Kandiwa also shared insights on gender-responsive approaches for conducting on-farm trials and building awareness, especially of newly released varieties.

During the training course, CIMMYT physiologist Jill Cairns briefed participants on preparing and making effective presentations––a challenge for both distinguished and new scientists.

Several scientists highlighted recent developments in maize improvement such as the use in maize breeding of doubled haploids, molecular tools, transgenics, and precision phenotyping. Key themes included advanced phenotyping by CIMMYT physiologist Zaman Mainasarra, who demonstrated the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for digital imaging and fast, cost-effective, and accurate phenotyping data collection.

Other subjects included theoretical conventional breeding, breeding for abiotic stress in line with climate change, breeding for biotic stresses with emphasis on preventing the spread of maize lethal necrosis (MLN) disease, and breeding for improved nutritional quality (quality protein maize and pro-vitamin A maize). Max Mbunji of HarvestPlus gave a presentation on Zambia’s progress on developing and delivering pro-vitamin A maize over the past seven years.

Variety release and registration, seed production, and seed business management in Africa were also featured during the course. Trainees learned how to scale up breeder seed to certified seed, maintain genetic purity and quality, and support upcoming seed companies, while complying with existing seed legislation, policies, and procedures in different countries.

Participants went on a field trip to HarvestPlus, where they learned more about pro-vitamin A analysis. They also visited ZARI’s Nanga Research Station to observe drought screening and seed production activities conducted by Zambia’s national maize breeding program.

At the end of the course, one of the participants, Annah Takombwa, acting technical affairs manager at Zimbabwe’s National Biotechnology Authority, said, “Many thanks for affording me the opportunity to take part in GMP’s New Maize Breeders Training. It was a great honor and privilege. I am already applying the skills and knowledge gained in my day-to-day activities.”

CIMMYT Global Maize Program (GMP) maize breeders Cosmos Magorokosho, Stephen Mugo, and Abebe Menkir of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) organized and coordinated the course. Participants were sponsored through various GMP projects, including Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa, Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Seed Scale-up, the Doubled Haploids project, Water Efficient Maize for Africa, Improved Maize for African Soils, USAID Heat project, MLN project, HarvestPlus, and private seed companies ZAMSEED and SEECDCO.