New Initiative Aims to Boost Africa’s Crop Yields with New Seeds

Edward Mabaya_header
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 in the family. His father was a construction worker and his mother farmed their land. But Mabaya’s story is not the one of typical rural poverty many people think of, 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 says. 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 this week, 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.

This means that most farmers still use the same seeds they have been saving for generations, and there are not enough improved seeds in Africa to supply the millions of farmers who need them. However, improved seeds can make a world of difference for a small farmer in terms of productivity. This can be enough to help lift subsistence farmers out of poverty, explains Mabaya.

Modern varieties of food crops, such as maize, can help improve productivity.
Modern varieties of food crops, such as maize, can help improve productivity.

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,” explains Mabaya.

Smaller packets of seeds can make things more affordable for farmers with less big plots of land.
Smaller packets of seeds can make things more affordable for farmers with less big plots of land.

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

(Courtesy of Hilary Heuler:

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