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Plant breeding project gives East African farmers better leafy green options

Phillip Griffiths of Cornell AgriTech has a special connection in East Africa that’s improving the humble collard green to help smallholder farmers—and their communities—live and eat better. Above, Griffiths, associate professor of horticulture, and graduate student Hannah Swegarden pose with East African women harvesting collard greens. Photo by Hannah Swegarden 

Phillip Griffiths of Cornell AgriTech has a special connection in East Africa that’s improving the humble collard green to help smallholder farmers—and their communities—live and eat better. Griffiths’ East African connection was made when Charles Wasonga, recipient of the first Cornell Assistantship for Horticulture in Africa (CAHA), began his Ph.D. studies with Griffiths. The design of CAHA, which requires advisors to work alongside students on research in their home country, brought Griffiths to Kenya to oversee Wasonga’s work on green beans. While there, the two also saw a number of collard fields and realized the significant challenges farmers had in getting fresh, desirable products to rapidly urbanizing markets.

“The issue with fresh-market crops versus agronomic crops, like maize, is always getting them to end users. Farmers need to focus on marketable yield,” said Griffiths, associate professor of horticulture, plant breeding and genetics.

In Kenyan diets, collard greens—a member of the Brassica family—are a nutritious dietary staple for millions of people. Like all dark leafy greens, they’re high in vitamin A and a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin C. But collards are highly susceptible to black rot, which can reduce marketability by 50% to 80%. This susceptibility makes the crop a risky venture for small farmers looking to expand their income options with vegetables.

Recognizing the vulnerabilities that would have to be overcome, Wasonga and Griffiths started crossing several kale and collard varieties at Cornell with the goal of breeding for improved resistance to black rot. After Wasonga returned to Kenya, Griffiths applied for and was chosen as a David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future Academic Venture Fund project to continue the collaboration and investigate more diverse leafy Brassica vegetables in Kenya and Tanzania.

“We were both keen on maintaining and growing the collaborations generated. This was driven by a desire to make a difference of consequence. Working with Charles, I saw how efforts here can have an impact on the other side of the world,” Griffiths said.

Griffiths’ breeding work focuses on looking outside the mainstream vegetable classes to develop a wider range of options for consumers, especially ones they’ll clamor for based on taste, quality and aesthetics. He brought this emphasis to his partnership with Wasonga in Kenya, ensuring their work would be translatable to East Africans. All hybrid crosses, selections and advancements were done at Cornell in New York, while field trials and taste tests have taken place in Kenya in collaboration with Wasonga and his seed company, Advantage Crops Limited (ACL). In June this year, Hannah Swegarden, Griffiths’ current graduate research assistant, helped conduct the fourth and latest round of taste tests in Kenya with the project’s promising hybrids as well as a diverse panel of American kale and collard varieties. Later evaluations will assess how long these varieties last in the field over multiple harvests per season.

“I’m asking East Africans to be [researchers] with me because we’re not the ones with the answers. Even though they were surprised how much diversity there is in the variety, they were very able to pick out their local one, which is both a challenge and opportunity,” Swegarden said.

It can take up to 15 years to develop and commercialize a new vegetable variety, and the collard greens project is moving into its final stages. Yet it is already affecting East Africans: Wasonga’s ACL, founded in 2013, is the only Kenya-based seed company focused on providing improved vegetables and forage seeds for smallholders, and the company has plans to offer farmers a commercially available American hybrid collard variety next year.

“Horticultural crops, especially vegetables, hold the key to better nourished, healthier, more productive and economically prosperous communities. We aim to deliver genetically superior crop varieties that are more productive, higher in quality, with better disease resistance profiles and tolerance to abiotic challenges such as drought. This means smallholder farms can cost-effectively produce these crops, experience nutritional gains from their consumption and get income by taking advantage of improved market access opportunities,” said Wasonga.

For Erick Odhiambo, an East African farmer who hosted one of the project’s field trials, the project is making those opportunities evident. Several hybrids had superior quality and yield when compared with the local variety, and Odhiambo now wants the identified seed of the most promising varieties to be made available for purchase.

“The trial has made me more respectable in my community,” Odhiambo said. “My people now see me as an opinion leader who is able to link them up with partners who can bring development to them.”