Digitization equipment set to accelerate Kenya’s breeding programs

(L-R) CIMMYT Regional Representative for Africa and Kenya Country Representatives Moses Siambi, CGIAR EiB NARS Coordinator Biswanath Das, KALRO Director General Eliud Kireger and KALRO Deputy Director General for Crops Felister Makini at the digitization equipment handover event in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Joshua Masinde/CIMMYT)
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Last month, the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding (EiB) platform handed over digitization equipment to the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) as part of ongoing efforts to modernize the public agency’s crop breeding programs. The handover of the equipment, valued at roughly $85,000, took place at KALRO headquarters in Nairobi on March 8, 2021, with representatives from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), EiB and KALRO in attendance.

KALRO received 23 units of equipment including seed counters, label printers, handheld data collectors, tablets and package printers. These will help the organization speed up and enhance the accuracy of various breeding processes, including seed preparation, data collection and data analysis. They will also support inventory management within KALRO’s maize, wheat, rice, sorghum, bean, soybean and potato breeding programs at six of its research centres in Kenya.

A lack of digitization equipment hampers the research efforts of many national agricultural research systems (NARS) across Africa. This adverse situation is compounded by unreliable institutional memory, which constrains NARS efforts to breed an assortment of crop varieties efficiently.

“Currently, KALRO uses very laborious systems including manual layouts and collection, followed by manual data entry into computers. This old age process is prone to data entry errors and delays in analysis, publication and reporting,” says KALRO Director General Eliud Kireger.

“With the equipment, we are receiving, information and data can be recalled by a click of a button. The equipment will also significantly reduce research costs related to labor, thus freeing our scientists to focus on core research activities.”

The equipment will also support KALRO’s ongoing efforts to digitize its historical data, especially for the maize and wheat programs using the Breeding Management System (BMS). So far, 20 years of maize historical data has been uploaded onto the BMS platform for ease of access.

The CGIAR EiB platform was established in 2017 to help modernize public breeding programs in the CGIAR and NARS to increase their rates of genetic gain. In recent years, there has been an upsurge in challenges including climate change, population growth, rapid urbanization, changing dietary inclinations, transboundary movement of pests and diseases. These have exerted an enormous strain on food production systems and elicited the urgency to prioritize the adoption of new plant breeding techniques and technologies to address current and emerging threats. This calls for a holistic approach to tackle the issues including better agronomy and policy, according to EiB NARS Coordinator Biswanath Das.

“Modernizing our plant breeding programs to develop new, climate smart, market driven varieties will be at the heart of the solution,” says Das. “We must ensure that public plant breeding programs are not left behind because for many crops in Africa, there is limited private sector interest. Public breeding programs must shoulder the responsibility for ensuring the development and adoption of the next generation of crop varieties.”

KALRO handover 02
CGIAR EiB NARS Coordinator Biswanath Das shares remarks at the digitization handover event in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Joshua Masinde/CIMMYT)

Already, KALRO breeding programs, in collaboration with international CGIAR centers, have played a leading role in supporting farmers in sub–Saharan Africa to address many emerging plant threats such as wheat rust (UG99), maize lethal necrosis (MLN) and fall armyworm.

As part of its commitment to supporting NARS partners, EiB provided over 10 million Kenyan shillings ($92,000) worth of material and in-kind support to various KALRO breeding operations in 2020. This included genotyping support for maize and wheat, support to adopt the BMS digital data management system, technical support and training of KALRO breeders.  Much of the digitization work is driven by EiB’s Operations and Phenoytyping module, led by Gustavo Teixeira. “We’ll continue to consider a whole range of devices and solutions,” says Teixeira. “It’s a part of our culture of continuous improvement, so breeding programs can focus on what really adds value to their clients.”

EiB will continue to support NARS across Africa and beyond to digitize their operations, and is working with partners to secure more equipment, training and resources. With this digitization project, EiB has targeted 24 breeding programs in 14 African countries. These include programs run by AfricaRice, CIMMYT, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

“We want to do more to support centres to improve their operations so they can achieve the most effective and cost-efficient phenotypic processes — agronomic practices, seed processing and other areas,” explains Teixeira. “We aim to expand to more programs and partners.”

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