PB21 Workshop and Hackathon on Improving Orphan Crops to Foster Bioeconomies

organized by the ASPB African Researchers Network, in collaboration with OCP North America

Orphan crops offer promising opportunities to tackle critical challenges of our time, including food insecurity, climate change and economic instability. Despite their nutritional properties, tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses and adherence to local food cultures and low-input production systems, these crops have long been overlooked by research, industry and governments. The increasing awareness of the unsustainability of our current agricultural systems, which rely on only four crops to provide 60% of the global food supply, has led to the re-evaluation of orphan crops. This re-evaluation  acknowledges their important role in diversifying foods and diets as well as  enhancing food and economic security in rural populations.

The “PB21 Workshop and Hackathon on Improving Orphan Crops to Foster Bioeconomies” (July 21st-23rd 2021) organized by the ASPB African Researchers Network, in collaboration with OCP North America, sought to bring the plant science community together to develop ideas to broaden perspectives on orphan crops research, food systems and agricultural value chains.

The opening workshop featured scientists championing orphan crops research in Africa, including Dr. Allen Van Deynze (The African Orphan Crops Consortium – Empowering African Plant Breeders), Dr. Damaris Achieng Odeny (Expediting utilization of African orphan crops through the development of genetic and genomic resources) and Dr. Michel E. Ghanem (Beyond the “Big 4 ” Crops – Why do we rely on a few crops: Perception Gaps), and entrepreneurs opening new global markets for African orphan crops, such as Chef Pierre Thiam (Could an African grain become a global superfood?). The seminars provided essential insights for the agricultural technology hackathon that followed the workshop.

The hackathon challenges focused on four main areas: genomics and breeding, food security, biodiversity and soil fertility and empowerment and entrepreneurship. Hackathon participants were arranged in eight teams which had 48-hours time to provide solutions to a wide variety of challenges, including teff de novo-domestication, climatic and soil quality requirements for orphan crop cultivation, phosphorus use efficiency, global cuisines and markets, seed supply systems, citizen science approaches to link research to policy and markets and women’s participation in orphan crops’ value chains. Additionally, teams were supported by mentors who guided them throughout the 48-hrs brainstorming sessions. Details on hackathon teams are reported in Table 1.

The solutions provided were evaluated by an ARN-OCP panel for their creativity, technological innovation, interdisciplinarity and collaboration among team members, communication to the public, outcomes and feasibility. Hackathon prizes included: 1000$ seed money to execute the project and the opportunity to pitch the idea to sponsors for additional funding for the grand prize winner; 100$ for each member of the first team; 75$ for each member of the second team and $65 for each member of the third team. Winning teams are reported in Table 2.

Overall, the interdisciplinary hackathon gave participants of all career stages and backgrounds the opportunity to learn, to network with the international plant science community and to develop winning ideas to foster bioeconomies leveraging orphan crops.

The hackathon was kindly supported by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), OCP North America, Grow More Foundation, Bayer Crop Science, University of Georgia and New Phytologist Foundation.


Table 1. Hackathon teams compositions, challenges and mentors.

Team Challenge Team members Mentors
A11 How can we leverage genomics to improve domestication traits in orphan crops, so that they can be grown at large scales? Bello Oluwakemi (Covenant University, Ota, Nigeria)

Justin Shih (Penn State University)

Kirsten Hein (Colorado State University)

Kweyu Sharon (Makerere University)

Kate Creasey-Krainer (Grow More Foundation)

Matthew Venezia (Grow More Foundation)

A12 How can we leverage genomics to improve domestication traits in orphan crops, so that they can be grown at large scales? Ayelet Kurtz-Sohn (Volcani Institute, Israel)

Sunil Kenchanmane Raju (Michigan State University)

Mary Ranketze (University of Pretoria/Agricultural Research Council of South Africa)

Seloame Tatu Nyaku (University of Ghana)

Rajeev Varshney (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, ICRISAT)

Lise Pingault (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

C How can we mainstream orphan crops in global cuisines and markets? Joelle Muhlemann (Wake Forest University)

Elisabeth Balzani (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Ngoc Pham (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Hesham Abdullah (Michigan State University)

Shailaja Fennell (University of Cambridge)
D How can we improve farmers’ access to high quality seeds of orphan crops? Claudia Castillo-Gonzales (Texas A&M University)

Aziza Zerrouk (Mohammed VI Polytechnic University. Morocco)

Salma Rouichi (Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, Morocco)

Mukamanasasira Godman (Uganda Christian University)

Lucy Jepkemoi (Egerton University)

Sessen Daniel Iohannes (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory)
E How can we monitor and assess climatic and soil quality requirements for orphan crop cultivation? Elsa Herminia Quezada Rodriguez (UNAM)

Jackson Tonnies (UW Seattle)

Idowu Obisesan (Bowen University Iwo)

Edward Salakpi (University of Sussex)
F How can we improve phosphorus use efficiency in orphan crops? Catherine Freed (Virginia Tech)

Marwa El Graoui (Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, Morocco)

Nicole Wang (University of British Columbia)

Tim Jeffers (University of California, Berkeley)

Natsuko Kinoshita (University of Tsukuba)

Leonardus Vergutz (Mohammed VI Polytechnic University)

Mattheus Barreto (Mohammed VI Polytechnic University)

G How can we leverage citizen science approaches to link research on orphan crops to policy and markets? Nabila Riaz (Dartmouth College)

Okon Odiong Unung (National Biotechnology Development Agency, Nigeria)

Kalu Osiri (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Cyril Azubuine


H How can we enhance women’s participation in orphan crops value chains and the benefits they receive from them? Francis Wanhoji (Hungarian University of Agriculture and Life Sciences)

Izamar Orduna (KAUST, Saudi Arabia)

Maria Navarrete Rodriguez (KAUST, Saudi Arabia)

Modesta Abugu (University of Florida)



Table 2. Winning teams and prizes

Prize Team
Grand Prize Team A12
First Prize Team D
Second Prize Team E
Third Prize Team F


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