Letter from the Director

Dear friends of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub,

With your support, 2008 was an exciting year of growth and expanding possibility for the BecA-International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) Hub. The BecA initiative is strengthening capacity for biosciences research in Africa and improving products that enhance the livelihoods of farmers in the region. Hosted and managed by ILRI, the BecA Hub is open for use by African scientists and students from national research institutes and universities in Africa, by ILRI biotechnology research teams and their partners in Africa and internationally, and by other Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centers and their partners.

This past year, the Hub continued training African scientists and increasing our capacity to support their research. Construction and refurbishment of workspaces, new staff, additional sources of funding and an expanding global network of supporters like you are enabling us to provide first-rate support and training to African scientists.Image

The BecA Hub works in close conjunction with the Biosciences eastern and central Africa network (BecANet), one of four biosciences networks of excellence that are part of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) African Biosciences Initiative. The BecA initiative has been generously supported by the Government of Canada, through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), including the upgrading and equipping of the BecA Hub facilities, so as to provide first class biosciences research facilities for the African scientific community.

Capacity building:
Capacity building at the Hub increased significantly over the last year. Since 2007, we have supported the research of 39 graduate students, 16 short-term trainees and 13 visiting scientists in the Hub laboratories. These researchers include 21 women and represent 13 countries. Several post graduates are supported through BecANet, while others are supported by a range of national governments, regional and international agencies. Many of their findings have immediate application to African agriculture. For example, Brian Karisa, a University of Nairobi student supported by the Born Free Foundation, developed and applied a mitochondrial DNA sequence-based test to identify illegal bushmeat in commercial markets around Nairobi. This test can be applied widely throughout Africa to safeguard our natural resources and reduce health risks associated with eating bushmeat. Another young researcher, Robert Kawuki is a Ugandan student currently completing his PhD thesis. His projects measured phenotypic and genotypic diversity of cassava germplasm in southern, eastern and central Africa, and identified and tested novel single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers for diversity assessment (in press: Kawuki et al., Molecular Breeding).

We are expanding the range of Hub courses to meet the evolving needs of the African agricultural research community. Last year, we hosted more than 180 African students and scientists in two workshops and six bioinformatics courses. Twenty-five conventional plant breeders attended a workshop on molecular marker-assisted selection for crop improvement, conducted in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). It was supported by the Generation Challenge Program (GCP) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)-supported Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Project. Our data analysis workshop was the culmination of a three year Rockefeller Foundation/BecA/GCP-funded project surveying the diversity of cassava and sorghum in the region. Thirty-three researchers from the 11 participating countries analyzed their genotypic and phenotypic data at the workshop. Scientists from IITA and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), hosted by the BecA Hub, coordinated the cassava and sorghum portions of the project, respectively. Students from our previous bioinformatics courses recently founded a regional chapter of the International Society for Computational Biology. This year, they also independently initiated and organized a course in proteomics at the BecA Hub. We are excited to be cultivating a sustainable scientific community, including leadership from the rising generation of young African scientists.

BecA Hub expansion:
The Hub is still in its infancy. We aim to support research and build capacity on a much larger scale, empowering African scientists to lead the coming agricultural revolution for Africa from within. This requires larger, modernized facilities supported by a team of well-qualified staff and partners with a broad range of expertise.

Generous support from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) through the BecA Project is funding expansion and refurbishment of laboratory and related research facilities for hosting the BecA Hub on the ILRI campus in Nairobi. The upgraded facilities are expected to be fully completed and commissioned by mid 2009.

The procurement of scientific equipment and its integration within the building systems represents an important component of the Hub’s program for establishing its core competencies. This includes acquisition of a 454 sequencing machine in 2009 with support from the Google Foundation and Roche. This will expand our ability to perform surveillance for diseases such as Rift Valley Fever and bring our sequencing-based services to the cutting edge of modern research.

The Hub has hired a number of new staff in 2008, expanding our capacity to train scientists and support research in the region. Our new crop research scientist, Dr Jagger Harvey, adds expertise in plant molecular biology that will be reflected in upcoming research and courses, such as application of RNAi for stress and disease resistance. We also hired a new programme management officer, an environmental technician, and two Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture-supported research technicians to support the training laboratory. We are continuing our staff expansion to accommodate the expanding facilities and increasing demand for support.

Partnerships:
We are partnering with world-class organizations and researchers to strengthen our capacity to serve African science. The Hub and GCP recently formed a partnership in which we will provide genotyping services for GCP-supported plant breeders. We gratefully acknowledge the major contributions being made by our partners in the BecA Hub-hosted scientists and institutions, particularly CIMMYT, IITA, and ICRISAT, and by our partners in BecANet and NEPAD and its African Biosciences Initiative.
Among exciting developments for 2009 is the arrival of Dr. Rebecca Nelson who has joined the BecA Hub team for a five month sabbatical leave. Dr. Nelson is an Associate Professor at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, in the Departments of Plant Pathology & Plant-Microbe Biology and Plant Breeding & Genetics and the Field of International Agriculture and Rural Development. Rebecca also serves as the Scientific Director of The McKnight Foundation's Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP), which recently received a $26.7 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to expand the CCRP. With this expansion, Rebecca will take on the new role of Liaison Scientist for the CCRP grants cluster in the East and Horn of Africa. While at the Hub, Rebecca will concentrate on: (a) advancing the anti-aflatoxin research agenda and helping add aflatoxin testing capacity at the Hub; (b) setting up a grants cluster in this region for the McKnight program; (c) furthering collaboration with the maize program for resistance genetics/breeding; and d) advising the BecA Hub team on technologies and research strategies that can help African farmers.

Financial support:
We are particularly grateful to the Government of Canada, through CIDA, for its substantial financial support that has made the BecA initiative possible. We are also indebted to the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Google Foundation, the Government of Kenya, and other African and international investors and partners who have supported the Hub and its activities in 2008.

Contributions and the generous expansion of technical and financial support from the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture are making the Hub an affordable and accessible facility to the African scientific community. Their dedication to promoting sustainable innovation in agriculture for resource-poor farmers is greatly appreciated.

Stay in touch:
We have delivered many presentations about BecA at conferences in Africa and around the globe, promoting the facilities and services available at the Hub. You can stay abreast of our latest news on our new website (http://hub.africabiosciences.org). For scientists in eastern and central Africa, the site also provides a means of applying for BecA support in the form of services (e.g., sequencing, genotyping), courses and workshops, and use of our laboratories for training and research.

If you have not yet had an opportunity to come and see us, we look forward to showing you around the Hub in 2009. We enjoy sharing our work with others, and find that our enthusiasm and ambitious hopes for the future of Africa are contagious.
Thank you for your support. We are all partners in improving the livelihoods of Africans.

Sincerely,
Segenet Kelemu

 

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