Cashew fruit

NRI has hosted students over a range of projects as part of the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (Rsif), a programme that trains doctoral students in applied sciences, engineering and technology at African universities partnered with global institutions, fostering research capacity to tackle local challenges.

One of NRI's current students in this scheme is Arsène Nahangnon Soro, whose research goal is to provide a new understanding of the fungal diseases of cashews. The Côte d'Ivoire is the world's number one cashew producer. Despite this, farmers face continued threats from pests and disease. Several closely related fungi within the genus Colletotrichum could be causing this disease. Arsène's work will determine what is causing these diseases in Côte d'Ivoire and support efforts to manage them and breed more resistant cashew varieties.

An interview with Arsène N. Soro

Soro N. ArsèneHow has your experience at NRI shaped your research approach and goals?

Nowadays, molecular biology is an indispensable discipline in crop protection research, with sub-disciplines such as entomology (the study of insect pests) and plant pathology (the study of crop diseases). With my background as a plant pathologist, it's essential that I have molecular biology experience, specifically plant pathogenic fungi. NRI offers me the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of the tools used in molecular biology, from DNA extraction to phylogenetic tree construction which shows the evolutionary relationships between biological organisms. In addition to the appropriate technical facilities available at NRI, which are helping me achieve my thesis objectives, I have the privilege of working with a dynamic team of researchers and students.

What inspired you to pursue research in the field of fungal diseases affecting cashew trees?

Colletotrichum on PDAMy motivation to work on cashew diseases, more specifically anthracnose, comes from the fact that this disease is the most damaging fungal disease of this crop. It is widely distributed throughout the growing zone and attacks leaves, flowers, apples, and even cashew nuts, contributing to substantial yield losses. Despite our [Côte d'Ivoire] position as the world's leading producer of raw cashew nuts, with production set to reach 970,000 tonnes in 2022 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), our country has a low yield per hectare (547 kg/ha in 2018, compared with 1 to 2 tonnes/ha in countries such as India and Vietnam). My country wants to maintain our position as the world leader in production and increase our yield per hectare. One way of achieving this is to control disease, which requires precise knowledge of the agents responsible for the disease.

How do you envision your research contributing to the broader goals of agricultural sustainability and economic development? 

Conidia of ColletotrichumOur study will precisely identify the fungal species responsible for anthracnose. Identifying this species will contribute to a good knowledge of the agents responsible for anthracnose on cashew trees, which is the primordial step in developing control strategies. This information is imperative, as anthracnose is present on cashew trees in all the countries where this crop is grown. The knowledge established by our study will benefit Côte d'Ivoire and other countries where cashew trees are grown. Controlling this disease will increase yields, increasing producers' incomes and the availability of raw materials (cashew nuts) for companies.

What are your aspirations beyond your current research project?

After this research project, my first step is to return to Côte d'Ivoire to defend my PhD. After that, I hope to embark on a professional research career in my own country while remaining open to collaboration with other researchers worldwide.

NRI is a proud collaborator of the Rsif scheme and sees great value in the knowledge gained and shared through this programme.

Andrew ArmitageFrom my perspective, this is a really important scheme. Plant pathogens are constantly evolving, with new variants frequently emerging that can overcome crop resistance, pesticides and management strategies. Scholars joining my lab have been characterising what fungi are responsible for disease across a range of important African subsistence and cash crops. Understanding what drives these crop losses is the first step to adapting how we develop more resistant crops and how we respond to these constantly evolving threats to food security. - Dr Andrew Armitage, Senior Research Fellow in Bioinformatics and Plant Pathology

What is the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund?

The Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (Rsif) is a pivotal initiative offering African countries the opportunity to train new doctoral students in high-quality PhD programmes in applied sciences, engineering, and technology at an affordable cost. Competitively selected African universities host these programmes in partnership with international universities. Beyond doctoral training, Rsif aims to enhance research capacity by fostering collaborations between universities and domestic and international firms to address local challenges.

RSIF Logo 01Rsif is the flagship programme of the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET), an Africa-led initiative affiliated with the World Bank. The initiative uniquely combines intra-Africa academic exchange with international training, leveraging a network of African Host Universities (AHUs) and globally recognised International Partner Institutions (IPIs), including universities, research institutes, and public and private companies.