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New Initiative Aims to Boost Africa’s Yields Through New Seeds

FILE - A man works in a rice field in Nanan, Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, Sept. 27, 2014.

FILE - A man works in a rice field in Nanan, Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, Sept. 27, 2014.

In Africa, seed production has long been dominated by big government monopolies, leaving few options for small-scale farmers and putting more obstacles in the way of food production. But a new initiative hopes to change all that by enhancing African farmers’ access to improved seeds.

Edward Mabaya grew up in Zimbabwe, one of 10 children. His father was a construction worker and his mother farmed their land. But Mabaya’s story is not the one of rural poverty many people think of as typical, and he says his family owes their success to seeds.

“This was at a time when new varieties were just coming into Zimbabwe, and you saw this huge uptake of adoption by smallholder farmers that resulted in very high yields. And with that money my parents were able to send us to school,” he said.

In fact, all 10 children made it as far as university. Now Mabaya is a researcher at Cornell University in New York, working on a project he hopes will give other small farmers the same chance his parents had.

He heads The African Seed Access Index (TASAI), launched Thursday, which monitors the continent’s commercial seed sector to try to get more improved seeds into the hands of small-scale farmers. Africa’s seed value chain is complex, says Mabaya, and TASAI tries to identify its weak points to pinpoint why access is a problem.

Improved seeds, which have been systematically bred for certain characteristics, are widely used in the West. But until the 1980s and ‘90s Africa’s seed sector was run by government monopolies, and since then private seed breeders have been slow to take off.

A Green Revolution for Africa

This means that most farmers still use the same seeds they have been saving for generations, says George Bigirwa of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). He says there are not enough improved seeds in Africa to supply the millions of farmers who need them.

“I remember before AGRA came in, in some countries like Burkina Faso, like Mali, even Ghana, there were no seed companies. At least today you have an average of about six to eight seed companies in place. However, looking at the amount of seed each company produces, that is still very little,” he said.
In terms of productivity, he says, improved seeds can make a world of difference for a small farmer.

“The difference is day at night. If you look at some of these traditional varieties, the yield potential is very low. For instance maize - most farmers can get one ton, or one-point-five. But if they use these improved varieties which have got disease resistance, some of them are drought tolerant, you can get five to six tons per hectare,” he said.

This can be enough to help lift subsistence farmers out of poverty, explains Mabaya.

Not only that, he adds, but new factors like climate change mean that some older seed varieties are not performing as well as they used to.

“Farmers are facing challenges that they did not have to deal with only 10 years ago. So some of the varieties that farmers were growing are not doing well anymore. There are also new diseases that have come into the market, and you need new varieties that can resist some of these diseases,” said Mabaya.

Africa’s seed industry still has a long way to go, says Mabaya. But with access to the same agricultural technology the rest of the world is using, he says, there is no reason why the continent should not be able to feed itself.