Shared breeding pipelines improve dryland crops in sub-Saharan Africa

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An innovative regional shared breeding approach is improving the cultivation and commercial viability of new dryland crop varieties in sub-Saharan Africa.

The approach, pioneered by CIMMYT, through the Dryland Crops Program (DCP), uses a highly participatory design.

It brings together breeders, farmer representatives, pathologists, agronomists, socio-economists, seed systems specialists, nutritionists, gender specialists, and seed industry representatives to develop unified crop improvement teams. These teams focus on sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet, groundnut, chickpea, and pigeon pea to identify market demands and set breeding priorities that align with regional needs in Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) and West and Central Africa (WCA).

Moving away from traditional breeding programs

Traditional public sector breeding programs have typically been breeder-centric, giving breeders significant decision-making power on targets. As a discipline that requires collaboration and integration, this approach has limitations. Traditional programs also didn’t clearly define market segments, leading to inefficient resource allocation and minimal input from value chain actors. As a result, these programs operated independently, lacking the necessary multidisciplinary approaches.

The regional shared breeding pipeline model redefines this framework by encouraging multidisciplinary collaboration and linking breeding activities with market needs and environmental challenges.

“Understanding both the farmer’s needs and market demands allows us to tailor our breeding objectives more precisely, which significantly enhances the adoption, adaptation, and impact of new varieties,” says Dr. Biswanath Das, National Agricultural Research System (NARES) Coordinator with CGIAR’s Accelerated Breeding Initiative.

The shared breeding pipeline approach

The shared breeding pipeline is a comprehensive strategy involving co-designing, co-developing, and co-implementing a shared research agenda. This approach leverages the complementary strengths of NARES and CGIAR partner institutions within the African Dryland Crop Improvement Network (ADCIN).

“This approach is built on the principle that collective effort and shared knowledge lead to greater innovation and impact,” says Dr. Harish Gandhi, Associate Program Director for DCP and chair of the ADCIN-WCA steering committee. “By combining our expertise and resources, we ensure that new crop varieties are scientifically advanced and aligned with regional market demands and environmental conditions.”

Pipeline showing short-duration OPV for Sahel zones (SD-OPV-Sahel-1) and medium-duration OPV (MD-OPV-Sudan-1) at the crossing block managed by CIMMYT, Bambey station. This block represents 50% of the total crossing. Photo: Drabo Inoussa/CIMMYT

The process begins with establishing regional crop improvement workgroups and defining shared research priorities for each region and crop. Regional meetings help form country product design teams (PDTs) for each crop, that include breeders, nutritionists, gender specialists, crop health specialists, seed systems specialists, NARES peers, CGIAR representatives, farmer representatives, government representatives, and industry representatives. PDTs guide breeders on current market needs and trends.

Breeding programs in participating countries are evaluated using the Excellence in Breeding (EiB) Breeding Assessment Tool to identify strengths and develop improvement plans, enhancing their capacity and efficiency. Following these assessments, regional meetings are organized to prioritize regional market segments and assign responsibilities based on each partner’s capacity and aspirations.

The final step involves implementing regional breeding pipelines, with lead centers coordinating activities. Partners in charge of these pipelines identify ADCIN-Population Development Centers as breeding and testing locations based on market segment importance.

“This structure ensures that every stage of the breeding process is informed by collective intelligence. From setting priorities to testing and deployment, each step reflects shared knowledge and joint effort,” says Dr. Gandhi.

The shared breeding pipeline approach accelerates the breeding cycle and enhances genetic diversity in crop varieties, encouraging ownership and commitment among stakeholders and ensuring rapid adoption within communities. Optimized breeding schemes are defined with quantitative geneticists, and parent selection for population development is based on genotyping and phenotyping data.

Key shifts to modern plant breeding include:

  • Increasing the breeding program size from 50 to 400 individuals to over 1,500, impacting selection intensity.
  • Recycling parents earlier or using genomic predictions to reduce cycle time from 15 years to two to four years.
  • Optimizing the number of families and lines per family to sample variation adequately.
  • Optimizing field nursery operations for better efficiency.

Genomic tools play a critical role in population development. Target crops for ADCIN are genotyped using mid-density SNP (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) panels, assessing germplasm diversity and selecting potential parents, including developing heterotic groups for hybrid breeding programs. Quality assurance/control markers verify the purity of parental lines and confirm filial generation1 hybrid populations’ hybridity, enhancing breeding accuracy and reducing phenotyping, as well as addressing biotic, abiotic traits, grain quality, and advanced phenotyping.

The ADCIN Pearl Millet WCA Workgroup

The ADCIN pearl millet WCA workgroup, established in September 2022, exemplifies this approach. This group focuses on a regional approach tailored to the needs identified across several countries in WCA, enhancing the genetic diversity and adaptive capacity of pearl millet varieties.

“The implementation of the new approach for regional population development, specifically focusing on medium-maturing open-pollinated varieties (OPVs) of millet, marks a significant achievement for both my program and the institute at large. This approach addresses the need for medium-maturing millet populations in WCA. It involves a collaborative effort of co-designing and co-implementing with colleagues from NARES and CIMMYT, leveraging the unique capacities and strengths of each partner. Overall, this achievement underscores our commitment to innovation and collaboration in addressing regional agricultural challenges,” says Dr Maryam Dawud, a Pearl Millet Breeder at Lake Chad Research Institute (LCRI) in Nigeria and a member of the pearl millet WCA workgroup.

The workgroup has made remarkable progress in its first 15 months:

  • Conducted comprehensive peer-to-peer assessments to optimize breeding capacities.
  • Partner institutions agreed on responsibilities for leading regional breeding pipelines.
  • Developed work plans based on each institution’s role and budgeted accordingly.
  • Over 750 pearl millet inbred lines were developed and genotyped to initiate heterotic grouping for a hybrid breeding program.
  • Regional trials of 50 pearl millet OPVs were conducted across eight countries and 24 locations in 2023.
  • Ten founder lines were selected for short-duration and ten others for medium-duration OPV pipelines.
  • Developed OPV and hybrid breeding plans and agreed-upon protocols for managing key pests and diseases.

“This approach is highly relevant in terms of pooling and optimizing the use of available resources for the entire region. The new crossbreeding schemes are less random—they are now more precise, more representative of the parent genotypes, and based more on real data than on general knowledge of the parents. I believe that, in this way, we’ll achieve faster genetic gains and reach our targets more quickly,” says Dr. Oumar Diack, a pearl millet breeder at Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA), Senegal.

Pipeline showing a short-duration OPV for Sahel zones (SD-OPV-Sudan-2) at the crossing block managed by the Lake Chad Research Institute, Maiduguri, Nigeria. This block represents 50% of the total crossing. Photo: Maryam Dawud/ the Lake Chad Research Institute

The implications of the DCP crop work group’s efforts are profound. New varieties will boost yields, improve nutritional value, and increase resilience to environmental challenges, ensuring more reliable food sources and higher incomes for small-scale farmers. By involving a wider range of stakeholders and focusing on shared goals, the shared breeding program strengthens agricultural communities to meet climate, gender inequality, and market challenges.

This model provides a template for other crops and regions within the CGIAR-NARES crop improvement approach. It demonstrates that significant advancements in crop development are possible through the right collaboration, even under challenging conditions.

“This strategy is effective because it enables all the programs within the network to benefit from the advantages—such as the availability of equipment and experience—under regional coordination. Previously, each program was managed independently, developing its own varieties. This often led to a variation in breeding schemes at the regional level, which sometimes caused confusion. The significant improvement with this new approach is that it is based on an analysis that includes selection indices for preferred traits, which were absent in the previous strategy,” remarks Dr Armel Rouamba from INERA, Burkina Faso.

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Story by Marion Aluoch. We acknowledge Drabo Inoussa, Mark Nas, Hailemichael Desmae, and Harish Gandhi from CIMMYT, for contributing to this story.

Main photo: Pipeline showing a short-duration OPV (Open Pollinated Variety) for Sahel zones, labeled SD-OPV-Sahel-2, at Kamboinse station managed by INERA. This block represents 25% of the total crossing effort. Photo: Armel Rouamba/INERA

Download the full version of this story, PDF: The Impact of Regional Shared Breeding Pipelines

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