At the end of last month (June) I had the privilege of taking part in CONNECTEDV4. In case you’re wondering, this was a two-week training event at which a group of early career researchers from 11 African countries got together in Bristol, UK. Nothing so unusual about that, you may think.
Yet, this course, run by the Community Network for African Vector-Borne Plant Viruses (CONNECTED), broke important new ground. The training brought together an unusual blend of researchers: plant virologists and entomologists studying insects which act as vectors for plant disease, as an important part of the CONNECTED project’s work to find new solutions to diseases that devastate food crops in Sub-Saharan African countries.
The CONNECTED niche focus on vector-borne plant disease is the reason for bringing together insect and plant pathology experts alongside plant breeders. The event helped forge exciting new collaborations in the fight against African poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity. ‘V4’ – Virus Vector Vice Versa – was a fully-funded residential course which attracted great demand when it was advertised. Places were awarded by competitive application, with funding awarded to cover travel, accommodation, subsistence and all training costs. For every delegate who attended, five applicants were unsuccessful.
The comprehensive programme combined scientific talks, general lab training skills, specific virology and entomology lectures and practical work and also included workshops, field visits, career development, mentoring, and desk-based projects. Across the fortnight delegates received plenty of peer mentoring and team-building input, as well as an afternoon focused on ‘communicating your science.’
New collaborations will influence African agriculture for years to come
There’s little doubt that the June event, hosted by The University of Bristol, base of CONNECTED Network Director Professor Gary Foster, has sown seeds of new alliances and partnerships that can have global impact on vector-borne plant disease in Sub-Saharan Africa for many years to come.
In writing this, I am more than happy to declare an interest. As a member of the CONNECTED Management Board, I have been proud to see network membership grow in its 18 months to a point where it’s approaching 1,000 researchers, from over 70 countries. The project, which derived its funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund, is actively looking at still more training events.
I was there in my usual capacity of extolling the virtues of entomology and why it is important to be able to identify insects in general, not just pests and vectors. After all, you don’t want to kill the goodies who are eating and killing the baddies. My task was to introduce the delegates to basic insect taxonomy and biology and to get them used to looking for insects on plants and learning how to start recognising what they were looking at. Our venue was the University of Bristol Botanic Gardens as the main campus was hosting an Open Day. This did impose some constraints on our activities, because as you can see from the pictures below, we didn’t have a proper laboratory. The CONNECTED support team did, however, do a great job of improvising and coming up with innovative solutions, so thanks to them, and despite the rain, my mission was successfully accomplished.
Me in full flow, and yes, as is expected from an entomologist, I did mention genitalia 🙂
It’s genitalia time 🙂
A hive of activity in the ‘lab’
Collecting insects in the rain
The V4 training course follows two successful calls for pump-prime research funding, leading to nine projects now operating in seven different countries, and still many more to come. Earlier in the year CONNECTED ran a successful virus diagnostics training event in Kenya, in close partnership with BecA-ILRI Hub. One result of that training was that its 19 delegates were set to share their new knowledge and expertise with a staggering 350 colleagues right across the continent.
I thoroughly enjoyed the day, despite the rain, and was just sorry that I wasn’t able to spend more time with the delegates and members of the CONNECTED team. Many thanks to the latter for the fantastic job they did. The catering and venue were also rather good.
Plant diseases significantly limit the ability of many of Sub-Saharan African countries to produce enough staple and cash crops such as cassava, sweet potato, maize and yam. Farmers face failing harvests and are often unable to feed their local communities as a result. The diseases ultimately hinder the countries’ economic and social development, sometimes leading to migration as communities look for better lives elsewhere.
The CONNECTED network project is funded by a £2 million grant from the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund, which supports research on global issues that affect developing countries. It is co-ordinated by Prof. Foster from the University of Bristol School of Biological Sciences, long recognised as world-leading in plant virology and vector-transmitted diseases, with Professor Neil Boonham, from Newcastle University its Co-Director. The funding is being used to build a sustainable network of scientists and researchers to address the challenges. The University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, of which Prof. Foster is a member, also provides input and expertise.
Did I mention that it rained? 🙂