Plant a Good Seed: Speech by AGRA President at the Conference of the African Plant Breeders Association

Plant a Good Seed: Speech by AGRA President at the Conference of the African Plant Breeders Association

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Accra, Ghana

Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to join you at this inaugural Conference of the African Plant Breeders Association (APBA). If you follow me on Twitter, you must have noticed my new digital motto: “Plant a Good Seed”.  I am happy to be here today as the work you do is helping Africa to plant a good seed.

This conference is timely. Africa is facing a strong climate emergency tide. As a result, we have seen higher cases of unprecedented droughts, floods, pest and diseases. The greatest risk posed by this emergency is that the gains we have worked so hard to make are getting eroded. For example, today, the number of people going hungry in Africa has grown to about 250 million since 2015. This represents a major reversal of the decline witnessed before 2015.

While different measures have been put in place to address these challenges, breeding is the surest way of increasing farmers adaptation to climate change. All of you play a critical role in ensuring that farmers have seeds that are adapted to local conditions

For me, the role of breeding is best brought to life through the life of a farmer I met when I started my term as the AGRA President about 5 years ago. Some of you might have heard this story before. In my first visit to our projects, I went to Tanzania. I met a widowed farmer who had recently obtained seeds for a much-improved variety of cowpea. They were developed by a young African scientist who had studied plant breeding with an aim of improving the crop for farmers in her village. With these new seeds, the farmer’s harvest increased dramatically, and she earned a nice profit when she sold the surplus in her local market. But it was such a bittersweet success. She said to me: “If you had come with these seeds earlier, I would not have married my five daughters off at a young age. I would have sent them to school to get a good education.”

Her words have stayed with me. They have stayed with me because any of her daughters could have been any of our daughters. Her words put in perspective the life-transforming role that you all play. I am sharing them with you so that you understand how quickly farmers can progress; it only takes a season or two of access to appropriate science for lives to change.

I’m glad that in the room, we have many individuals and institutions who have contributed to changing the lives of farmers. Your impact goes beyond the farmers. You are creating ripples in entire economies. Many industries are thriving on your products; jobs have been created; governments are earning revenue; and above all, people have food to eat and access to markets for their surplus increasing their incomes.

I acknowledge individuals and institutions that have partnered with AGRA over the years. I recognize the many plant breeders in this room who are part of the 700 that were trained at either Masters or PhD level through grants that AGRA made to their National Agricultural Research Systems. Your work has not been in vain. The varieties of different crops that you have released have been taken up by African seed companies. These companies, together with an extensive network of agro-dealers,  have made the seeds available to about 23 million smallholders farmers. The impact has been transformational. These farmers have seen their yields and incomes increase.

It would be remiss of me not to recognize the role played by institutions like  the West African Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI) under the leadership of Prof. Eric Danquah that has trained most of these breeders. Thank you very much Prof. We owe a debt of gratitude and are proud to partner with you. We are grateful to WACCI for the leadership it has shown in organizing the conference.

As I conclude, I would like to urge you to take a moment to celebrate the achievements we have collectively registered so far. But I advise cautious celebration as we should not rest on our laurels. A lot more still needs to be done. Let us use the momentum generated to ensure that we free our continent and our people of the indignity of food insecurity and poverty.

We should not just be breeding for breeding sake. We must ensure that these varieties get to the farmers. This will have to be done with urgency. As my experience in Tanzania and many other countries has shown, every single day we delay in using science to improve food production, families will continue to face terrible choices.

Gone are the days when breeders would only focus on developing varieties and publishing papers. Now many are working closely with governments and the private sector to fast track uptake, adoption and utilization. Take advantage of these partnerships.

The seed system is also strengthening. Today, we have many private seed companies that have invested in systems to multiply seeds of various varieties and make them available to farmers. AGRA has, for example, supported the establishment of 119 local private seed companies in 18 African countries. We have established close to 5,000 agro-dealers spread in different rural areas to make seed and other inputs available to farmers without walking long distances. We have recruited 18,000 local extension workers known as Village Based Advisors  (VBAs) with a reach of 5 million farmers.

Let us all take advantage of these opportunities to deliver impact for the farmers.

Lastly, let me commend our governments for prioritizing agriculture and setting the agenda. I urge our governments to increase their spending on research and development including breeding. For far too long, this has been left to donors. While donor funding has its place, it’s not sustainable.

Thank you for inviting me and for your attention. I look forward to the discussions here. More importantly, I look forward to the implementation of the recommendations that will be made. You can count on AGRA’s partnership to make it happen.

The Speech was delivered by Dr. Rufaro Madakadze, AGRA Lead, Capacity Building on behalf of Dr. Kalibata.