Mr Kofi Anan (right) presents the AGRA Forum
award to Professor Mark Laing of UKZN’s African
Centre for Crop Improvement for contributions to
food security in Africa.

UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) has won a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA) award for outstanding contributions to food security in Africa.

The award was presented to ACCI Director, Professor Mark Laing, by the Chairperson of AGRA, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr Kofi Annan, at a banquet in Arusha, Tanzania.

The banquet was part of AGRA’s biennial conference themed: “Scaling Investment and Innovation for Sustainable Agricultural Growth and Food Security”.

Among the high profile delegates were AGRA President, Mrs Jane Karuku;  Mrs Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation;  Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, Dr Gary Toennissen; President of Tanzania, Mr MJM Kikwete; and NEPAD CEO,  Dr IA Mayaki.

Presenting the award Anan said: ‘We have an unprecedented opportunity to realise the rich potential of the African continent and must build strong public and private partnerships to develop lasting solutions to global food security challenges.’

In a session on Building African Science and Technology Capacity for Agricultural Research, Laing presented a case study on the ACCI and its sister Centre, the West African Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) at the University of Ghana in Accra, as models for postgraduate training in Africa. 

Laing highlighted the exceptionally rapid throughput of the ACCI graduates – 85 percent of the PhD students have graduated on time, whereas most PhD students take an extra two years – and the remarkable 100 percent retention of graduates in Africa, which contrasts with a historical 33 percent retention of students trained in the United States.

Laing said despite their success, the ACCI and other postgraduate training centres needed to secure a sustainable future, independent of external funding. ‘Whilst the ACCI and WACCI will train 150 PhD graduates in plant breeding, doubling the estimated number of active plant breeders in the region, the actual need is for at least 600 plant breeders, leaving a deficit of 50 percent and an annual need for 15 new plant breeders to replace retiring plant breeders.’

Operating since 2002, the ACCI has recruited 85 students from 13 African countries, and has already graduated 42 with PhD degrees in plant breeding. Currently there are 38 other PhD students in the ACCI programme, at different stages of their PhD degrees who will graduate over the next four years. At least 17 students will be recruited this year and in 2014.

Remarkably, 100 percent of the ACCI graduates have stayed in Africa, mostly to work on food crops in their home country. In most cases, this has been with ongoing funding from AGRA, which has allowed them to continue their PhD breeding programmes to the point of release of many new crop varieties, lines and hybrids.

The ACCI students are actively breeding 17 different African food security crops, including cereals, legumes, roots and tubers. So far, more than 66 new crop cultivars have been formally registered for release, with many more in the final testing stage before release.

The ACCI staff and students have published more than 85 scientific articles in international ISI-accredited journals. The eight academic staff of the ACCI constitute, perhaps the strongest grouping of active plant breeders in Africa.  Each has their own breeding programmes, working on food and biofuels crops.