It's a kangaroo - not an ostrich

Almost two years ago, a conversation on a bus ride to the Hunter Valley, Australia between two leading agricultural scientists from Australia and the UK hatched the idea of breeding seeds for Africa’s smallholders focussing on their demands. Further conversations with the AIFSRC director, Mellissa Wood, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) director Marco Ferroni and the Crawford Fund CEO, Denis Blight led to the formation of a tripartite alliance between the SFSA ; the Crawford Fund; and the Australian International Food Security Research Centre (AIFSRC).

The two scientists who had the conversation on a bus to Hunter Valley in December 2012, were Vivienne Anthony of SFSA and Gabrielle Persley of the University of Queensland and the Crawford Fund  and they were both attending the official launch of the AIFSRC in Sydney, Australia. After a year of development, Vivienne, Mellissa, Gabrielle and Denis met again on the 14th of May 2014 in Nairobi, at the first day of the project consultative workshop that saw the attendance of participants from west, central, east and southern Africa to deliberate on the project design.

The project aims to increase the currently very limited use of high-yielding seeds in Africa. “To improve adoption rates, new varieties must meet market needs along the entire value chain from farmers to consumers”, explains Marco Ferroni. As Denis Blight points out, the project is well timed: “The use of ‘demand-led’ approaches to strengthen African agriculture is rapidly gaining momentum”.  The Alliance has assigned project implementation to the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute who have been tasked with building innovative, catalytic, inclusive partnerships that harnesses new ideas and best practices from both the public and private sectors to support and connect African plant breeders with their stakeholders and market information along the value chain. Strong support was evident by the participation of private and public sector breeders, extension, national, regional, international and pan-African agricultural centres, academia and policy.

Opening remarks were made by Yemi Akinbamijo, Executive Director of FARA, Dennis Blight of the Crawford Fund, Appolinaire Djikeng of BecA, as our host in Nairobi and Mellissa Wood of ACIAR. All the participants had interesting and relevant case studies for discussions and the issue of adoption was extensively discussed.

The gaps identified in the two days of the workshop provided the necessary momentum for identifying the crops, providing training and presenting policy interventions for moving the project forward.

When it was suggested that this project should avoid working on its own without due cognisance of other initiatives - like an ostrich with its head in the sand – the Australians quickly reiterated that in fact this was a kangaroo project that should see us hopping forward to activate the best of what is available and provide an integrated approach to demand led plant breeding…after all kangaroos do not walk backwards!

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