Dr Symphorien Agbahoungba’s Post-Doctoral fellowship experience under RUFORUM and what it means for his career and Country Benin

Dr. Ir. Symphorien Agbahoungba – is a Beninese and holds a PhD in Plant Breeding and Biotechnology from Makerere University, Uganda. He holds a MSc. in Natural Resources and Biodiversity Management, an Engineer Agronomist Diploma and a BSc. in Agricultural Sciences in the Faculty of Agronomic Sciences of the University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin. Symphorien has been working with the Laboratory of Applied Ecology for the past ten years as a researcher and an assistant lecturer in the Faculty of Agronomic Sciences, University of Abomey-Calavi. He has been a postdoctoral fellow under the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) with support from Carnegie Cooperation of New York, at the University of Abomey-Calavi. His post doc research is on “Development of insect resistant high yielding cowpea varieties in Benin” under which two PhD and three Master students are involved and supervised by him and his mentor Prof Achille Assogbadjo.

Dr Symphorien Agbahoungba in the Field

What experience did get from the postdoc fellowship under RUFORUM?

Under his postdoctoral research, the sources of resistance to flower thrips (Megalurothrips sjsostedti Trybom) among Benin cowpea germplasm have been identified with one MSc student. The cowpea germplasm were evaluated both under screen house at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture station of Benin (IITA-Benin) and in field’s conditions in three agro-ecological zones. The most resistant and stable cowpea accessions were Awlétchi, Kpodjiguèguè, IT84E-124, Kplobè-Wéwé, Awonlignikoun and IT83S-742-2 whose resistance sources could be used to introgress resistance into other preferred elites accessions. The accessions IT83S-742-2, Atchawékoun, and Awlétchi were high yielding and the most stable accession across environments. The MSc. student has submitted his thesis to the University of Ghana and it is still waiting for the defense. One manuscript has been submitted to the African Journal of Rural Development and is under review.

In order to know the characteristics of the cowpea germplasm that Symphorien is dealing with, he determined their molecular genetic diversity in the Laboratory of species Genetic Resources Improvement of the Faculty of Sciences and Techniques of the University of Abomey-Calavi (LaREGAME) with one MSc student. Fifty Benin cowpea accessions including some breeding lines from West African breeding programs (Ghana, Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina-Faso) were used with 22 microsatellites (SSR) markers. The largest genetic diversity was found within the accessions from Nigeria whereas the lowest was found within the accessions from Burkina-Faso. The study showed the existence of a genetic diversity within Benin cowpea accessions and could serve as basis for selection in the genetic improvement of the Benin cowpea germplasm. The student completed her study and defended successfully her MSc thesis in May 2019. A second manuscript has been submitted to the African Journal of Rural Development and it is under review.

The molecular genetic diversity wouldn’t be useful if the phenotypic characteristics and the preferences criteria of the different accessions are not known. Thus, he recruited another MSc student who evaluated the preferences criteria of the cowpea accessions in the major cowpea production zones. Furthermore, the agro morphological diversity characterization of the accessions was conducted on 225 cowpea accessions in one major cowpea production area. The student completed his study and defended successfully his thesis in the National University of Agriculture (UNA), Benin in January 2020.

Dr Symphorien Agbahoungba in the laboratory

The deeper understanding of the resistance status to biotic stress and the yield performance of the germplasm conducted Dr Symphorien to recruit two PhD students under his post doc fellowship. One student has been working on the genetics of cowpea resistance to the legume pod borer (Maruca vitrata Fabricius) one of major field pest reported by farmers. The student determined the reaction of cowpea accessions to the legume pod borer infestation in different agro-ecological zones of Benin. But the drought spell and the heat that affected the experiments didn’t favor the identification of good sources of resistance under natural conditions. Artificial screening experiments are ongoing in the screen house at IITA-Benin. The biochemical basis of resistance to the legume pod borer and drought and heat tolerance are ongoing. Dr Symphorien and the student have sequenced 280 cowpea accessions using New Generation Sequencing techniques for the genome wide association study and the identification and mapping of the quantitative trait loci (QTL) associated with legume pod borer resistance, drought and heat in cowpea. They have published one review paper in the Journal of Crop Improvement.

The second constraint reported by the cowpea producers and consumers was the storage pest, bruchid (Callosobruchus maculatus Fabricius). Therefore, the second PhD student is evaluating the genetic basis of cowpea resistance to the bruchid. They have published another review paper on the resistance of cowpea to bruchid in the Journal of plant breeding and crop science. The sources of resistance to bruchid among Benin cowpea germplasm, have been identified among 174 cowpea accessions from 2018 to 2019. Fourteen accessions were found to be resistant to bruchid including: IT06K-123-1, Alegi*Secow3b, IT86D-1038, WC35B, IT86D-1033, Toumkalam, Kplobe rouge, WC66*NE50, IT06K-270, IT84S-2246-4, WC36, TVU1471, TVU-1367-7 and WC66*5T. The second manuscript has been accepted for publication in the African Crop Science Journal and is under press. Four resistant and four susceptible accessions with some desirable traits and have crossed in full diallel mating design. The F2 and parents are currently under evaluation in the laboratory for the mode of inheritance.  The Single Nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers that will be identified in the genotyping done above will be used for the marker traits association analysis. Dr Symphorien and the PhD student are planning to evaluate the biochemical components responsible for the resistance identified in the accessions but are lacking resources.

How has this post doc fellowship been important for his career and Country Benin

This post doc fellowship has improved Dr Symphorien ability to mobilize resources for research. Just after the completion of his PhD at Makerere University in 2017, he didn’t have any resources to set a research programme. But, this fellowship has helped him to know how to mobilize resources for research. In fact, the research outputs obtained and the number of students under his supervision in this post doc fellowship created a visibility on the breeding activities ongoing in the Laboratory of Applied Ecology and helped him to get more links with other breeders in Africa and in the world. In addition, through this fellowship, his breeding skills have been improved and becomes one of the active plant breeders of the University of Abomey-Calavi. He has learnt how to manage a research team and research funds. This has been enhanced by the personal skills development training co-organized by Ruforum and Award in 2018 in Nairobi, Kenya and the project management skills enhancement training organized by Ruforum in 2019 in Ghana. Since 2018, Dr Symphorien is more involved in teaching genetic courses in the Faculty of Agronomic Sciences under his Mentor Professor Achille Assogbadjo. Through this, Professor Achille became more confident about his capability to mentor students and gave him many other students to supervise. The permanent collaboration with his mentor and all the university staff members is an advantage that will facilitate his recruitment in the University.

Through the research conducted on cowpea in the LEA, the National Institute of Agricultural Research has requested him to evaluate the remaining cowpea germplasm in order to introduce the high yielding, most resistant/tolerant to the major biotic and abiotic stress in the national catalogue of crop varieties of Benin.

Since 2005, there was no breeding program on cowpea. The gene bank constructed by the Government in the National Institute of Agricultural Research at Niaouli didn’t have a single alive seeds. Through this post doc research, he has been able to gather 348 cowpea accessions from the different gene banks and the seeds are conserved in the store at LEA. The construction of a gene bank in his laboratory at the University of Abomey-Calavi is future goal to better conserve the seeds and resources will be mobilized for it.

The relationship developed with the cowpea breeders in Western Africa through this fellowship has helped him to introduce the Republic of Benin in the Western African Cowpea Consortium (WACC) since 2018. Through him, Benin has organized in October 2019, the annual meeting of WACC at the University of Abomey-Calavi.

However, Dr Symphorien has some challenges that need to be sorted out. His post doc fellowship will end soon in March 2020. However most of his PhD students will still be conducting their research and will need more resources to complete their study. This is a big challenge since applying for research scholarship does not guarantee obtaining the funds. Therefore, if Ruforum could extend this fellowship it will help the PhD students to complete their research and to train more MSc students.

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