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Africa aims to halt brain drain of crop experts

September 19, 2007 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Ghana centre will train plant breeders on their own turf.

If Africa is to solve the problem of getting crops to survive through future floods and droughts, they'll need local knowledge developed on home turf, experts say. Now that challenge is set to be tackled, with a US$4.9-million effort to overcome Africa's brain drain of plant scientists.

The scheme will see a new programme established in Ghana, to allow the next generation of West African crop experts to be home-grown, rather than trained abroad on foreign crops at foreign universities.

The scheme, which aims to hand out around 40 doctoral degrees in plant breeding over the next five years, will create African scientists trained to study their own native crops and crop diseases.

Home and away

Most African crop scientists go to Europe or the United States to earn their PhD, says Eric Danquah, director of the newly established West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement at the University of Ghana, near the capital, Accra.

It will be better to have the facilities to study African crops in Africa.
Eric Danquah, University of Ghana
This means that they often come home without the expertise in indigenous crops such as sorghum, millet and cassava, and therefore have to learn from scratch how to breed new varieties of these species.

Danquah knows the feeling — he studied the genetics of barley at the University of Cambridge, UK. But barley is not grown anywhere in Africa.

"When you go abroad, the work you do depends on the history of the department where you are working," Danquah says. "You are compelled to study what is there. A few foreign universities provide facilities to study African crops, but it would be better to have the facilities to study African crops in Africa."

Disease and drought

The Ghanaian centre will offer a five-year PhD programme including both research work and, unusually for a doctoral course, two years of teaching. The aim is to produce crop experts who are equipped to breed crop strains that can resist drought, disease and other environmental stresses.

The centre will train eight students per year, with the first intake starting work in January 2008. A sister scheme that has been running at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, since 2000 has also received an $8.1-million grant to continue its work. Overall, the centres should produce 120 trained scientists over the coming decade.

Training crop experts in Africa will help stem the flow of talent away from Africa, says Peter Matlon of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, one of the organizations that has sponsored the grants. Foreign-trained scientists often don't stick, he says. "Either they don't return, or they return briefly and look for the first opportunity to leave."


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