When Livingstone Wekesa was given some “modern” seeds to try on his Striga-infested piece of land in Western Kenya, he apprehensively set aside about a quarter of the land for the new seed, certain that the harvest there would be disappointing as usual. For as long as he could remember, his family had always saved seeds from one year’s crop for planting in the next. The idea that he could buy seeds from a shop was as far-fetched as the message that there was a new seed variety that could conquer “kayongo”, as striga was known locally.
Guest column: Rufaro Madakadze
Like Wekesa, a lot of farmers in the continent are resigned to farming as a hit-or-miss-proposition. Despite the fact that more than two-thirds of its population depends directly on farming, African agriculture is characterised by low and declining productivity. It is projected that Africa’s demand for food will more than double by 2050, driven by population growth, rapid urbanisation and more consumption of fresh and processed foods by an expanding middle class.
A growing population is not the only challenge. Africa has to contend with new enemies such as climate change and the traditional ones such as pests, poor transport infrastructure, and post-harvest losses. Some years back, increased agricultural productivity for Africa was based on opening up new lands for farming. With population growth, the acreage of arable land will not increase, meaning that the same fields must produce more for consumption and trade.
At the moment, yields from Africa’s farms are lagging far behind the rest of the world. Harvests per hectare for major crops like maize can be as much as 80% below their potential. Governments are thus using a lot of income for food imports, with estimates indicating that the continent’s annual food import bill will be $110 billion by 2025.
Providing farmers with new high-yielding and hybrid seed varieties is an important part of the solution to agricultural development. These seeds will help the farmers generate higher crop yields and overcome the constant barrage of plant pests, drought, and disease that are the enemies of agriculture everywhere in the continent. At the moment, just about one-third of farmers in Africa have access to these good quality hybrid seeds, meaning that the continent is missing out on one factor that has revolutionised food production elsewhere in the world.
Even though adoption of new technologies requires time, other structural challenges exacerbate the situation, such as lack of public research programmes to supply affordable, locally adapted, improved varieties of popular crops. Private seed production companies have other bottlenecks to surmount, such as import policies, high initial costs, research and qualified human resources.
A combination of public and private interventions seems to be a good approach for establishing an effective system for providing the farmer with quality seed. At AGRA, the Programme for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) brought together practical training of breeders in Africa addressing the crop challenges highlighted above, breeding programmes to develop new crop varieties, private companies to produce seeds and agro-dealers to make the seeds available to farmers. By nurturing small seed businesses located near the farmers they serve, the programme aimed to establish resilient, African-owned seed production capacity that can be self- sustaining. AGRA funded the establishment of the Seed Enterprise Management Institute (SEMIs) at the University of Nairobi where seed enterprise personnel from 100 companies and 18 countries were trained in short one-week courses on seed production, processing and storage, business and marketing contributing to the growth in seed production by the companies and thereby increasing access to good quality hybrid seeds to small farmers.
Today, AGRA is working with over 110 such seed companies across Africa that are producing over 120 000 metric tonnes of certified seeds each year. National research programmes working with AGRA have generated over 650 new, improved varieties of 15 important crop species, over 450 of which are now commercially produced. The training of about 450 breeders and over 150 plant breeding research technicians at the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda (to cover East Africa) and at IITA (covering West Africa) contributed to release of quality hybrids that are easily adopted by small farmers.
AGRA through PASS has trained and certified 15 000 rural agro-dealers in 16 countries that now provide farmers with over 500 000 metric tonnes of seed and one million metric tons of fertilizers. Such investments are making real differences to the small-scale farmers. A 2013 survey of farmers in nine countries found that the majority who invested in improved crop varieties achieved yields 50% to 100% above local varieties. This is not just more food on the table, but could mean the opportunity to take a child to school or to pay for a family member’s hospital bill.
Still, there are not enough seed companies in the continent to meet farmer demand for improved crop varieties. In addition, the evolving threat from pests and disease because of factors like climate change means that innovation must stay ahead for continued production of resilient crops. Today’s hardy crops may tomorrow be rendered frail by a new strain of bacteria. Agriculture presents the best pathway towards lifting the continent out of poverty, and one of the strategies must be investing in a steady supply of plant breeders who in turn continue to generate new adapted varieties that resistant to diseases, insects, droughts and floods as well as a sustainable seed production sector.
Rufaro Madakadze works with AGRA’s capacity-building programme. This article first appeared in the NewAfrican magazine and she writes in her personal capacity.