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Developing nextgen science leaders in crop improvement

Published on 19 July 2021
Eric Yirenkyi Danquah
Eric Yirenkyi Danquah

PhD (Cantab), Professor & Founding Director, WACCI and member of the ACU Supporting Research Community

 

Developing scientists into game changers at the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), University of Ghana, has been a daunting task.

At Cambridge University where I trained, facilities were excellent. Back home in the mid 1990s, the lack of infrastructure and equipment for my research on hunting genes to improve our staple crops was a challenge.

Two converging lines of action yielded positive results. First, was the engagement of talented undergraduates in the mid-2000s. Through mentoring, I selected two undergrads and facilitated their access to world class graduate education in molecular genetics and biotechnology at the University of Paris, Orsay. A third student was able to access a Nottingham University research grant to train there. All three students returned after their PhDs to join our faculty.

At the same time, WACCI had been established, in collaboration with Cornell University, through efforts that I led. The early to mid-career scientists were connected to scientists in advanced countries for mentoring to hone their skills.

Second was strategic partnerships and the approach adopted to train Nextgen scientists, involving split site training of PhD students. This brought on board resources for strong collaborations. Additionally, scientists from advanced institutions visited to teach modules and mentored our students and faculty, opening up opportunities for research collaborations.

Our main challenge has been sustained funding. Governments have only paid lip service to investments in science, technology and innovation. Thanks to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and development partners including the World Bank, we have remained competitive. Our core values of excellence, integrity, commitment to people, culture of mentoring, accountability and shared governance, and our vision of becoming the preeminent institution for postgraduate education in crop improvement create a culture that motivates us.

The travel restrictions following the COVID-19 pandemic opened new doors for extensive online engagements. We are striving to build WACCI into a top-tier agricultural innovation and entrepreneurship institution to take our postgraduate programmes and our research on developing resilient, nutritious, and productive crops to the next level.

With only nine years to meet sustainable development goal 2 (SDG2): End Hunger, Achieve Food Security and Improved Nutrition and Promote Sustainable Agriculture, WACCI is racing against time to build a critical mass of scientists needed to modernize breeding programmes to meet our aspiration of transforming agriculture for a food secure Africa in our lifetime.

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About the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement

The West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) was established at the University of Ghana in 2007 to train plant breeders for West Africa.

Funding from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) allowed the development of the structures and enrolment of seven cohorts of PhD students. Ninety-five PhD students and 30 MPhil students have graduated from the Centre since its inception. They have published 195 papers in high impact journals and released over 95 improved varieties of staple crops, which are being adopted in farmers’ fields in West Africa.

Now one of the World Bank Africa Centres of Excellence, WACCI is striving to evolve into an Agricultural Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institution.

The Centre has partnerships with over 40 national, regional and international partners and continues to seek strategic partnerships to drive its vision of becoming the pre-eminent institution for post graduate education in crop improvement in Africa.

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