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Educating the Next Generation of Plant Breeders in Sub-Saharan Africa

This article describes a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional effort by Iowa State University and its partners to address the shortage of plant breeders in SSA.

Published onDec 06, 2023
Educating the Next Generation of Plant Breeders in Sub-Saharan Africa


The shortage of plant breeders in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) presents a challenge because it limits the development of improved varieties of crops for regional food security. In this article, we describe a novel training model for plant breeders involving a coalition of African and US universities, and non-governmental organizations. The goal was to provide plant breeders with the skills to run successful cultivar development programs focused on delivering high rates of genetic gain. The overall program involved strengthening the applied aspects of plant breeding training with Open Educational Resources that provide faculty and students with an easily updated, state-of-the-art, competency-focused curriculum. Also, 6–12 months internships were supported in private or public sector breeding programs with a breeding pipeline. Using this approach, 91 master’s students were trained from 15 countries at three SSA universities. A Professional Learning Community continues spearheading change in pedagogical approaches away from rote learning of breeding methods and towards understanding key principles and mastery of skills needed to manage and optimize cultivar development pipelines. Faculty and experts from Iowa State University delivered teaching and learning workshops to African faculty and evaluated implementations of pedagogical approaches learned. Substantial improvements to the training process occurred during the project period, with continuing benefits through excellent materials, instructor skill and motivation, and networks formed. Some elements are easily sustained, while others require additional funding and sustainable business models to fully capture the potential benefits.

Keywords. IMCDA, PBEA, food security, Sub-Saharan Africa, plant breeding, open educational resources, e-learning

Corresponding Author. Walter P. Suza, [email protected]


One of the key targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 2 of zero hunger is increased agricultural productivity and incomes in small-land holder farms. An increased rate of delivery of improved farmer-preferred varieties to the farmer is one of the keyways to improve agricultural productivity. However, in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), the slow rate of delivery and adoption of improved crop varieties, and delayed development of new varieties result in varietal turnover rates too slow to capture the benefits of new plant breeding technologies and to address climate change.[1][2][3][4] Varietal turnover, in addition to other factors, is one of the reasons for low average yields in the region.[5] Consequently, the average lifetime of a variety across most major crops grown in SSA is close to 30 years.[6]

Lack of access to markets and cost also limit delivery of improved seed to SSA farmers.[3][7][8] Another key reason for the slow delivery of improved crop varieties in SSA is a shortage of plant breeders.[9][10][11] To ensure that SSA has strong plant breeding programs, investment in capacity strengthening in plant breeding and seed systems is needed.[12] The next generation of plant breeders in SSA can help to maximize rates of genetic improvement per year and per dollar invested to ensure effective and economical delivery of farmer- and processor-preferred cultivars.[13] Strong plant breeding capacity is needed to support a steady supply of improved varieties adapted to Africa’s diverse agro-ecologies and to a rapidly changing climate and market demands.[5][6]

Because the practice of plant breeding is more akin to engineering,[14] it is important to focus the training on the application of knowledge to solve practical problems and to optimize cost and efficiency of the breeding process.[13][15][16] Training should also be tailored to expose students to product concepts to meet customer needs, and to the use of breeding pipelines with clear planning and decision points, resulting in effective and efficient cultivar delivery. Curriculum content and structure need to be guided by a clear set of core competencies for well-sequenced and aligned courses for maximum mastery and retention.[17][13] Instruction should focus not just on the overall operation of a breeding program, but also on participatory variety development, release and post-release processes, and seed multiplication and delivery. Instructors need to be trained in how to use new and more effective teaching methods and be given opportunities for professional development in emerging technologies used in plant breeding.

To ensure that training matches the local context, student research projects should address critical food security needs in SSA in cooperation with progressive, ongoing programs such as those managed by CIMMYT, rather than these being confined to minor issues due to lack of resources.[18] The training can also be strengthened by incorporating more practical and hands-on learning, and include increased opportunities for practicing plant breeders to receive in-service training and upgrading of skills.

Figure 1. A novel model to improve graduate level plant breeding training in SSA. Students from several SSA countries were trained at: The University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) serving Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa; Makerere University (Uganda) serving Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda; and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (Ghana) serving Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ghana. The number of students from the various countries are indicated in the map. Student feedback and employment data source: AGRA

To develop the needed capacity to address these constraints (Table 1), a novel graduate-level plant breeding education program was piloted through cooperation among the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Iowa State University (ISU), Makerere University, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Kwame-Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (Figure 1). The program involved three synergistic elements:

  1. Improved Master of Science (MSc) in Cultivar Development for Africa (IMCDA), an AGRA program that involved 24–30 months of highly specialized MSc-degree training of plant breeders to be able to manage independent public or private breeding programs in the region.

  2. Plant-Breeding e-Learning in Africa (PBEA) with the mission to develop and deliver post-graduate level Open Educational Resources (OER) that enhance specific competencies in the management of cultivar development programs (Figure 1).

  3. Professional Learning Community of PBEA (PBEA-PLC), to provide pedagogical training to African faculty to effectively use the OER developed by PBEA, and to establish continuing networking among those faculty.

Table 1. Program interventions to address common deficiencies in existing plant breeding graduate training programs in SSA.


AGRA Plant Breeding training programs and IMCDA




Too few plant breeders trained

Enhanced capacity, 501+ plant breeders at MSc and PhD levels trained in Africa

Open educational resources (OER) developed to enhance instruction in any institution

Enhanced program quality & capacity in many institutions

Curriculum not core-competency driven

Content focused on core-competencies for IMCDA program

OER addressing key content areas

Instructional methods focused on delivering key competencies

Additional OER in crop physiology, plant pathology, plant molecular biology and biotechnology developed

Gap in variety development pipeline & delivery

Focus on variety development pipeline (from product design to adoption)

Included participatory variety development to enhance adoption and linkages with private seed sector to ensure commercialization

“Cultivar development” module is strongly pipeline focused

Peer-learning among instructors in various institutions

Continued revision of curriculum

Limited opportunity for instructor professional development

Participation in IMCDA funded in-house breeding programs, attending the African Plant Breeding Academy course and visits to Iowa State University on curricula development and research

Need for improved teaching methods

Training on supervision of post graduate students

OER are an excellent resource for instruction if delivered more effectively

Training in instructional methods, curriculum development. Instructor’s discussion forum

Continued attention to instructional quality

Inadequate practical learning

Frequent hands-on learning sessions in in-house breeding program. Required internships to public and private sector breeding programs.

ALAs used to reinforce lesson content

Sharing effective exercises among instructors across institutions

Limited scope of student research

Research embedded in larger NARS/CGIAR programs and immediately used. Internships in private sector seed companies, NARs and CGIAR

Enhanced collaboration with advanced research institutions

Inadequate post-graduation in-service training

Supplemental modules provided to students, graduates, & other practicing breeders

OER appropriate for self-study, short-course usage

Greater attention to in-service training

The IMCDA Program

The IMCDA program managed by AGRA served a critical role of identifying pilot universities in SSA (Figure 1) and improving their plant breeding training capacity in various ways, including:

  1. Strengthening the ability of selected universities to train industry-ready plant breeders who can independently design and operate cultivar development pipelines to produce farmer-, consumer- and processor- preferred varieties.

  2. Strengthening cultivar development programs in these universities to serve as training platforms for future plant breeders.

  3. Training 91 MSc students from 15 SSA countries.

  4. Establishing student internship programs in successful private seed companies and elite National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) breeding programs.

  5. Increasing the availability of high-quality educational resources and carefully designed case studies, with a strong focus on product conceptualization, pipeline optimization, data management, and maintenance of seed purity.

  6. Enhancing the skills of mid-career public- and private- sector plant breeders with modern technologies in plant breeding, through promotion and use of PBEA OER and through short courses.

The pilot program (IMCDA) selected universities in Ghana, South Africa, and Uganda met the following criteria:

  1. An existing graduate program in plant breeding funded by AGRA that had been successful in the Education for Africa Crop Improvement sub program of AGRA.

  2. An infrastructure for plant breeding research.

  3. A strong working relationship with NARS, private seed companies, and/or CGIAR Centers.

  4. Some IT infrastructure to allow the use of PBEA OER.

The IMCDA program also supported a 6–12 months internship program to help expose students to practical aspects of plant breeding and seed production. Almost 100% of the MSc graduates from the program are engaged in various agricultural activities in their home countries in either the private or public sector or involved in PhD programs locally and internationally (Figure 1).

The PBEA Program

The PBEA program in the ISU Department of Agronomy supported the objective of developing OER to comprehensively modernize plant breeding curricula in SSA. The guiding principles were that:

  1. The curricula should prioritize students’ development of core competencies.

  2. The OER should actively engage the students with in-class activities and promote self-directed learning outside of class. A set of Applied Learning Activities (ALA) were developed to promote such engagement.

  3. OER should be aligned to promote progressive development of competencies across the different subjects.

  4. Instructor guides should be developed to assist instructors in developing lesson plans.

PBEA OER provide the needed competencies to prepare plant breeders to manage cultivar development programs (Figure 1). The OER and associated ALAs emphasize the application of scientific knowledge for decision-making in plant breeding (Table 1). PBEA OER are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) License. The OER can be accessed using laptop computers and mobile phones and devices.

The initial primary users of the OER were the instructors and students at the three partner universities in the IMCDA program. Secondary targets include graduates from the IMCDA program who might need to improve their own understanding or teaching. Additional individuals from several countries (Figure 2) are also accessing these resources.

Figure 2. Map showing the number of global users (with more than 1 session) of PBEA OER between Nov 25, 2020, and Feb 25, 2021, obtained from Google Analytics, involving a total of 77 countries including the SSA region.A map of the world Description automatically generated

The PBEA Professional Learning Community

Building on the success of PBEA in delivering plant-breeding OER, and on the educational expertise of faculty in the ISU Department of Agricultural Education and Studies, PBEA-PLC was established:

  1. To improve instructional effectiveness and assist African universities to effectively use the OER.

  2. To provide a platform for instructors to continue improving their lesson delivery by sharing their experiences and materials they develop.

PBEA-PLC enhanced the effective application of the OER by faculty at the African partner universities, shared pedagogical skills with 10 other universities in graduate plant breeding education, and with the African Plant Breeders Association meeting in October 2019 and 2021. PBEA-PLC also continues to facilitate learning strategies so that the faculty evolve from being well-trained plant breeders to effective plant breeder educators.

As part of the PLC, faculty develop and share among one another best practices for integration of the PBEA curriculum. Further, professional development needs were identified, and professional development activities were provided to enhance pedagogy and student learning. This was accomplished via a team of e-learning facilitators who provided individualized training (face-to-face in Africa and ongoing consulting via electronic media). Program-wide training for faculty in the partner institutions was conducted during symposia at ISU. The facilitators function as a team and help to identify the instructional needs of each institution, create the necessary professional development plans, collect best pedagogical practices, and serve as consultants to the African plant breeding faculty.

The partnership between PBEA and the ISU Digital Press

Feedback from students and instructors in Africa provided the ISU teams with a better understanding of local challenges encountered by the African counterparts. On-site visits and workshops also revealed a need for rigorous testing, review, and revision of the OER to ensure their effective use.

However, identifying the appropriate technology for delivering the OER under limited internet and electricity access was a significant challenge. The pace of the project and the need to deliver the OER to coincide with student enrollment necessitated choosing the Adobe Captivate software which enabled the packaging of the OER for delivery on USB devices. The delivery of OER on USB devices allowed users to access the content without dependence on constant access to the internet. However, content was not easily editable in Adobe Captivate, which denied the instructors the freedom to adapt the OER to meet their teaching preferences. The content packaged in Adobe Captivate was therefore migrated to a Drupal website to enable editing and adaptation of the OER; however, another challenge arose about how to maintain the website functionality and security after the end of the PBEA project.

It became apparent that the ideal content management platform for delivering PBEA OER would be one managed by a university library and regulated to enable selected experts to provide periodical updates to the content. The partnership between PBEA and the ISU Digital Press enabled the team to repackage the OER into digital textbooks to increase the accessibility and affordability for users across the globe (Figure 2). The digital OER textbooks are a contribution to United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4: ensuring inclusive and equitable education.

Explore the PBEA series.

Program Impacts at IMCDA Institutions and Beyond

Collaboration between IMCDA, PBEA, and PBEA-PLC produced over 90 MSc-level plant breeders for SSA (Figure 1A). The breeders received all their training within the region allowing the students to apply the core competencies (Figure 1B) to their research which focused on local challenges. Networks with public and private seed sectors in SSA have created opportunities for student internships in private seed companies and progressive public breeding programs across SSA. Instructional support to the faculty in Africa through PBEA-PLC has helped African faculty to effectively integrate PBEA OER and improve their teaching and learning needs. PBEA-PLC has established best practices for integrating the e-learning modules, identified professional development needs, and professional development activities on site in Africa and through teaching and learning symposia at ISU. Feedback from the African instructors and students indicates PBEA OER are of great value and relevant to teaching needs in SSA (Figure 1C). Graduates from the IMCDA program have found employment in both public and private sectors, and a number have advanced to doctoral level training (Figure 1D). PBEA OER are open to the public beyond SSA and since the inception of the PBEA program in 2013, the use of OER has expanded around the world.

The IMCDA, PBEA, and PBEA-PLC programs have enabled significant improvements to the existing MSc plant breeding education programs at the selected pilot universities in SSA (Table 2). The training used ALAs coupled with training in data analysis, automated data collection, efficient data handling, estimation of genetic gain, optimizing the breeding pipeline, and accessing global databases. These activities enhanced learning and increased students’ ability to translate facts and skills into application. Instructors have given positive feedback about receiving training in more learner-centered educational methods and have incorporated elements of what they have learned into their teaching styles. Feedback from student users and others also indicated the great usefulness of PBEA OER (Figure 1).

Table 2. Objectives of the IMCDA, PBEA, and PLC programs and remarks about their fulfillment.





Strengthen university training of plant breeders

Training focus, approaches, staffing, curriculum, and teaching methods improved

Continuing improvements based on foundations laid

Additional operational funding and greater university ownership needed

Embed model cultivar development programs in the training program

Model cultivar development programs operating in the 3 target universities

Continuing enhancement of the model programs

Independent funding must be acquired

Establish effective student internship programs

All AGRA sponsored students participated in useful internships

Continuing to build opportunities for student internships

Primary support required from host programs

Sponsor MSc training of 90+ students from priority countries on priority crops

91 students fully sponsored by AGRA for MSc degree. Additionally, 33 MSc and 8 PhDs partially funded, and 35 additional MSc students benefited from program improvements.

Additional students continue to be sponsored by other development partners

Continuing demand for training anticipated with funding through other projects

Produce high-quality educational resources, including relevant case studies (in conjunction with PBEA)

6 high-quality interactive OER produced, many case studies produced

Additional OER development provided for by other projects

Business model required that provides for ongoing hosting. Funding needed for updating platforms, refining and updating existing courses and developing additional ones

Enhance skills of currently employed plant breeders through short-courses and PBEA materials

PBEA materials made available, several short training courses provided

Wider promotion and distribution of PBEA materials, additional short courses to be offered

PBEA distribution cost minimal. Quality short-course training can become self-supporting.

By emphasizing efficient cultivar development and production to address real-world needs, the new training model equips students to be more productive in developing varieties to meet the needs of smallholder farmers. Real-world experience in university-based breeding programs and supervised internships put into practice what the students learned during their degree programs. To ensure success, the programs involved a steering committee representing the various institutions and specialties to maintain relevance of all elements of the training approach. IMCDA graduates have found employment in private and public sectors in their home countries, and opportunities to pursue PhD-level education (Figure 1).

There were also challenges in the implementation of the collaborative project. International and multi-institution projects implemented across continents are met with the challenge of maintaining regular face-to-face meetings. Working with partners in SSA, project leadership must be prepared to work with disparate time zones and to resolve internet connectivity difficulties to ensure project partner engagement in project implementation. To address the challenge of obtaining timely feedback, project leadership must budget and plan for on-site visits and workshops to bring together all participating partners. In our case, visits to partner universities helped to encourage the adoption of the OER.

To enhance capacity for e-learning in SSA, the PBEA model offers an opportunity for the region. The PBEA model can be replicated by creating sub-hubs for e-learning delivery at partner universities in the region. The Makerere University Regional Centers for Crop Improvement (MaRCCI), African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI), and West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) are good candidates for e-learning centers to serve the entire continent. As the world has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, e-learning will continue to play a significant role in education as more pandemics are expected to emerge because of globalization and climate change.[19][20][21] The OER developed through PBEA can also serve as foundational resources to deliver education to students via enrollment in future potential distance education programs, although it will be essential to incorporate and require practical training/research projects in their home countries.

Future Directions

The pilot training model shows great promise (Figure 1) of becoming a regional model for preparing African plant breeders who can produce improved varieties more quickly and efficiently in both the public and private sectors. This will lead to an enhanced rate of genetic gain that will play a vital role in addressing the food security issues currently plaguing SSA and beyond. The expanded use of PBEA OER (Figure 2) is a testament of the potential to become a relevant resource for plant breeding education across the world. Further, PBEA-PLC has the potential to widely promote active teaching and learning in higher education in Africa, specifically as it relates to training plant breeders to manage cultivar development programs. However, projects like PBEA need sustained financial support to ensure their success in hosting and delivering easy-to-update OER in places with limited resources. Because of rapid advances in e-learning technology, funding must also be available for updating content management platforms and for professional development of local IT personnel to create e-education sub-hubs at partner institutions in Africa.


We thank William Beavis, Asheesh Singh, Arti Singh, Jessica Barb, Shui-zhang Fei, Laura Merrick, Teshale Mamo, Ken Moore, Madan Bhattacharyya, and Jianming Yu for contributing OER content and providing helpful feedback. We thank Judith Levings, Greg Miller, Miranda Morris, and Rick Mills for providing expertise on best practices in OER use in teaching. We thank Rita Mumm for evaluating the OER and developing the Cultivar Development course. We thank Gretchen Anderson, Andrew Rohrback, Todd Hartnell, Patrick Golus, Glenn Wiedenhoeft, Tyler Price for instructional design expertise and analysis of OER user data. We thank Abbey Elder for technical and editorial support in packaging OER content in Pressbooks.


This work was supported, in whole or in part, by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation [#24576].


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