October 15, 2019, by Lexi Earl

Redefining pearl millet: Dr Ndjido Kane

Dr Ndjido Kane is a plant geneticist and molecular biologist, based at Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles. Dr Kane directs CERAAS, part of the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA). CERAAS specialises in drought adaptation of plants in West and Central Africa. In this interview, Ndjido talks to Lexi Earl about his research on pearl millet. 

Tell me about your research career? How did you become involved in research? What do you do?

I am a scientist, working on pearl millet. Pearl millet is a staple food for millions of people in Africa, and in Senegal it has multiple purposes. It plays an important role in food security and nutrition, particularly in young people and breastfeeding women. It is eaten as a porridge and forms part of our traditional food culture in Senegal. Pearl millet is very nutritious, rich in iron and zinc, and calcium.

I did my PhD in Plant Science, focusing on wheat, at the University of Quebec at Montreal, in Canada. I saw the opportunity of how research can contribute to food security, through increasing agricultural productivity and tackling challenges. I did a postdoc in industry, to understand the business of research, and then I decided to return to Senegal, and to contribute, through research, to agricultural enhancement.

I was initially interested in health science. I studied biology, thinking I would become a doctor. From there I moved to being a plant scientist. In Canada, at that time, you had to have a first degree in Biology, before you studied Medicine. After my undergraduate degree, I did a Masters in Plant Science and I really enjoyed it, so I continued studying plant science.

What was the original spark that made you interested in science?

My father was a doctor. He wanted me to become a doctor and I always wanted to be a doctor. So I became a doctor, but in plant science. My mom was a midwife too so I was always interested in science.

How did you begin working with Prof Malcolm Bennett?

I was put in contact through another colleague at IRD (French Research Institute for Sustainable Development) Dr Laurent Laplaze, who had already collaborated with Malcolm, and Laurent suggested that we might be able to work together. We spoke initially via Skype, and found there was lots we could do together. Malcolm was enthusiastic, and was interested in working on pearl millet, and I was interested in working on the hidden parts of pearl millet. I normally look at the breeding side, I never look at the root systems.

Networking partners meeting in Dakar, Senegal

Your two projects on pearl millet have different foci. How do you bridge working across so many disciplines?

In Senegal, when we are looking at a particular crop, we look at the whole value chain from breeding to the value-added project. So the projects are linked. The first project ‘Anatomics in pearl millet’ contributes to our breeding programme. We have not previously looked at root traits as targeted traits in breeding. We normally look at grain size, drought tolerance and so on, but the root is a key trait in drought breeding. Once we breed new varieties, it is important to know how the work is going to appreciated by other stakeholders, particularly those involved in processing and commercialisation. The second project focuses on enhancing the productivity of pearl millet. Once we have enhanced the millet, someone should make good use of it! At the moment, pearl millet is grown by rural, smallholder farmers. It is grown for their own consumption. They do not think about selling pearl millet or developing new products. If we can enhance pearl millet productivity, we will have a lot of pearl millet to eat and also to transform, to process, and to sell. We wanted to bring pearl millet into the light. If pearl millet only exists as a staple food for pearl millet, you never see it as a potential cash crop. You therefore need new products to encourage growing.

Pearl millet, at the moment, has a very low yield. So people usually eat pearl millet because it is very easy to cultivate, it is a staple food, and doesn’t demand a lot of inputs. We work with stakeholders to introduce the idea of what more we can do with pearl millet. For example, we can create a mixture of pearl millet and wheat for flours and bread making.

A bowl filled with pearl millet

Raw organic Bajra pearl millet in a clay bowl.

How does this research affect ordinary people?

It affects their daily life. In Senegal, when you have a new baby, one week later they are named and the food we prepare is made from pearl millet. The breastfeeding woman eats porridge made from pearl millet. If a woman gets married and leaves her home to join her new husband’s family, she brings with her a bag of pearl millet seeds. If someone passes away, we prepare a dish from pearl millet. Pearl millet is culturally very important.

How are you increasing the production of pearl millet?

It is a combination of technologies. You have to produce more with less: less land and less water. And fewer human resources because young people are moving to the cities. Our role as researchers is to give the farmers options, starting from improved varieties, agricultural practices, small mechanization, and to accompany them on the journey.

Five men standing in front of embassy in Senegal

Pearl millet network partners including Dr Ndjido Kane (second right), and Prof Malcolm Bennet (second left)

Do you have a greatest career moment?

I feel this every day. When you talk to the farmers, they have high expectations of you. He believes that you can do it, that is why he comes to tell you his problems. This feeling is great. You also get this feeling when you propose the farmers use new varieties, and they accept and test the varieties alongside their traditional landraces. This is a great moment because when African farmers decide to try your new varieties, it is huge! They trust you and believe that what you are giving to them is good for them, and will form part of their legacy. Legacy is very important so it is a very proud moment that you have.

If we can write policy briefs, and those are used to impact society, that is good too. There are a lot of channels that can create important moments for you as a researcher.

Tell us about your research institute?

I work at the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA), and we have five foci of intervention: crop production, forestry, livestock and animal health, fishery, and socio-economics. Our institution has different research centres and labs and I direct CERAAS, we specialise in drought adaptation. We have a regional mandate focusing on West and Central Africa. We are a Centre of Excellence for dryland crops. We have the mandate to work on six different crops, generate technologies and innovation, and then share it with other countries from West and Central Africa.

We have been running for ten years now. One programme is the West Africa Agricultural Productivity programme, funded by the World Bank and our governments. The idea is to have different hubs on the continent, specialising in different objectives. Once you have met your objective, you can share your findings with others. When this programme started, we had 9 different countries and two of them, Ghana and Senegal, were credited Centres of Excellence. We now have a mandate from ECOWAS to share technologies and innovation with others. Now we are looking to scale up.

Part of our work programme includes training PhD and Masters students. Over the last ten years we have trained over 300 students. We collaborate with universities in Senegal, across the continent, and also elsewhere, on PhD programmes. We co-supervise with universities because, as a research institution, we do not have a mandate to confer degrees. It is part of our mission to provide training and research opportunities to young people. 70% of the population in Africa are employed by the agricultural sector. It is therefore important to train the next generation of plant scientists.

When I joined my institution ten years ago, across West and Central Africa, we were six academics with PhDs working on pearl millet, and four were close to retirement. Now we are more than 20 academics with PhDs working on pearl millet.

What are your future research plans?

[Joking] You know as a scientist, if we stop doing research we have to retire and I don’t want to retire! So I am going to keep going. More research! I’ve also worked on other crops (sweet potatoes, fonio, wheat). You can switch crops because the molecular and genetic tools for understanding them are the same. I have a particular interest in pearl millet because I would like to see those African crops that are called ‘orphan’, not be so. Wheat is not native in Senegal and yet it is a ‘major’ crop. I’d like for the orphan crops to become major crops, generate incomes, and contribute to food security.

Do you have any advice for young scientists or people who are thinking of becoming scientists?

Be creative and work hard. The scientific world is a very small community, and everyone needs funding. You have to fight. You have to be creative. If you are doing the same thing as everyone else you will not distinguish yourself. So you have to work hard and be creative. If you don’t have new, creative ideas of how to do things, you are not a scientist. Never give up. Have good partnerships. Develop new ones. Keep an open mind. But mostly: be creative.

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