Update from the East Africa Breeding Hub

Supporting the next generation of coffee varieties for East Africa.

The East African Breeding Hub (EABH) was established in 2018 by World Coffee Research (WCR), participating countries, and the hub host, the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB). The EABH is expected to generate the next generation of coffee varieties that will be adapted to various growing conditions in Africa and sustain the industry’s genetic and breeding pools not only in Rwanda but also across the region.

The (EABH) is part of a network of WCR regional breeding hubs, which works closely with national research institutes and private sector partners to accelerate the pace of coffee genetic improvement. The hubs—which operate virtually—have a collaborative design and governance among participating partners, and are coordinated locally by a host institution.

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To each hub, WCR contributes the results of advanced research, including: marker assisted selection capabilities to accelerate breeding objectives, training for local breeders on advanced breeding techniques, and improved breeding populations, as well as access to the Core Collection of 100 genetically diverse C. arabica plants.

In 2020, the EABH focused on the key areas: breeding material evaluation, introducing molecular approaches and organizing workshops for the region’s coffee breeders to brainstorm demand-led coffee breeding and development of breeding strategies.

Variety performance today drives breeding for the future

Taking measurements of existing varieties in field trials (called "phenotyping") is a necessary first step for assessing their value for breeding, to identify lines for making new crosses, and to identify molecular markers associated with the specific traits that can be used to accelerate later breeding. In East Africa, WCR has a number of field trials from which data will be shared with EABH breeders and incorporated into decision-making for future variety creation. In general, data is collected on yield, disease susceptibility (especially coffee leaf rust and coffee berry disease), and drought tolerance.

The Rwanda Agriculture Board hosts candidate trials of not-yet-commercially released F1 hybrid varieties at three research stations in Rubona (Huye District), Gahororo (Ngoma District) and Mwito (Nyamasheke District). The 22 hybrid candidates will mature in 2022.

Also in Rwanda, RAB hosts a collection of 75 accessions of the C. arabica Core Collection, at Robona and Gahororo. Core Collection plants will reach maturity later in 2021, when yield and harvest performance data can begin to be collected. Additionally in Rwanda, 28 international varieties are being investigated in multi-environmental testing at three locations (Rubona, Gahororo, and Nyamasheke) for adaptation, productivity and quality. Similar trials are in place in Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. From multilocation trial data, adaptation potential (narrow vs. wide), and stability over the time and locations can be evaluated and used to inform future breeding choices.

New tools for identity preservation and advanced breeding

As it stands, seed producers, nurseries, farmers and supply chain actors do not have the needed tools to identify and trace varieties as they move from seed gardens to nurseries, from nurseries to farmer fields, from the field to the port, and from there into roasting drums around the world. This matters because different varieties do different things. And if farmers don’t know or can’t trust what they have, they are exposed to huge risk.

World Coffee Research, in partnership with the USDA and IRD, are developing a global Arabica and Robusta SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) panel (a reference dataset containing enough SNPs required to estimate genetic diversity and distinguish variety) to be used in support of two urgent goals: authentication of varieties in foundation seed programs (seed lot cleanup program), and to support regional, and national breeding programs to breed more efficiently and effectively, including using molecular breeding approaches.

In 2020, the EABH facilitated the collection of leaf DNA samples of key varieties from five countries in East Africa, to aid nursery/seed lot cleanup and advanced breeding.

Bringing breeders together—with each other and with roasters

In 2020, EABH hosted multiple reeder’s workshops, bringing together coffee breeders from 8 different countries in Africa: Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. Due to the Covid19 pandemic, workshops were held virtually, and focused on sharing overviews of breeding tools, technologies, and opportunities offered to African coffee breeders through the regional breeding hub and so as to align breeding objectives with farmers’ needs. Meetings allowed breeders to articulate priorities for operationalization of the breeding hub and thematic areas where WCR interventions should be directed.

The SNPs panels and the concept of demand-led coffee breeding initiated in 2020 will be effectively exploited in 2021 as a cornerstone towards modernization of national breeding programs in the participating countries.