Partner Spotlight: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Nigeria

By: Canaan E Boyer
2 April 2019
The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) is a non-profit institution that generates agricultural innovations to meet Africa’s most pressing agricultural challenges. Working with various partners across sub-Saharan Africa, IITA seeks to improve livelihoods, enhance food and nutrition security, increase employment, and preserve natural resource integrity. We spoke to IITA cassava geneticist Ismail Rabbi, who helps lead NextGen Cassava’s activities at IITA.

Ismail in the field.

What is IITA’s role in NextGen Cassava? The role of IITA in NextGen Cassava is to develop superior cassava varieties that will be adopted by farmers not only in Nigeria but other countries of Africa. Our ultimate objective is to improve livelihoods of cassava growers by providing them with superior clones that meet their needs for high and stable productivity, resilience to biotic and abiotic constraints in addition to traits relevant to processors and end-users. IITA is therefore a key partner in the NextGen Cassava Breeding Project and works on Breeding, Survey and Research Divisions.

Cassava harvests at IITA. Photo by Ismail Rabbi

What are the main activities/objectives being accomplished at IITA?

The main activities include implementing accelerated breeding schemes to increase the rate genetic gain. We also do genetic research work to better understand genetic architecture of important traits including resistance to diseases, increased micro-nutrient levels, increased dry matter content. We have so far produced a large number of clones that are at the pre-release stage. Many of which were selected using genomic predictions. 

Weighing roots at an IITA plot. Photo by Ismail Rabbi

Are there any Masters/PhD students funded by NextGen at IITA? What is their work focused on?

In the last phase of the project, two students from IITA were provided with full PhD scholarship. Uche Okeke Godfrey in Cornell University and Olumide Alabi in West African Centre for Crop Improvement in Ghana. In the present Phase, we have a PhD student Mr Moshood Bakare registered at Cornell University. Mr Bakare’s research thesis is on estimation of genotype-by-environment interaction in the context of genomic selection and optimising breeding scheme in cassava. He will use trial data generated over the years to study optimal resource allocation for effective breeding scheme.

Has the partnership/involvement with NextGen benefited IITA? In what ways?

IITA in general and our breeding program in particular has considerably benefited from its participation in the NextGen Project. Firstly, the consortium of researchers and institutions brought together under the NextGen umbrella is second to none. Many aspects of our breeding pipeline has been modernised, starting from market survey to understand farmer, processor and consumer preferences to use predictive breeding methodology using genome-wide and trait-linked markers. All our data collection, transmission and storage now takes place in the digital ecosystem. Exchange visits and training workshops has helped increase our capacity. 

How does NextGen fit into IITA’s overall mission and goals?

Besides cassava, IITA works on other crops including maize, soybean, cowpea, bananas and yams. As a CGIAR centre based in Africa, IITA also partners with many National Programs and Private Sector in the continent with whom we share improved breeding lines as well as finished products (i.e. released varieties). We also provide capacity building through graduate research opportunities, short-term training and more general training of stake-holders in crop value chains. IITA has released more than 40 improved cassava varieties many of which are grown in different African countries besides Nigeria. Through the NextGen project, we hope to increase our continuously modernise our breeding pipeline and expand our research toolbox in order to continue to serve our stakeholders in the decades ahead.

Different products all made from cassava. Photo by Ismail Rabbi

How do you see NextGen and IITA’s partnership moving forward?

IITA is very pleased with the partnership in NextGen Cassava Project. Together with all our partners in the Africa, US, Latin America and Brazil, we work as one team that is focused on delivering best possible improved cassava varieties to smallholder farmers in Africa. We continue to explore state of the art breeding strategies and tools to increase our program efficiency and effectiveness.  

After all, our shared goal is to empower farmers through innovative, sustainable cassava breeding.