Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Looking Behind the Africa Trial Sites Network

While Asia and Latin America have benefitted from the Green Revolution, agricultural yields in Africa have increased little over the last half century.  This gap is due, in part, to the current state of African research systems. Improved systems will lead to increased yields, a solution that African governments and donors already recognize. Towards this end, several agricultural research scientists associated with the CGIAR’s Consortium for Spatial Information (CSI) established the Africa Trial Sites (AfricaTS) project, a far-reaching initiative that supports the development of international networks of researchers willing to share the results of their cultivar trial experiments.

In a recent interview, the ICT-KM Program caught up with three researchers behind this AGCommons Quick-Win project: Glenn Hyman (CIAT), Kai Sonder (CIMMYT – previously with IITA) and Sibiry Traore (ICRISAT).

What were the main goals of AfricaTS and what were the outputs?

Glenn Hyman: AfricaTS set out to develop a network of trial sites in Africa that could participate in crop improvement programs.  The project aims to manage information related to trial sites in a standardized way, and also hopes to have research organizations pooling information on trial sites and making it available to the crop improvement community in a way that would promote a more efficient evaluation of improved varieties. Project participants identified trial sites in Africa and basic information about these sites.  Tools to make this information more accessible to the crop improvement community were developed and a website was established to share information developed in the project.  The website includes results of some spatial analyses, tools for analyzing data, and links to existing resources for the crop improvement community. 

The above image shows a map of climate similarity to the Maroua, Cameron trial site, based on the Homologue™ model. The areas in red are the most similar in terms of rainfall, temperature and seasonal weather pattern. Click here to enlarge.

Can other organizations outside the CGIAR access information on the website?

Glenn Hyman: Absolutely!  It’s about international public goods, something we need to develop more. It often happens in the CGIAR that we get paid to do research that ends up sitting on our own hard drives or on our own bookshelves. This project is about getting results out there for the public to use.

Why did the four Centers, CIAT, CIMMYT, IITA and ICRISAT, get involved in this project?

Glenn Hyman: Mostly because they are the main Centers working on crop improvement in Africa. It was partly opportunistic as well, because a couple of us sat around talking about the idea, then we sent out a note to everyone else. And these four were the ones that shared the strongest interest. One possibility for a second phase of the project could involve other Centers taking it over and starting to put their own sites in. For example, the best candidate to join efforts now is probably the Africa Rice Center (WARDA), because they are doing so much work in West Africa. But there are other Centers, such as CIP, which does a lot of trial work in Africa on sweet potatoes.

Why did you personally come on board?

Kai Sonder: I simply thought it was a great idea. The compilation of the African trial sites with lots of interactive information is a very valuable thing to have available for the whole agricultural research, development and extension community interested in Africa. It allows us to put research results, and not just research results on plant improvement, in a wider geographical context for up-scaling, improved applicability of results, etc. For example, a person from a NARS or NGO in any country in Sub-Saharan Africa can use one or several of the tools on the AfricaTS site and find out about existing research that was done in a place that is similar to their intended area of work. They can then contact a breeder or other person involved to get seeds or planting materials or implement results.  The site will hopefully help connect researchers with similar interests working in similar areas and allow them to exchange results, data, seeds, etc. If properly used, the site will reduce redundancies of testing varieties and breeds and the time it takes to get new improved varieties to farmers in larger areas.  Political and economic communities like ECOWAS are thinking of streamlining their seed improvement and delivery systems and sharing information on evaluation sites. Having access to a common platform will contribute to that goal.

Are you still actively involved with the project?

Glenn Hyman: We would like to get new support for it in the future. The Centers involved plan to present the project at the next CSI meeting, which will take place in Kenya, in June 2010. Between now and then, we will be doing a lot of networking and some tweaking of the website. We’ve also had some interest from colleagues who want us to write proposals related to this. The CGIAR is starting a huge climate change initiative, and a big part of that involves trying to make sure that we have seeds that are adapted to future climates. We plan to write a proposal that will involve cultivar trials for future conditions at different sites today. That’s where we think this network is going to be really useful for future research.

What about the sustainability of Africa Trial Sites work?

Glenn Hyman: A large number of our trial sites are from projects of the Generation Challenge Program. Some others are part of the Tropical Legumes Project, and yet others from the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Project.  These are all ongoing projects that have work out in the field, and which need the type of data and information that are part of this network. We also expect the network to be useful for future projects and multi-location trials.

Are you involved in networking and social media aspects in the run up to the CSI meeting? What do you hope to see as an outcome of the meeting?

Kai Sonder: I will certainly try to contribute to spreading the word on the meeting and getting local colleagues involved. Unfortunately, I’m now based in Mexico and the geographical and time distance doesn’t make it easy to arrange for things.

The meeting’s main purpose is to meet friends and colleagues within the CGIAR GIS community. So it’s a bit like an annual class reunion and it strengthens our personal relations. The big strength of the CSI is that it’s a very informal network that works very well because of our common interests and the social ties.  It’s a very level community and we share a lot on data, software and information. I always learn about new data and techniques and a lot of joint projects have come out of the contacts made.  It would also be nice to get a larger project going that would include the whole CSI group, such as the Agricultural Atlas for Africa.

People of related disciplines from the UN, NGOs and other institutions often participate, depending on the location and interest , so it’s always a good opportunity to network and get a new range of partners and clients. Last year, this was already quite fruitful in combination with the WhereCamp Nairobi, as I met a lot of people from different sectors and learned a lot of new things on technologies and applications beyond our normal agricultural development scope. This year, as the CSI meeting is imbedded in the Africa Agriculture Geospatial Week (AAGW), I look forward to even more exciting new encounters, partnerships and impulses for my work.  

Did you face any challenges with AfricaTS that you didn’t anticipate at the outset?

Glenn Hyman: We expected a lot of historical data on trials to be in a lot better shape than it was. This was partly due to communication in the past. Some of the trial projects were started 25 or 30 years ago. Today, the Internet has made a big difference. Instead of sending trial results out by regular mail, people can get them out by email and through websites like ours. This reduces errors and the time it takes to send things. One thing that is really exciting about AfricaTS is the recent changes expected in Africa related to Internet connection and cell phones. Internet connections will be improved by new undersea cables, probably within a year. This will make a lot more people in Africa connected, and we will soon be able get the Africa crop improvement, research and development community linked to this project. 

Sibiry Traore: Historically, low adoption rates of research germplasm have resulted (inter alia) from inadequate knowledge and sampling of target environments. This was also due to important communication gaps between disciplines, e.g. between breeding and ecology (including human ecology). However, AfricaTS offers a unique opportunity to deploy genes across multiple environments more efficiently by breaking through these knowledge and communication gaps.

Would you have done anything differently?

Kai Sonder: The time frame was tight for a small project and the web design part took too long. So in hindsight, these things should have been set up more at the beginning or parallel to the compilation of sites to have the web platform ready as early as possible. This would also have allowed us to share it with parts of the intended client community early on to get feedback and the word out sooner. If this gets expanded to other crops and geographical areas it will be easier.

What I found very useful was using a single site for sharing project documents online for editing and other work. This prevented endless emails with updates and revised versions and the related problems. For me, this was the first project fully managed by Skype and a Google site. So that was quite an exciting experience using new technologies with three partners in four countries and several continents.

Looking ahead what do you hope to see happening?

Sibiry Traore: AfricaTS should be viewed as a springboard for a much larger concept. Beyond the “ivory tower”, ON-STATION trial networks where growing environments are well controlled, it will set the stage for 21st century multi-local on-farm trials where growing environments are less well controlled, but where farmer implication is far more direct. In that sense, AfricaTS lays the ground for truly multi-local PARTICIPATORY trial networks of the future – which will also be more flexible and affordable.