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Soybeans Breed Success for Zambia


Emmanuel standing under an IITA irrigation pivot used to water crops in Lusaka, Zambia

Emmanuel Ngonga completed his DARA Big Data Masters degree in early 2020, and since then he has set up his own business, tutored at the University of Zambia (UNZA) and led a successful hackathon event for Zambian students. Despite already having a lot to occupy his time, Emmanuel has been keen to find a job that will allow him to build on his Masters research in agricultural data science and develop his knowledge further. 


In early 2021 he was contacted by one of his former Masters supervisors, Dr Godfree Chigeza, offering him a Research Associate job in the team that Dr Chigeza leads at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). The IITA is an innovative non-profit institution that focuses on food security and alleviating hunger, with offices across sub-Saharan Africa. It is a member of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) consortium, a global alliance of research centres aiming to reduce poverty, improve health and nutrition and enhance ecosystem resilience. 


Emmanuel started this position in May, working as part of a team that conducts the world's largest soybean breeding program. Their work involves developing new varieties of soybean that are more suited to the African continent, a collaborative effort that requires interacting with other scientists and breeders across the world to determine the best growing conditions for each soybean variety. Emmanuel says, ‘Africa is the only continent that is yet to experience a green revolution and this fact desperately needs to be rectified for Africa to develop economically. IITA aims to improve the agricultural sector by targeting subsistence farmers who form the backbone of Africa's agricultural sector, helping them to improve their farming techniques and breed new varieties of crops that can thrive in African environments.’

Soybeans have the largest concentration of fat and protein of any single crop with about 20% oil and 40% protein per seed. They are fairly easy to grow and can also biologically fix nitrogen in the soil while maturing. These qualities make it an important cash crop that more farmers across the continent could take advantage of, thereby improving Africa’s economic status. Africa possesses 60% of the world's uncultivated arable land and also has both the youngest and the fastest growing population of any continent.


Emmanuel thinks that African countries should make the best possible use of their youth and vast unused lands to reap what could be enormous demographic dividends, saying that ‘the work we are undertaking is vital to the agricultural prosperity of the African people. The Big Data analytics and plant breeding skills I gained during my MSc studies have been very handy in managing our large germplasm catalogues. I really enjoy working in this capacity, it has helped me to appreciate the intricacy that goes into breeding a fine crop that farmers can appreciate. It is my personal resolve to be among the ambitious young professionals that will help the continent to realise this potential. I consider it a great honour and privilege to hold this position.’


In October 2022 Emmanuel plans to return to the UK, to the University of York where he studied for his MSc. He has been offered a PhD place analysing data to develop genetic resources for amaranth and soybeans; the work he is currently doing will lay strong foundations for his future research. He continues to tutor part-time at UNZA, where students benefit from his programming and science communication skills.


Recently the Head of UNZA’s Physics Department Dr Steven Mudenda put him forward to be a tutor at the upcoming DARA Project Astronomy Summer School in October 2021, a key part of the DARA Basic Training programme. Emmanuel is excited to take part in this and help his peers to develop their knowledge, saying ‘this will be a wonderful opportunity for me to impart my skills on Zambia’s young and upcoming astronomers and data scientists.'


A man tending to a soybean crop (credit: IITA)

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