Africa remains food insecure, despite remedial measures delineated in several conferences, resolutions and publications. Daily per capita food consumption has never exceeded 2,140 kcal/day since the 1960s. Household food resources can barely provide 85 per cent of the internationally recommended food requirement for a healthy, active life. Africa's hungry and malnourished population, which was just about 80 million in the early 1970s, has more than doubled over the past three and half decades. Persistent low productivity and incomes have hampered access to food.
Against this food insecurity background, the United Nations has set Millennium Development Goals, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, as target, to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger between 1990 and 2015. The challenge to meet this millennium development goal remains in sub-Saharan Africa with 34 of the 49 Least Developed Countries (LDCs). The region needs to increase crop production both to help ensure food security and to increase income in the agricultural sector. It has been estimated that most of the crops which feed and clothe the people of the region are realizing only 20% of their yield potential. The low yields are due mainly to abiotic (such as unsuitable soils, drought) and biotic (diseases, insect pests and weeds) stresses in areas where fertilizer, chemicals and irrigation are often too costly or unavailable. Another major challenge that is likely to affect productivity in tropical regions is climate change. Plant breeding programmes will need to use all available tools to address these problems. A major limitation to plant breeding in sub-Saharan Africa is that most of the crops in the region such as sorghum, millet, cassava, yam, plantain, cocoyam, taro, bambara groundnut and cowpea are of little or no importance to researchers in the developed world and have been research-neglected (so called "orphan crops").
A recent survey by the FAO in a number of countries including 19 from sub-Saharan Africa revealed that Africa lacks capacity for germplasm evaluation and utilization not only because of inadequate financial investment but also because there are very few plant breeders. There is also very limited training in traditional plant breeding and almost no training in the application of newer technologies such as marker assisted selection which has now become an integral feature of modern plant breeding research and practice. Another disturbing situation is how to make increasingly available information generated by biotechnology inaccessible in the poorer countries. The availability of a critical mass of adequately trained scientists in plant breeding and genetics with a good knowledge of the use of molecular markers and a mindset orientated towards excellence in the African environment will impinge positively on plant breeding in sub-Saharan Africa. The region needs local plant breeders trained in their working environment in national breeding programmes in their home countries.
In 2000, the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in collaboration with Cornell University started a regional centre to train plant breeders for Africa. The ACCI has created a de facto network of 47 functioning plant breeders and their local co-supervisors in 13 countries, linked with a common training, experience and philosophy towards plant breeding in Africa. The excellent results from the ACCI demonstrate Africa's ability to train the necessary human capacity in plant breeding.
A need exists to train plant breeders in West Africa & Central Africa, by developing a parallel programme at the University of Ghana, Legon (UGL) because:
- the region is also critically short of plant breeders, and most of the crops grown in the region are common to the region and relatively unimproved;
- the logistics and cost of travelling between West Africa countries is relatively low
- the region has a common culture, which is different from East and Southern Africa; and unique solutions will be required because the limits and constraints of operating a similar Centre in Ghana are different from those faced in South Africa.
To meet these needs, the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) has been established at the University of Ghana to train plant breeders with expertise to improve the indigenous crops that feed the people of the West African sub-region. The WACCI plant breeding training programme will produce skilled, knowledgeable and properly resourced breeders to breed locally important crops to meet local needs and preferences.