Improve seeds for prosperity

Africa, now home to a population of more than 1.2 billion people, which is expected to double by 2050, faces a mounting challenge of feeding its people, growing its economy, creating decent jobs and improving the quality life for its citizens.

Transforming agriculture, the sector that employs the majority of Africans and holds the greatest promise for economic prosperity will be critical in this pursuit.

Yet, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on agricultural development, the most of Africa’s farmers continue to harvest one metric tonne or of grain per hectare, consigning them to an impoverished, subsistence existence. Experience from the frontlines of agricultural development in Africa reveals that a major factor in this dilemma is the lack of access to quality seeds.

The breeding and supply of seed of higher-yielding crop varieties has been the starting point of virtually every Green Revolution. Yet the critical challenge of seed scarcity among Africa’s farmers became evident in the early this century almost by accident. At that time, maize farmers in parts of East Africa were battling a serious infestation by a parasitic called Striga that was hitting their yields hard. This prompted research on different maize varieties resistant to the parasite. In the process of doing so, however, the researchers discovered even farmers who had no Striga on their farms were still getting very low yields. There must be a broader problem than Striga, they concluded.

A broader set of analyses led to the conclusion that a lack of plant breeders and funding to support the creation of new varieties was at the heart of the challenge. Yet every African country had agricultural research stations where the work could be done, and no shortage of eager young agriculturalists ready to learn the science of plant breeding. Equally important, every country possessed its share of seed entrepreneurs and vendors eager to create businesses from the supply of new seeds.

In 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation came together to establish the Programme for Africa’s Seed Systems within the Alliance for a GreenRevolution in Africa to address the challenges associated with supplying Africa’s farmers with higher-yielding, locally adapted seeds. A decade later, crop breeders working in public institutes in Africa have developed over 600 new crop varieties. Over 500 plant breeders have been trained at MSc and PhD levels through the programme. Africa’s emerging “agri-preneurs” have likewise stepped forward to work with breeders to fill the seed supply gap, bulking up seed of the new varieties on production plots in 18 countries and selling the seed through local shops known as agro-dealers. The new seed is in high demand. Approximately 110 recently formed seed companies are now producing over 130 metric tonnes of certified seeds every year, sufficient for about 15 million farmers.

The invisible hand of improved seed is broadly lifting farmer productivity in Africa. Crop yields across the continent are shifting upward for the first time in decades. As we travel across the land, the evidence we are seeing is clear: Thousands of small-holder farmers have shown they can double and triple their harvests, provided they have access to the right seed, fertilizer, and expertise. The importance of establishing functional, responsive seed supply systems in every African country is now well past the proof-of-concept stage, and represents an imperative for Africa’s prosperity. More exciting, the goal of ending hunger in Africa now appears achievable in our lifetimes.

Seeds alone, however, will not get the continent on a path to prosperity. Farmers will require access to credit facilities as well as links to national and regional markets to sell their surpluses. Forward-looking policies that promote the activities of private agri-businesses, and access to capital for their growth are needed to extend the revolution to the outer boundaries of African agriculture.

We are immensely proud of the gains made in the African seed sector. In a new book, The PASS Journey: Seeding an African Seed Revolution, we have attempted to document the progress, challenges and next steps, as well as shine a light on a few unsung heroes — plant breeders, seed producers, university lecturers, shop keepers, and others — who work under tough conditions in remote locations to ensure Africa’s harvest continues to grow.

The foundation has been laid. With all the right investments now, Africa can quickly join the ranks of the world’s regions who have overcome their ‘food hurdle’ on the route to greater prosperity and stability.

OpEd by Joe DeVries, Vice President, Programme Development and Innovation – AGRA