Our vision for the charity is to enable the use of science and technology in African countries and in India. In particular, we aim to address food and nutrition security by supporting the development of improved crops for smallholder farmers.
Our strategy is to support scientists in the target countries by providing research grants, laboratories, advice, training, equipment and supplies to enable them to carry out marker assisted selection for crop improvement. We presently focus on legume crops for a number of reasons: they provide essential nutrients not available from cereal or root crops; they improve soil by fixing nitrogen and stabilising it through their deep root systems; they are relatively neglected by funding agencies. We focus on legumes important for smallholder farmers, who produce a significant proportion of the food grown in African countries and in India, and who are among the poorest and most marginalised people in the world.
The strategic focus on regional breeding programmes has created two crop breeding consortia: on common bean in East Africa and cowpea in West Africa. These two crops provide the major source of high-quality protein and micronutrients for more than 400m people in Africa: cowpea for more than 200m in West Africa, common bean for a similar number in East Africa. We attribute the success in developing new varieties to the sharp focus which allows us to give intensive support across a wide geographical area with relatively small resources.
We face a challenge in delivering the improved varieties to farmers. We have explored different systems for dissemination but recognise that the scale needed to reach all farmers that could benefit is beyond our resources and will need engagement with bigger players. KT remains committed to support the production of breeder and foundation seed of improved varieties at a scale appropriate to available resources.
The effects of climate change are already apparent, especially in Africa, where there are signs of crop failure due to increased temperatures and more erratic rainfall. We are exploring the potential of legume species from stressed regions of the world to combat the effects of climate change in northwest India, in the Sahel and other stressed regions of Africa. In a new programme ‘Stress Tolerant Orphan Legumes’ – STOL we gathered seeds for a dozen species from genebanks to introduce to projects in the Sahel and Rajasthan. Most of the species are not well studied, though all of them are grown by farmers, who recognise their ability to survive harsh climatic conditions, often in poor soils. We want to know which, if any, of these crops could help smallholder farmers especially in the Sahel and Rajasthan to feed their families and animals and to stabilise their soils against desertification.
The Kirkhouse Trust is transitioning to become a charity in perpetuity over the next two to three years.
Our tactics include:
Supporting capacity building – providing training opportunities at every level in conjunction with the molecular breeding research.
Recruiting high quality consultants, including those who lead the two breeding consortia and welcome African scientists into their labs for training.
Employing a small but effective team of administrators who take a "hands on" approach to managing grants. Each of the programmes has its dedicated project administrator and a dedicated consultant who drives the science. Procurement and Dispatch are responsible for sending out supplies and equipment, particularly to Africa, where even the most basic needs for scientific work are hard to obtain; this is an element of our work that distinguishes KT from other charities, who mainly offer cash.
Annual visits to East and West Africa include gatherings, over three or four days, of the PIs and their colleagues with our consultants. These meetings, coupled with site visits to the institutions, help foster collaboration between the scientists involved in our programmes and their colleagues and with our consultants who also provide leadership and guidance.
The dissemination of improved seed varieties will be supported through the production of breeder and foundation seed, and by engaging more effectively with the bigger players in the longer term.
Managing the charity’s assets and investments to assist with the charity’s aim of balancing income and expenditure initially over a five-year rolling cycle.
Looking to the future, the two main breeding programmes, on cowpea and common bean, are now relatively stable, though their continuation depends on inputs from the charity and the continued interest of our scientific consultants. In that sense, they are not properly sustainable; there will be a continuing need for crop improvement but there is no indication that this work will receive full support from state governments. We see our support for molecular breeding of legume crops continuing into the foreseeable future, though we are likely to turn to more advanced molecular techniques as these become adaptable to African circumstances. STOL crops have been identified as potentially having a crucial role in adapting to climate change in arid parts of Africa and India, and selected species are likely to become the focus of KT breeding programmes in the medium to longer term.
It has been recommended that we should be working to draw the attention of government agencies to our activities to show them how a relatively small investment can bring a large improvement to people’s lives.
Chair of Trustees