Sept. 19, 2007

Cornell will support University of Ghana to train African plant breeders to confront indigenous problems

In its latest venture in Africa, Cornell will support a new doctoral program at the University of Ghana to train African plant breeders to tackle issues relating to maize, cassava, sorghum, millet, tomato, cowpea and other crops vital to Africans' diet.

Funded by a $4.9 million grant from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a partnership between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, the program aims to address the serious shortage of professional African plant breeders skilled in breeding indigenous plants. Cornell will receive an additional $1.7 million from AGRA to provide academic and technical support.

This is the second announcement in recent days of a Cornell-supported program in Africa. Earlier this month Cornell signed a memorandum of understanding with Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia to offer its Master of Professional Studies (MPS) degree in international agriculture and rural development, to be taught as a pilot by Cornell faculty who will travel to Ethiopia. It will be Cornell's first degree program in Africa.

In Ghana, starting in January 2008, the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) program, located at the University of Ghana in Legon and supported by Cornell, will train 40 Ph.D. students from West African countries in plant breeding and genetics, with eight students admitted each year for the next five years.

"When Africans come to study in the United States, they are drawn to the problems that their supervising faculty have, which may be unrelated to the challenges at home. So they graduate with an education that is out of context, and they may have relatively little incentive to return home," said Ronnie Coffman, international professor of plant breeding and genetics and director of International Programs in Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. "African donors are tired of supporting this kind of training because they feel they are not getting sufficient return on their investments. This is an effort to train plant breeders in the African context."

Cornell plant breeding professor Vernon Gracen, who is also associate director of WACCI, will spend six months in Ghana annually to help upgrade the curriculum, supervise student thesis research and help in management of the center. Plant breeding and genetics professor Margaret Smith, who serves as principal investigator of the project for Cornell, will provide leadership in planning and evaluating thesis research, through electronic communication with the University of Ghana.

Stefan Einarson, director of the Transnational Learning Program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will travel frequently to Ghana to provide technical assistance to WACCI. Resources from Cornell's Mann Library will be available to students electronically. Also, all of Cornell's plant breeding courses, which are available on video, will be either streamed over the Internet or provided on DVD for use in Ghana. Ghanaian faculty and students and Cornell faculty also will be in contact via video conferencing to review student proposals and theses.

Students will devote the first two years of study to gaining a standardized foundation in genetics related to plant breeding, biotechnology, plant microbial interactions and disease control, plant stress physiology and more. As students move on to years three to five, they will conduct thesis research projects based in the students' home countries, aimed at solving problems faced by local farmers.

"This collaboration with WACCI provides engagement for our faculty and gives us experience in the challenging problems of Africa, some of which could become global problems," said Smith. For example, she said, "Many plant diseases and pests are worldwide problems as exemplified currently by the new race of wheat stem rust fungus that recently originated in East Africa and is spreading around the world."