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Seed Systems

Despite years of investment, getting good seed remains a major challenge for dryland farmers. As much as 80% of the seed produced for dryland areas remains in the hands of farmers, with all too predictable results. Yields are low – perhaps half of what they could be – and hunger remains a stark fact of life.

Most farmers in Africa plant varieties or landraces that were released more than 30 years ago

Seeds are like computer software: they contain the code that determines if a farmer’s crop ultimately succeeds or fails. The better the coding, the better the results.

Today, as much as 80% of the seed produced for dryland cereal and legume crops remains in the hands of farmers, with all too predictable results. Yields are low, perhaps half of what they could be, and hunger remains a stark fact of life for the rural poor.

While government agencies are well aware of the problem – and have a responsibility to resolve it – most are ill equipped or unable to commit additional resources. In one West African country, despite a 30-year commitment and millions of dollars of investment, less than 1% of the sorghum seed planted by local farmers comes from government seed suppliers.

The situation is much the same across large parts of Africa, and to a lesser degree in Asia, where poverty and drought remain constant and where governments are often hard pressed to help.

ICRISAT seed system research

Seed system research at ICRISAT is conducted in association with a range of private and public sector partners and is a major component of the center’s IMOD research framework.  The challenge is to address several problems at once, but the main thing is to get high-quality seeds of the varieties preferred by consumers and by markets flowing reliably to farmers. Already, much has been achieved:

  • The Center’s “seed revolving fund” encourages contract seed production and training, and is active in Eastern and Southern Africa. The Fund has stimulated the production of thousands of tons of seed of improved varieties by commercial seed producers and has greatly increased the availability of dryland legumes in Malawi and Tanzania.
  • In West and Central Africa, ICRISAT supports the development of local seed companies as part of the West Africa Seed Alliance. The Alliance works in partnership with the Citizen’s Network for Foreign Affairs to support the development of an agro-dealer network.
  • The results of these efforts have been substantial. In Mali, nearly a third of the country’s agricultural land is planted with improved legume varieties. In Tanzania and Zambia, nearly two-thirds of the country’s farmers have access to commercially produced seed and are growing improved cultivars.

Rural seed producers

Even so, commercial seed production, no matter how efficient, may not always satisfy demand or fully serve the needs of farmers. Experience in South Asia has shown that there are alternatives, and the lessons learned in rural India may also serve farmers in other parts of the world.

One particularly promising approach that has been tested is the “Seed Village System", in which a majority of neighbors in a community are encouraged to grow the same improved variety, thus eliminating the danger of outcrossing. The system allows farmers to reproduce their own seed well beyond the point where seed quality usually deteriorates.

Another useful method focuses on initiatives that promote rural seed businesses. In outlying areas where expensive commercial seed is neither available nor affordable, communities can produce their own seed by following practical quality control standards, such as the Qualtity Declared Seed (QDS) approach recently instituted by a number of countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. 

In Malawi, ICRISAT and national partners have passed out hundreds of small (1 kg) packs of pure seed of a new high-yielding, preferred-quality variety called CG 7 to women farmers, on the condition that they pass some of their harvest on to neighbors. This chain reaction scheme has helped to spread improved varieties widely across the country. 

Village-level agrodealers have a critical role to play in providing farmers with access to the right seeds and other inputs (such as fertilizer). They are also seen as an increasingly important source of information about new varieties and agronomic practices that can increase farm-level productivity.