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CONNECTED network begins with energetic UK Launch Conference

Delegates at the CONNECTED UK Launch Conference in Bristol

Dozens of scientists from 11 African countries joined scores from the UK and elsewhere for the inaugural conference of a ground-breaking project that brings together world-leading researchers to tackle vector-borne plant disease that devastates crops in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Over 70 delegates attended the CONNECTED Network Launch conference, in Bristol from 29 – 31 January. The network is led by Professor Gary Foster from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences jointly with Professor Neil Boonham from Newcastle University and Fera Science Ltd. The network 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.

The conference’s opening day began with a meeting of the project’s Management Board, led by the UK’s Chief Plant Health Officer, Professor Nicola Spence. Delegates were then welcomed to Bristol’s iconic MShed by the city’s Deputy Mayor Cllr Asher Craig and the Vice-Chancellor and President of Bristol University, Professor Hugh Brady.

Scene-setting presentations were made by Professor Foster, Professor Spence and project co-director Professor Neil Boonham (Newcastle University), and Question and Answer sessions focused on the pump-prime research funding opportunities the project will be enabling in the coming months.

The CONNECTED Management Board, pictured in Bristol, January 2018. Its Chair, Professor Nicola Spence, is centre-left alongside Prof Lava Kumar (centre-right), one of the Africa-based researchers who made presentations to the conference

The second day was led by input from African delegates, with presentations from four of the project Management Board’s African-based researchers:

Prof Lava Kumar, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Nigeria
  Integrated approaches for severing the virus-vector connection in Sub-Saharan Africa

Dr Anne Wangai, Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), Kenya
  Management of maize lethal necrosis disease outbreak through multi-institutional co-operation

Dr Titus Alicai, National Crops Resources Research Institute. Uganda
  CONNECTED: an opportunity for sustainable management of plant virus diseases in Africa

Prof Emmanuel Okogbenin, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Kenya
  Safeguarding Africa’s food security against crop viral diseases

These were followed by over 40 two-minute flash presentations from delegates, outlining their roles, and their current work, enabling the identification of avenues for researcher collaboration and interdisciplinary working.

Professor Gary Foster, Project Director

A series of workshops followed for the remainder of the conference, led by the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, which is providing input and expertise to the CONNECTED project. The workshops gathered thoughts, ideas and views from delegates, helping to shape the next steps in the project, setting priorities for pump-prime funding and guiding future network action planning.

Professor Gary Foster said: “This hugely successful event brought world-leading researchers and plant virologists together in a conference that was bustling with expertise, experience, energy and enthusiasm for the challenges ahead.

“The Management Board and network team are now reflecting on the many thoughts and ideas that flowed from delegates, incorporating them into our action plan. An important part of this involves setting out details of pump-prime funding opportunities that will be made available in the coming weeks. The best way for interested people to ensure they receive updates is to join the network via www.connectedvirus.net

“The outputs from the UK Launch Conference will be reviewed and supplemented by our forthcoming Launch Conference in Africa in Spring 2018.

One of the workshops at the CONNECTED UK Launch Conference, Bristol

“We are determined to fight malnutrition, poverty and food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa, and bringing the network together in Bristol for our first conference officially launched the CONNECTED network.”

Conference presentations were filmed and will shortly be made available for network members.

African delegates from Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ghana, South Africa, Mali, Egypt, Rwanda and Cote d’Ivoire were joined by researchers from the UK, USA, India, Taiwan and Denmark. As the project progresses, CONNECTED will run further meetings, training courses, seminars and networking events in both the UK and Africa with the aim of promoting interdisciplinary working and strengthening research capacity and capability.

CONNECTED will provide pump-prime funding for a range of innovative and potentially-transformative research activities, whose impact will be thoroughly evaluated. These research activities focus on five key areas:
• Control strategies
• Vector biology
• New diseases
• Vector / virus interactions
• Diagnostics / surveillance / forecasting.

The research projects with the greatest regional impact will then be grown into larger scale activities to achieve still greater bearing on the battle to control plant disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. CONNECTED will also provide training and capacity-building opportunities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Anyone with an interest in African plant virus vector-borne disease can apply to become a network member using this link