Tanzania: PhD programme generates world-class crop health scientists making a huge impact in assured food security

By Anthony Muchoki

What does Dr. Kiddo Mtunda, Dr Tulole Bucheyeki and Dr. Arnold Mushongi have in common?  

Each one of them today, is a head of leading public owned  research institution in Tanzania, and are among the few very active  crop health scientist (breeders) that the country boasts of.   

Their story is just a tip of the iceberg.  They are among 14 plant breeders  funded by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in their  PhD studies, so as to spearhead the green revolution in Tanzania.  Other  27 students have been supported at the Masters level.   The scientists studied at University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa or at Sokoine University of Agriculture, Morogoro TZ.

The footprints of researchers funded by AGRA at PhD traverses almost all  Tanzania government owned  network  of  sixteen  agricultural research centres located in seven agro-ecological zones. 

The research centers include Ilonga, KATRIN,  Dakawa/Cholima,  Kibaha, Mlingano and Mikocheni (Eastern Zone); Maktupora and Hombolo (Central Zone); Ukiriguru and Maruku (Lake Zone); Selian and HORTI-Tengeru (Northern Zone);  Naliendele (Southern Zone); Uyole and Kifyulilo (Southern Highlands Zone) and Tumbi (Western Zone).”

Dr Mtunda is in charge of Sugarcane Research Institute (SRI) Kibaha, Dr Bucheyeki leads  Agricultural Research Institute-Uyole (ARI-Uyole), and Dr Mushongi,  heads Kilombero Agricultural Training and Research Institute (KATRIN), while as well supervising maize breeding activities in various locations around the country.

For the trio,  crop health is a passion and their way of life. But for majority Tanzanian farmers terms like crop breeder,  maize scientist, soil scientist, are uncommon and unknown. 

Dr Bucheyeki, says it is sad that despite the all important role soil scientists and crop breeders play at the bottom end of food security value chain, their work is hardly recognised outside academic circles and businesses benefiting out of the work done.

He cheekily says,  people take for granted that good health of a family, a nation, starts with provision of food, which crop breeders’ passion. 

“When you talk about soil health or plant health the masses do not easily understand, and we must work harder to ensure the masses take at heart soil and crop health issues,” he intones.

He is happy AGRA has helped create the capacity of Tanzania’s breeders to reach the height of world class.  

“We get people visiting us from different parts of the world to look at the improved varieties developed at Uyole, which have registred great success and are on sale in and out of Tanzania, he says. He adds some of the most sought after varieties were developed by PhD candidates as a part of their research work.

Dr Bucheyeki’s PhD (Plant breeding) thesis was titled  “characterization and genetic analysis of maize germplasm for resistance to northern corn leaf blight disease in Tanzania.” This was at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Dr Mushongi, supporting  Dr Bucheyeki’s assertion that soil and plant scientists as  a career choices for majority of Tanzanian are  unheard, notes: “Men and women who have taken such career paths to the PhD level, are too few. Secondly,  those who take the path rise up the ladder to corporate level in our career, and some become inactive as far as breeding seeds is concerned.” 

He is of the view that having focused scientists for plant health is key in achieving higher yields that are safe for human and livestock consumption.  “This is vitally contributes to improving national food security and alleviating  poverty,” he notes.

Do we need crop breeders really?

Dr. Mushongi, says that losses of maize grain yield due to various stresses in Tanzania and other developing countries sometimes amounts to over 25 percent. At the same time, the  productivity is often very low at 1.5t/ha versus the potential of 8t/ha due. In such a scenario, he says, research on maize and search of the best varieties for different regions of vast Tanzania, cannot be gainsaid.

“In most of my work as a maize scientist my focus is on improved production and productivity as well as the crops safety and human nutrition,”  he notes.

Dr. Mushongi PhD(Plant Breeding with a bias in maize) thesis research was on ‘Genetic studies of secondary traits and yield heterosis in maize under high and low nitrogen conditions, incorporating farmer perceptions and preferences for varieties.’ This was at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa with practicals done in Tanzania. 

“I gained a lot in my PhD studies including coming up with improved maize varieties that have become popular.    I would really want other Tanzanians to get similar opportunity like AGRA gave me, especially in undertaking practical breeding projects for my studies. It was instrumental in who I am today as a leading maize breeder,” says the conventional maize breeder, who is also skilled  in molecular breeding.

Cassava  for industrial starch….

For Dr. Mtunda, her  main passion is breeding cassava.   Her PhD study  was at University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, in partnership with Cornell University.  It involved investigating starch content and quality of cassava varieties developed and grown in lowlands of Tanzania. She was lucky as Cornell University provided laboratory facilities for analytical analysis cassava starch samples. 

In her study, she was able to developed new cassava clones which are in use today. To her cassava is the key for opening up the starch industry in Tanzania.  Since completing her study in 2010, she has continued breeding cassava at Sugarcane Research Institute (SRI). “At the moment  we are using rapid propagation techniques in screen houses…. We have been able to produce thousands of cassava plants in a matter of months,” she says.

Since 2010, AGRA has supported a number of PhD students in Soil & Water Management at SUA, as one of the two  regional PHD hubs that AGRA has helped roll out PhD study programmes. The other was at KNUST in Kumasi, West Africa.

Dr Abel Kaaya, who has been managing the project says the programme helped to increase the number of research managers in agricultural fields from Universities and agricultural research centres to national Ministries of Agriculture. 

The  AGRA-supported programme involves  coursework, examination and practical research project at the student’s home countries.

Over 10 years ago AGRA realised Africa had an acute shortage of plant breeding specialists and to  address the challenge invested in  training  plant breeders for the East and Southern Africa region in partnership with the Africa Center for Crop Improvement (ACCI). In Tanzania, the few breeders available were going on retirement and the science of crop breeding was in great jeopardy.


Sokoine University of Agriculture


Grant: $401,945

Support of M.Sc. training in plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology and horticulture

University of KwaZulu-Natal