Mr Lerotholi Qhobela is the Senior Programme Officer of the Ex Situ Conservation at SPGRC.
It’s now more than thirty years since SPGRC was established with financial and technical support from the Nordic countries. As a regional gene bank, SPGRC coordinates the work done by different national centers for plant genetic resources in the SADC region. SADC is an abbreviation for Southern Africa Development Community and SPGRC stands for SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre.
“All the national gene banks have collections of the plant genetic diversity in their country which they duplicate and send to us here at the regional gene bank in Lusaka. We are the central gene bank that the national gene banks are relying on, and we, in our turn, are duplicating our collection to Svalbard” says Lerotholi Qhobela, Senior Programme Officer of the Ex-Situ Conservation at SPGRC.
SPGRC has deposited seeds in Svalbard Global Seed Vault since 2012. This time we are depositing 1 023 different varieties of maize, sorghum, millet, beans and other crops widely used in the region and have adapted to the varying conditions of Southern African.
The member states of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) consists of 16 countries. SPGRC is an abbreviation for SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre.
“SPGRC coordinates different countries, with different economic levels. Not all countries can do as well with conserving plant genetic resources as they would like to. Should anything go wrong, perhaps a simple thing as a power cut, the germplasm and the investments done to secure them would be lost”, Lerotholi Qhobela says.
The financial support from the Nordic countries ended in 2010, after which SPGRC is mainly operated on funds from the SADC member states. They also have continued and strengthened relations with Bioversity International, FAO and the Crop Trust.
“We are trained in working hard to benefit from the international institutions, but it’s not easy. We have to go through complicated processes to make sure that the resources are managed well. We get some support for various activities, but we would appreciate to get more. Support is needed not only for us at the regional gene bank, but also for all the national centres”.
As the seeds from SPGRC are put on the shelves of the Seed Vault, it’s been almost three weeks since the cyclone Idais hit the eastern coast of Africa leading to loss of lives and devastation in large parts of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The national centers in all three countries are luckily unaffected by the storm, but the leaders of the centers express great concern for the incident leading to loss of indigenous crop varieties. The need to do a detailed assessment of how the genetic diversity was affected now ranks high.
“We are living in a difficult time with so many threats to plant genetic resources. What we can see with the cyclone in Malawi and Mozambique represents some of the most direct challenges leading to genetic erosion” says Lerotholi Qhobela.
But the region has other problems to tackle as well. The countries in southern Africa, just as the rest of the world, are seeing a shift, where people are leaving the countryside to live in cities instead. Areas are converted into living areas which lead to many valuable genetic resources disappearing.
“We see a lot of development in our region. And there is change of mindset where hybrids lead to a narrowing of the plant genetic diversity. For example, people are moving to the use of GMO’s instead of growing our traditional landraces. But we can’t stop this change because we also want people to benefit from the development. We have to find a balance between the need for food and maintain a broad genetic diversity”
Lerotholi Qhobela also stresses another issue, important to all gene banks, worldwide – the challenge of making the general society understand the need of conserving plant genetic resources.
“Most people don’t understand the value of gene banks; they think it’s a waste of time. There is evidence that the genetic diversity is disappearing at a fast rate, which is affecting our way of producing food. But people look for immediate benefits, and the benefits for them when it comes to genetic diversity is not easy to see. It’s still a big barrier for people to understand the link between gene banks and the food on their plate”
Lerotholi Qhobela pauses to think for a second and then continues;
“But it’s us, who are working at the gene banks who have to talk more about this. We have to send our message in a more understandable way. The general perception is that long-term conservation and utilization is not a critical area. But the reality is that we need to change that common people’s mindset so they can see the importance of investing in the work of gene banks before the diversity get lost”.