African scientists school up to adapt agriculture to climate change

First cohort graduates from CRISPR course ready to develop climate-smart crops
Photo by Esther Camilla/CIFOR-ICRAF

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Climate change is making it harder to grow enough nutritious food to adequately feed our planet’s population. Temperature increases, rainfall pattern shifts, reduced water availability and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are all impacting agricultural productivity. 

Across Africa, this challenge is particularly acute. Whilst the continent is responsible for less than 4 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, it’s likely to experience disproportionately frequent and severe extreme weather events going forward. 

It’s also tipped to experience the most extensive land-based decreases in rainfall by the end of the century – which is particularly concerning in a place where hundreds of millions of people depend on rainfall to grow food. And, existing high levels of poverty and food insecurity make the continent particularly vulnerable to climate impacts

One key area of concern is malnutrition, which currently causes stunting in over 30 percent of children under five. 

Innovations like CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), a tool that allows scientists to make precise and specific changes to DNA sequences in living organisms, including crops, offer potential to help address these challenges. 

They can assist agricultural scientists to rapidly develop varieties with key attributes to help farmers and consumers thrive under novel conditions – such as increased pest and disease resilience, greater yield, high nutritional content, improved shelf-life, and the ability to withstand extreme weather. 

Building and mobilizing capacity in  National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) across the African continent on the latest technologies for crop improvement is essential to driving innovation on local crops.

In this critical context, the African Plant Breeding Academy (APBA) this year ran an intensive six-week course to train up ten doctoral-level scientists from six countries across Africa – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Malawi, and Nigeria – on using tools like CRISPR to quickly adapt local agriculture to climate change. 

Since its inception, the AfPBA has run a variety of courses and educational initiatives, and its alumni have landed almost USD 170 million in highly competitive grants and other external funding sources for crop improvement. This represents a 30:1 return on investment of sponsorship funding.

“It is good to give a man fish, but it is better to teach him how to fish,” said Kingdom Kwapata, molecular geneticist at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi and a participant in the course, during the graduation ceremony at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF)’s Nairobi campus on 13 October 2023. “I thank you for teaching me how to fish with the CRISPR technology.”

The scientists that took part in the course are all employed at NARS that are already undertaking research in gene editing in crop plants, or have committed to doing so upon their employee’s graduation from the course. 

Although the course utilized banana as its model crop, the graduates are in the process of establishing gene editing programmes for crops and traits aligned with national priorities. 

They are now working in collaboration with plant breeders in their countries to accelerate development of varieties that offer the traits required by the value chain stakeholders, with a particular focus on reducing childhood malnutrition and its devastating impacts that can stretch beyond a generation.

For instance, one of the graduates of this first cohort, James Karanja – a senior researcher at Kenya’s Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) – is focusing his investigations on pea plants’ resistance to powdery mildew, a disease that can lead to yield reductions of more than 35 percent in this nutritious, easily-stored, high-utility legume crop. 

Karanja is using CRISPR to ‘turn off’ the gene that causes pea plants to be susceptible to the disease, and will now work with other KALRO scientists – particularly plant breeders – to incorporate the trait in new pea varieties that possess the suite of characteristics that make them desirable to farmers, consumers, and markets. 

During the graduation ceremony, African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) partner Jennifer Doudna, 2020 Laureate of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, gave a keynote address challenging the graduates to innovate boldly in order to shore up nutritional security across the continent. 

CIFOR-ICRAF’s chief executive officer Éliane Ubalijoro highlighted the importance of initiatives like this one in making cutting-edge agricultural science accessible to people at the frontlines of climate change impacts – a feat that the international community has regularly failed to achieve. 

“It’s a matter of justice and equity,” she said. “Every corner of our globe should have equal access to the scientific advancements that can improve lives and safeguard our planet. As an African scientist myself, I believe deeply in the critical need to take our collective learnings and make them available to those who need it.”


The African Plant Breeding Academy is an initiative of the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) that is managed by the University of California of Davis in collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genome Institute (IGI) and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Sponsors for the CRISPR course included the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR), Bayer Crop Science, Syngenta, UM6P (University Mohammed VI Polytechnic) Ventures, along with other AOCC members Morrison and Foerster LLP and AUDA-NEPAD (African Union Development Agency-New Partnership for Agricultural Development).

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Topic(s) :   Food security Food & diets Restoration