SMIL Works to Meet Sorghum Challenges in West Africa with a Genomics-Enabled Breeding Network

The SMIL research project aims to develop new versions of locally preferred sorghum varieties that are stress resilient by 2023

Sorghum improvement has been a challenge in West Africa. Many programs work to meet the needs of local communities but have limited funds, staff and infrastructure. Those combined factors are what led to the beginning of the improved Sorghum Adaptation in West Africa with a Genomics-Enabled Breeding Network (SAWAGEN).

SAWAGEN began in 2013, funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet (SMIL). SAWAGEN was built on four platforms: local adaptation breeding, genetic mapping research, physiological mapping research and broad adaptation breeding. However, the key was linking researchers across research segments on those platforms to make the work efficient and effective.

Standing in a sorghum field

The importance of building a network

“The network is really at the heart of the work we did in phase one of SMIL,”  said Geoffrey Morris, SAWAGEN principal investigator. “We realized that so much of the strength of the project came from those partnerships within Africa between one national program and another. In the second phase of SMIL, we really focused on strengthening the network. Our main objective in the U.S. is to help the networks and support their growth.”

The network includes the Institut de l'Environnement et de Recherches Agricole (INERA) in Burkina Faso, the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique du Niger (INRAN) in Niger, the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA) in Senegal, Institut Togolais de Recherche Agronomique (ITRA) in Togo, and the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD) in France.

SAWAGEN brings together breeders, researchers and farmer organizations within the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) to use a goal-directed, hypothesis-driven (GoHy) method for planning and adaptive management.

The goal of this method is to continue advancements well beyond the length of the SAWAGEN project by designing four main platforms: 

  1. Local Adaptation Breeding Platform carries out varietal development and focuses on locally preferred varieties. 
  2. Broad Adaptation Breeding Platform focuses on the delivery of future products. 
  3. Genetic Mapping Research Platform discovers and maps genome-wide markers. 
  4. Physiological Mapping Research Platform focuses on trait discovery and validation.

The most important technology we have is the scientific method,” said Morris. “A lot of the training was getting researchers and breeders connected effectively through the scientific method, which is one of the cheapest and most broadly applicable technologies humanity has ever discovered. Luckily, when scientists learn the method, they can take it back with them to their home countries and it doesn’t cost a thing.”


Progress on project goals 

All four breeding programs have worked with grower organizations in multiple regions of their home countries to determine the desired traits and resistance needs.This is a key step in the program because without grower input, there is risk of a low adoption rate. 

Field breeding with these grower partners has progressed as planned and each NARS breeder has focused on two to three products that will be delivered into the market within the next five years. Within the project, some breeders have advanced between one to four generations out of a total of six to eight that will be required to deliver varieties to the seed system. All four breeding programs have successfully conducted marker genotyping, which is an important step in the process. 

Morris stated, “Making sure our research is adopted in Africa is absolutely everything. We think about it every day and don’t leave it to chance. That is why we build collaborations into the projects with people who are actually going to be growing these crops and consuming the products.” 

Mentorship and partnership ensure continuity of progress 

SAWAGEN is currently funded through 2023, but knowing that the needs and demands of the people in West Africa will continue to change and evolve after the end of the project means that SMIL wants to find a way to ensure progress is still being made. Mentorship is a large part of the solution.

There were many students involved in SAWAGEN through SMIL. One of them, Fanna Maïna, shared, “I was inspired by the mentors I had at Kansas State University thanks to SMIL. My mentors wanted to help me with education, culture, learning and other programs. They helped me have hands-on experiences and provided outreach activities that proved to be good experiences coming home to my country.”

Mentorship is not only important for research purposes, but also for the longevity of many of the partnerships SMIL has established. Dr. Moustapha Moussa, SMIL Niger coordinator and INRAN director, said, “Students who were trained through SMIL have come back to their home country and taken on leadership roles in agriculture. We have more visibility at the institution because of their involvement and training.”

Progress makes a positive impact 

The strong partnerships and research methods have been important to the success of SAWAGEN. Because of these partnerships with local growers, varietal adoption will increase to provide higher incomes for farmers as resilient varieties increase yield with decreased inputs. As more varieties become available in larger quantities, nutritional value will also improve for people across West Africa.

“What is most special about this project is the deep and collaborative relationships we’ve been able to build with scientists all over the world,” summarized Morris. “With SMIL, we are not focused on a narrow slice of science. We find new colleagues and develop partnerships. Working with these scientists as they build their careers and obtain leadership positions has been so rewarding.”

For more information on SAWAGEN, visit