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Internship Provides New Opportunities to Next Generation of African Plant Breeders

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Many African students travel outside of Africa to receive their higher education degrees. Unfortunately, a large portion of students remain in that country creating an educational gap and a limited pool of qualified individuals to fill key job positions.   

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Soybean Value Chain Research (Soybean Innovation Lab, SIL) works to bridge this gap through their new Master’s in Plant Breeding and Genetics at the University of Ghana. The Master’s degree creates an educational pathway from BS to MS to PhD to train Africans in genetic crop improvement and paving the way for them to practice their profession in their home countries. 

“It’s important to fill the gap at the master’s or technical level because there are not enough well-trained people managing the research plots at the region’s research stations. Many of the national programs for crop improvement in Africa hire master’s-level plant breeders to lead plant-breeding programs”, said Peter Goldsmith, principal investigator for the Soybean Innovation Lab.

Dr. Rita Mumm serves as education and training lead for the Soybean Innovation Lab at the University of Illinois, a five-year program developed to establish sustainable production and the utilization of soybean in Africa. The program is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). She led the effort to establish the new master’s degree program together with Dr. Eric Danquah, professor and director of the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) at the University of Ghana, and Christiana Amoatey, head of the crop science department at the University of Ghana.

“Training Africa’s next generation of plant breeders is imperative to improve the continent’s crop yields and crop nutrition towards the ultimate goal of food security,” says Dr. Mumm.

Five students, four from Ghana and one from Ethiopia, began the Master’s in Plant Breeding and Genetics program in August 2015.

As a part of the new Master’s program, four students from the University of Ghana participated in an enriching 6-week internship in the United States from May-August 2016 where they engaged with researchers at the University of Illinois in the Department of Crop Sciences and with private sector companies including Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto. The internship, funded by the USAID/Ghana mission, was designed to broadly expose students to modern academic and private sector breeding programs.

“These internships give the students a chance to interface with seed companies in the United States, see the scale of plant breeding and the application of technologies in an industrial setting with the thought that this will help students to look very creatively at how they can apply new technologies in their own program in the future. This is something that we made a core part of the Illinois Plant Breeding Center. We like our students to be exposed to the scale of industrial plant breeding and all the latest innovations, and how they integrate these innovations right into the breeding program. We want this for the students at the University of Ghana as well,” said Dr. Mumm.

Each student intern was partnered with a mentor, a University of Illinois professor in the Department of Crop Sciences. These mentorships gave the students fresh insight into modern research practices and new innovations in their respective fields.

“It was an excellent opportunity to network with the world class plant breeders in the best breeding institution such as the professors at the University of Illinois, and researchers at Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto. The internship as a whole was an excellent program to introduce us to the real world of plant breeding. It has equipped me with the basic skills that any plant breeder will need in his career. I could not have acquired these skills anywhere else,” said Godson Nyawudzo, Master’s student in the Plant Breeding and Genetics Program.

Back in Ghana the students will continue their studies at the West African Center for Crop Improvement at the University of Ghana. Taking the experience and knowledge they gained back to Africa where they can continue to build the future of plant breeding in the country.

“The internship offered a hands-on practical experience of the basic principles of plant breeding. This was an extraordinary experience for me. Little could I have imagined the level of technology being applied in plant breeding. The experience that comes with an internship program is a tool to be used for life. I will be working on soybean for my Master’s research project and I am going to apply all that I have learned to undertake my research”, said Prince Buertey Kpentey, Master’s student in the Plant Breeding and Genetics Program who grew up in the coastal savannah zone in Ghana.

To view a recording of the four student interns in which they share their experiences with the internship program visit, https://goo.gl/ndHZDw. To find out more about the Master’s in Plant Breeding and Genetics program or to learn more about partnership opportunities email, soybeaninnovationlab@illinois.edu.

The Soybean Innovation Lab is USAID’s only comprehensive program dedicated to soybean research for development. An international team of tropical soybean experts provides technical support to practitioners tasked with soybean development, including private sector firms, NGOs, extensionists, agronomists and Africa's National Agricultural Research System.

About Feed the Future: Feed the Future is the U.S. Governments’ global hunger and food security initiative. With a focus on smallholder farmers, particularly women, Feed the Future supports partner countries in developing their agriculture sectors to spur economic growth and trade that increase incomes and reduce hunger, poverty, and undernutrition. For more information, visit www.feedthefuture.gov.