Africa, now home to a population of more than 1.2 billion 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.
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 expenditure of billions of dollars on agricultural development, most of Africa’s farmers continue to harvest one metric tonne 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.
Breeding and supply of seed of higher-yielding crop varieties has been the starting point of virtually every green revolution experienced around the globe. Yet the critical challenge of seed scarcity among Africa’s farmers became evident in the early part of this century almost by accident.
At that time, maize farmers in parts of East Africa were battling a serious infestation by a parasitic weed called Striga that was hitting their yields hard. This prompted research on different maize varieties resistant to the parasite. In the process, however, researchers discovered that even farmers who had no Striga on their farms were still getting very low yields. There must be a another problem apart from Striga, they concluded.
A broader set of analyses led to the conclusion that lack of plant breeders and funding to support 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 planting material. In 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation came together to establish the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) within the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to address the challenges associated with supplying growers with seed.
A decade later, crop breeders working in public institutes around the continent 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 in large numbers 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 planting material every year, sufficient for about 15 million farmers around the continent.
Just as it did elsewhere in the world, 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 smallholder farmers have shown that they can double and triple their harvests, provided they have access to the right seed, fertiliser 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.
Joe DeVries is the Vice President, Programme Development and Innovation, AGRA