Ms Mwila Chibanda graduated with her Master’s through the Improved Master’s in Cultivar Development in Africa (IMCDA) programme at UKZN, which is funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
The programme combines research with internships and sees students spending between 6 and 12 months as interns at a seed company, national breeding programme or Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centre where they carry out their research projects. This experience aids graduates in finding employment or PhD funding.
Chibanda, who hails from Zambia, conducted her research at SeedCo Limited where she is now a Research Associate. In the context of increasing demand for meat protein and high-protein animal feed, she explored the soybean crop, an important source of protein in animal feed manufacture. Soybean’s nitrogen-fixing capabilities are also valuable in African rotational farming systems. The market for soybean in Zambia, a top soybean producer, is rapidly increasing. However, the increase in tonnage arises from increasing hectarage rather than yield, with Zambian yield being lower than average.
Chibanda wanted to explore how to improve yield to increase profitability for farmers. She investigated cultivar lines in Zambia that had not been measured for genetic gains and assessed how much more productive and stable they are compared to earlier lines. She assessed genotype x environmental (GxE) interactions for grain yield, identified stable genotypes across 16 sites in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, determined the genetic gains achieved in breeding for grain yield over 12 years, and determined the secondary traits that directly or indirectly affect yield in soybean cultivars. She found that GxE interaction was highly significant in terms of grain yield in the sites under study, and demonstrated that no significant genetic gains were achieved in breeding for high yield and stability of these lines in the soybean-breeding programme between 1996 and 2007. This led to a change of breeding strategy for the programme under evaluation, changing focus from disease tolerance to genetic yield gains.
Chibanda said her internship at SeedCo expanded her appreciation of the breeding process leading to the development of a variety, thanks to the mentorship from Mr Jacob Tichagwa and Dr Hapson Mushoriwa.
She thanked AGRA for funding her research, Dr Julia Sibiya, Professor John Derera and staff at UKZN for their mentorship and encouragement, as well as SeedCo, especially Mushoriwa, Tchagwa and Mr Herbert Masole, for the mentorship and resources provided. She credited their teams in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe for enabling her to monitor trials and collect data. She also thanked her parents for caring for her son during her Master’s studies.
Words: Christine Cuénod
Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal