Gender in Agriculture Partnership

Transforming agriculture to empower women and deliver food, nutrition and income security

Building a state-of-the-art biotechnology platform for crop research in Nigeria

Building a state-of-the-art biotechnology platform for crop research in Nigeria

Although it may at first seem like a formidable and herculean task, I am extremely driven in my desire to build a state-of-the-art biotechnology research platform to serve not just Nigeria but the whole of Africa. But then again, having bold ambitions is what being an AWARD Fellow is about.  My lifelong dream is to build and lead a thriving biotechnology-based business that creates value and employment to power economic growth. Thanks to my participation in the AWARD Fellowship program, and support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation received so far, I can see this becoming a reality in the near future.

Currently, I am working at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Umudike in Abia State in the Southeastern part of Nigeria. Here I am responsible for coordinating research on genetic improvement of root and tuber crops using tissue culture, genetic engineering and transformation tools. My current project on improving the disease-resistance of beta-carotene fortified cassava is quite involving, and I am excited by the prospect of this work – the addition of genes with good disease-resistance to control two key diseases: the cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and the cassava brown streak disease (CBSD). To put a dollar figure to the cost of these diseases to African farmers: farmers lose revenues of up to US$100 million annually from the CBSD alone. In a continent being looked upon to feed itself and feed the world, these levels of losses are unacceptable.

In my community, and in communities across most of Nigeria, cassava and yam are highly valued: they are an integral part of our diets and culture; provide starch for industrial uses and generate income for farmers when the tubers are sold. In recent years however, these crops have not provided farmers with yields as high as they potentially could due to lack of availability of improved planting material and poor disease resistance.  I feel fortunate to have a chance to contribute to reversing this trend, through my work at the NRCRI, where I am building the capacity of younger scientists to contribute to making Nigeria food secure by training them on how to apply biotechnology tools to improve crop productivity through breeding for resistance to pests and diseases, extreme climatic conditions such drought and salinity, and fortifying them with essential micronutrients like beta-carotene.

So how did I get to this point?

In January 2009 I participated in an 18-month hands-on course on the genetic engineering and transformation of cassava in the US – at the International Institute for Crop Improvement of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri. This was through the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  What I loved most about the course was the fact that the course was very practical in nature and I deepened my understanding of molecular biology, tissue culture, genetic transformation and biosafety regulations. Thanks to this course I was able to zero in on the specific research area I wanted to focus on. The new networks I had developed at the Center were very helpful in assisting me secure an opportunity to study for my PhD.  For three-and-a-half years, I conducted research on: "Improved genetic transformation systems for the production of quality transgenic cassava using reporter marker genes."  Through this partnership with the Center, I acquired essential state-of-the-art equipment for the NRCRI which the Institute would not have afforded to purchase. This equipment helped us to set up a modern genetic transformation platform.

While at the Center, I met with Mrs Olapeju Onadipe, who was then an AWARD Fellow participating in the AWARD Advanced Science training program. So moved was I by her passion about the benefits of participating in the AWARD program that I applied for an AWARD Fellowship, with just three days to go before the closing date! Though I didn’t make it that time round, I kept trying and finally this year I succeeded.

“I am extremely driven in my desire to build a state-of-the-art biotechnology research platform to serve not just Nigeria but the whole of Africa.”

Participating in the AWARD Fellowship has boosted my career. Its focus on leadership and networking has really helped in unlocking opportunities for career growth. In my case, I have learnt how to make my research more farmer-focused, and I can map out attainable career goals. This has tremendously increased my confidence. Through AWARD and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I’ll be able to participate at the Global Biotechnology Conference, in Boston (US), in July 2015. I look forward to the networking and visibility-raising opportunities that this conference provides. 

I look forward to the rest of the AWARD Fellowship especially the upcoming scientific writing workshop – where I will polish my scientific publishing and grant-writing skills. My goal is to publish at least 10 scientific papers, and write two grant-winning proposals for collaborative research. Another area I need to build upon is gender-driven research, which will enable me to generate solutions that benefit rural farmers, especially women.

This is an exciting time to be working in African agriculture, especially in Nigeria, where the government recently passed the biotechnology bill. I am most grateful to AWARD for this opportunity which will give me my own platform to take biotechnology research in Nigeria to the next level, and to contribute to securing Africa’s important food crops at the same time.

Download: Meet an AWARD Fellow: Ihuoma Okwuonu, 2015 AWARD Fellow, Nigeria

Source: AWARD Fellowships

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