School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

PhD graduate, Dr Muhammad Ahmad Yahaya.

Plant Breeder Overcomes Adversity to Develop Resilient Sorghum

Graduation marks an important milestone for Dr Muhammad Ahmad Yahaya, a plant breeder, geneticist and lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in Nigeria who navigated geographical and cultural differences to pursue his PhD through the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) at UKZN.

Inspired by the need he witnessed for crops bred by African plant breeders who understand the requirements of growers in very specific contexts and motivated to take on work that would be characterised by academic excellence and eventually contribute to food security, Yahaya looked beyond his borders to add to the experience he attained during his master’s studies at ABU.

He set his sights on the ACCI, known for its mission to train African breeders on African crops, in Africa. Yahaya sought out ACCI Director Professor Hussein Shimelis to supervise his studies thanks to Shimelis’ reputation for being committed to nurturing local talent.

Accompanied by his wife, Yahaya left Nigeria for Pietermaritzburg to undertake his research with the ACCI, finding that it lived up to its promise of being the “City of Choice” through the welcome he received from its residents and the tranquil environment at UKZN that was conducive to his academic pursuits.

Yahaya received funding from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics’ (ICRISAT) Harnessing Opportunities for Productivity Enhancement for Sorghum and Millets (HOPE) II project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The early days of his research were spent acclimatising to his new environment and refining his research proposal. His first year at the ACCI involved completing a mini-project, and Yahaya enjoyed the state-of-the-art facilities provided by the ACCI and UKZN’s Microscopy and Microanalysis Unit (MMU) to complete this work.

Yahaya’s PhD research, conducted on-site in Nigeria, was centred on sorghum, an essential cereal crop native to the arid landscapes of the northern part of the country. A participatory rural appraisal study revealed the struggles sorghum farmers experienced with drought, so Yahaya set out to improve sorghum productivity by developing new generation, locally adapted, drought-tolerant varieties. A rigorous examination of genetic materials from national and international research institutes laid the groundwork to identify potential parent candidates for improving sorghum resilience.

Yahaya’s research took a collaborative approach as he engaged with scientists across disciplines to enrich his study.

The ACCI’s model of proposal development in South Africa and research execution on home soil allowed Yahaya to access guidance when needed while autonomously conducting his research. The assistance he received from Shimelis left a lasting impression, as his supervisor dedicated countless hours to mentor him through challenging data analysis and interpretation tasks via virtual platforms. Remarkably, after just one session on the use of an analytical tool, Shimelis enabled Yahaya to master the nuances of data analysis and become highly skilled in precisely applying these techniques. Yahaya also benefited from data analysis workshops facilitated by ACCI for its PhD student cohort.

Despite the challenges of conducting research in Nigeria, including unstable power grids, limited internet connectivity, and suboptimal research infrastructure, Yahaya seized the opportunity to develop resilience and agility by using these experiences to crystallise his learning and probe the strengths and weaknesses he observed in the indigenous research ecosystem.

During his studies, he collaborated with the seed industry to register and release two high-yielding maize hybrids in 2022, followed by a fall-army worm-tolerant maize hybrid in 2023. He also published six peer-reviewed articles and actively participated in international conferences across Africa and Europe.

These activities and achievements provided Yahaya with a deeper understanding of his field and the skills to produce impactful research.

Yahaya is now focused on developing high-yielding sorghum cultivars with traits favoured by farmers and consolidating their role in the agricultural value chain.

‘My academic journey is far from over; graduation symbolises both a personal triumph and my dedication to a lifelong pursuit of agricultural prosperity in Africa,’ said Yahaya, for whom the years of PhD study serve as a testament to education, resilience and community-driven progress, resonating with the power of dedication and collaboration.

He thanked his family for their unwavering support.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Supplied