The African Centre for Crop Improvement, based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, was cited for "exceptional contributions to food security in Africa" in the award presented by former UN secretary-general and Nobel peace prize laureate Kofi Annan.
Annan is chairman of A Green Revolution for Africa, which works to improve agriculture and food security on the continent. He handed the organisation's first award to centre director Mark Laing at a ceremony in Arusha, Tanzania.
The centre, begun in 2002, has produced 42 PhD students from 14 African countries; 38 more are in training and 17 others are due to start training soon. A sister organisation, the West African Centre for Crop Improvement, is training another 58 breeders.
Laing says all the centre's graduates have remained in Africa, with most working on improving food crops in their home countries.
The centre is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Funding for graduates' work continues after graduation, which has ensured a 100% retention rate.
Students are working with 17 crops, among them millet, sorghum, African rice, cassava, sweet potatoes and teff. All the crops are staple foods in certain African countries.
Laing says he has "nothing against" genetically modified technology but believes conventional breeding is "more pragmatic, faster and more effective". Genetically modified crops can take up to 10 years to be released after being developed, while conventional plant breeding takes about three years.
The centre takes its cue from farmers, questioned through surveys, what they require in crops. "We analyse and identify the key traits they need. Students ask them to help choose the best plants for breeding. The farmers adopt the plants readily because it is what they want."
An example is dry beans. It is Africa's most important protein but half the crop is generally destroyed by weevils. "We are breeding resistance to weevils in Malawi and neighbouring countries and this will double the crop yields," Laing added.
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