Maize breeding in Kenya: Helping millions across Sub-Saharan Africa

World-class breeding facilities at Kiboko, Kenya, enable impactful genetic innovations, helping millions of smallholder maize farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The CGIAR Research Initiative on Breeding Resources (Breeding Resources) is fostering progress in crop breeding, exemplified by its support to maize breeding programs of CGIAR and partners in Kenya. From streamlining selection processes to enhancing operational efficiency and fostering gender inclusivity, the Initiative’s multifaceted interventions are driving maize breeding innovations that are impactful across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Crop breeding is critical in addressing global challenges but is also a complex science that relies on numerous services to consistently generate quality data, including genotyping, trialing and nursery management, mechanization, etc.

For CGIAR breeders and partners to accelerate genetic gains and develop climate-resilient crop varieties with farmer-preferred traits, access to top-tier breeding services is crucial. This is where Breeding Resources steps in, offering indispensable support to crop breeding programs worldwide, as evidenced by maize breeding in Kenya.

CGIAR’s maize breeding work has been ongoing for three decades in Kenya, where the crop is the primary source of sustenance for millions of smallholder farmers. Breeding Resources is supporting CIMMYT and partners in their collaborative maize breeding efforts, including improvements on operational efficiency, infrastructure development, and capacity building.

At Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization’s (KALRO) Kiboko research station, CIMMYT established a maize Double Haploid (DH) facility in 2013, to accelerate breeding cycle time. DH technology significantly shortens the development time of homozygous maize lines, from three to four years to one year.

However, prior Breeding Resources intervention, seedling mortality during the DH process was a major issue, especially after chromosome doubling treatment of the haploids. Through the establishment of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) optimizing processes, and continuous improvement activities guided by the Initiative, survival rates of the treated seedlings surged to an impressive 90 percent, dramatically reducing DH production costs and enhancing efficiency.

Breeding Resources investments in cutting-edge equipment, such as near-infrared spectroscopy-based color sorter, transformed the labor-intensive process of sorting haploid seeds from the diploids. What once took 3-4 months, and a team of 20-30 people, can now be accomplished in just 3 weeks by 2-3 individuals.

With these improvements, Kiboko produces elite DH lines at scale and at cost comparable to what multinationals achieve. Over the last five years, the DH facility in Kiboko developed and delivered over 200,000 DH lines benefiting CIMMYT, IITA, national partners, and SME seed companies across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Mechanization of breeding operations, with funding support from the Crops to End Hunger (CtEH) program, implemented by Breeding Resources, is enabling the use of planters and combines for enhanced precision and productivity, while drastically reducing manual labor.

Drip irrigation systems for the managed drought stress blocks, and investments in more sustainable water and electricity supply are improving the station’s phenotyping capacities. Electronic data capture has been scaled up, facilitated by CtEH-provided tablets, accompanied by comprehensive training.

Medium-sized seed dryers are now accessible at the Kiboko station, facilitating the harvesting of breeding materials well before physiological maturity in the field. This allows for drying to the required moisture levels, enabling three-season nurseries and significantly shortening the breeding cycle time.

Breeding data management is facilitated by the Enterprise Breeding System (EBS), a software developed by Breeding Resources and slated for gradual deployment across all CGIAR breeding programs. Breeding Resources is also providing genotyping services to maize breeders who need to study the genetic makeup of their newly developed lines and utilize the data in breeding programs.

The Initiative leverages global requirements across crops and economy of scale for samples to be genotyped at lower cost.

Breeding Resources support extends beyond breeding, as seed processing and storage is being significantly strengthened through CtEH funding,  ensuring integrity and quality of seeds while reducing the need for frequent seed multiplication.

Occupational health and safety protocols have been enhanced, ensuring compliance with industry standards and fostering a culture of well-being. At Kiboko station, women now hold key management roles and benefit from targeted training, challenging traditional gender norms and contributing to a more inclusive research environment.

The breeding hub at Kiboko is now transitioning from a recipient of support to a requester of services, via Breeding Resources’ Service Request Portal, a simplified platform where breeding teams can seamlessly request the Initiative’s support.

With expanding operations and the addition of new crops, Kiboko station has transformed into a multi-crop center of excellence. The upgrades  underway benefit CGIAR Centers and national partners, extending to multiple Initiatives, notably Accelerated Breeding and Seed Equal.

This comprehensive upgrade exemplifies a scalable model that is implemented by Breeding Resources in other CGIAR research stations and Centers  globally, illustrating the Initiative’s large mandate.

Breeding Resources goes beyond simple facilitation, highlighting the power of collaboration, and providing world-class breeding services leading to  new germplasm and impactful breeding innovations that transcend international borders.

The maize breeding hub at Kiboko, Kenya, illustrates the beauty of CGIARNARES partnership. The facilities established at this key research station,
harnessing the expertise of world-class experts to deliver top-tier breeding services to partners, has led to impactful products, serving millions of maize farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Prasanna Boddupalli, CGIAR Global Maize Breeding Lead & Director, Global Maize Program, CIMMYT

Header photo: Aerial view of the KALRO KibokoResearch Station in Kenya. CIMMYT.

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