May 8, 2019, by Lexi Earl
‘Reach and Teach Science in Africa’: Strengthening Research Capacity for Generating Future Foods
This post is written by Dr Ute Voβ and Dr Thomas Alcock.
In April 2019, Nottingham Research Fellow Dr Ute Voß and Doctoral Prize Fellow Dr Thomas Alcock received funding through the Future Food Beacon Partnership Fund to travel to Benin, West Africa. In this article, they offer insights into their experiences teaching molecular biology and crop breeding principles to 100 Africa-based researchers as part of the ‘Reach and Teach Science in Africa’ program developed by the JR Biotek Foundation.
It was in Paris Airport during a stopover on the way to Benin that we first met with Carol Ibe, founder of the JR Biotek Foundation, and the rest of the Reach and Teach Science in Africa team. There was a brief moment of panic when it didn’t look like we would all make it onto our next flight. To our relief, everything went well in the end, and all of us, along with lab coats, pipettes (thanks Darren Hepworth for the loan!), notebooks, programs, workshop bags, and all consumables required for 4 days’ worth of lab practicals, made it safely to Cotonou, the largest city in Benin.
It didn’t take long after landing for us to realise just how hot and humid this tropical country is. Fortunately, our host, Dr Enoch G. Achigan-Dako, head of GBioS at the University of Abomey-Calavi was far more hospitable, greeting us with a tour of his excellent research facilities, followed by sampling of various bissap fruit, moringa and lemongrass teas, produced by his very own research team. We took some time to sort arrangements for the following week, and to familiarise ourselves with the lab space and the programme, before kicking off the workshop the following morning.
Day one of the workshop, largely funded by the University of Cambridge, commenced with a warm welcome from Dr Enoch to all 100 of the workshop participants. He spoke of the need for increased capacity strengthening in Africa, and expressed gratitude to the JR BiotekFoundation for hosting the workshop in his department. This was followed by further welcomes from Carol Ibe, and workshop organiser Jennifer McGaley (PhD Student; University of Cambridge), and the workshop was officially opened.
Following these friendly introductions, the teaching activities began. Days one to three comprised lectures given by most members of the Reach and Teach team covering molecular biology, crop breeding, and a statistics session run by Catherine Danmaigona Clement (PhD student, Texas A&M University and JR Biotek Foundation’s first training alumna). Ute gave lectures on cell biology, transcription and translation, and recombinant DNA technology, and Thomas covered conventional and marker-assisted breeding technologies and plant nutrition. Dr Enoch also gave a lecture covering ongoing work at the University of Abomey-Calavi which largely focussed on improving resources available for various ‘orphan crops’. Three species that his group are particularly interested in are Miracle Berry, a fruit producing plant that causes sour flavours to be perceived as sweet when consumed; Cleome, a vegetable crop with potential for elevated vitamin A & C varieties to be produced; and Kersting’s Groundnut, a crop of high economic importance for farmers in West Africa.
Towards the end of each day, the applicants were split into groups, with some members taking part in hands-on molecular lab training while others formed teams to develop a strategy for JR Biotek’s Bio-Innovation Pitching Challenge, in which they developed ideas for start-ups or non-profit organisations within the theme of biotechnology. We were involved with the lab training, in which participants were instructed in the use of pipettes, through to DNA extraction and polymerase-chain reaction (PCR) setup. Splitting into these smaller groups was a great way to engage with participants on a much more personal level. Rather unexpectedly, this led to a fascinating discussion between ourselves and members of different African nations on the best ways to solve the hunger crisis! Though no definite consensus arose, it became clear that whilst a complex issue, there are strategies that can be implemented throughout the food supply chain to increase crop yields, and subsequently get this produce to those who need it most.
Days four and five followed a different structure, including a training session on how to build a basic, computer-based microscope run by Dr Fernan Federici of the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile, and a professional development workshop run by Dr Matias Acosta (Feodor Lynen Fellow, University of Cambridge). The workshop ended with the Pitching Challenge presentations. During this session, some major themes surrounding challenges in African food production emerged, including issues of communication between researchers, politicians and food producers. As one group strikingly put, there are over 2,400 papers published concerning smallholder farmers. However, the farmers who could benefit most from this information have little to no access to this information. Increased use of smartphones in this region over the last few years has presented a new opportunity: developing apps to enable this information to reach smallholder farmers. Whilst it may take a while for this to be fully realised, this was a great idea that could contribute to greater knowledge sharing in future.
Following an unexpectedly emotional closing session to the workshop, featuring an award ceremony for winners of the Pitching Challenge, and the handing-out of certificates to all participants, we said our goodbyes and headed back to our hotel. The following day, the teaching team travelled to Ouidah, a town to the West of Cotonou, where we were taught a little about the dark history of slavery in the region. Between the years 1600 and 1900, it is estimated that over 11 million slaves were transported from West Africa to the Americas, many of these from Benin. Learning about these atrocities in one of the most directly affected regions, and seeing the harsh conditions that slaves were exposed to, added a new layer of sorrow to our feelings surrounding these terrible practices.
That evening, the team from the University of Cambridge headed back home. However, we had decided to stay in Benin for a few more days in order to get a feel for local cultures and agricultural practices. Dr Enoch arranged a three day tour around the country for us, starting with a visit to the National Institute of Agricultural Research in Benin (INRAB), where we discussed breeding priorities in the region and potential avenues for future collaboration. We then headed to Grand-Popo on the coast to see some local vegetable farms. These focussed on growing carrots and African eggplant, and were well-organised, using irrigation and chemical inputs, as well as providing employment to people living in the area.
We then travelled North, into the heart of the country, where most of the population relies on smallholder farming for subsistence and a meagre income. We met with Nestor and his family in a small community living in mud houses near to Dasso. Around 20% of their produce was maize, for personal consumption. The remaining 80% was the West African crop known as Kersting’s groundnut. This has significant economic importance to farmers, its value driven up by its use as a food during festival periods. By selling this crop at local markets, Nestor is able to buy other foods to supplement his family’s diet. This community faces several challenges though. Principally, longer-term storage of crop produce is an issue as proper storage facilities are not available. With harvest only twice a year, this can seriously affect profits and food security. Further issues include lack of access to manual labour in the preparation for sowing of seeds. Whilst land is frequently available for planting, without access to farming machines, this often goes unused. Similarly, whilst suitable groundwater is available, this must be taken from deep underground, which we learned first-hand is a labour intensive process! Any challenges that this community faces are only exaggerated by utilising seed from last year’s harvest for the following season’s planting. This is due to economic insecurity, which leaves farmers unable to afford new seed when it is needed. Without buying new seed each year, optimal yields cannot be achieved, and this causes a vicious circle of lower harvest resulting in sustained poverty.
As plant scientists we are often confronted with statements concerning food insecurity, growing global populations, rural farming practices in developing nations, and the lack of knowledge transfer between researchers and food producers. During our visit to Benin, these issues suddenly became a lot more real to us. During the week of the workshop, we met with 100 young African researchers from 19 Sub-Saharan African countries and heard 100 stories about the struggles of science teaching and research on this continent. Common complaints were lack of funding, lack of access to labs, and lack of supervision or expertise available. At the same time, we saw enthusiasm for their work and hope that this might one day improve the lives of African farmers. In the few days following the workshop, we then witnessed the reality of smallholder faming in impoverished communities. It became clear that a variety of approaches ranging from improved infrastructure, education, and policy changes are required to improve living conditions in this region. Agricultural research will certainly also play a role in achieving this goal, highlighting the importance of continued support for work in this area.