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Poor farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa could benefit from wider distribution of certified tree seeds to boost the quality of agroforestry schemes, a study has found.

Agroforestry — the practice of integrating trees into agricultural landscapes — can improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers. But many of the trees planted do not reach their yield potential because of the poor quality of seed germplasm, say the authors of research published in the September issue of Agroforestry Systems.

To determine the quality control of germplasm in countries, researcher Betserai Nyoka, a consultant for the World Agroforestry Centre in Malawi, and colleagues reviewed literature on seed certification used in plantations around the world.

They found that just three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa — Burkina Faso, Madagascar and Rwanda — have seed certified according to the international standard from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

"The main reason for seed certification is to help farmers know what trees they are planting so that they can make informed decisions," Nyoka told SciDev.Net.

Although countries such as Kenya and Zimbabwe have national tree seed centres, they lack legislation that determines which seeds can be used for agroforestry. Compulsory certification is not in place partly because it would increase the cost of seeds for farmers, say the researchers.

But Nyoka said that the practice of supplying farmers with unlabelled seeds must change. He added that, although full OECD certification may be too costly, countries should at least apply minimum labelling standards that include seed origin, germination potential and favourable conditions for growth.

Commenting on the study, Croix Thompson, West Africa and Caribbean regional manager at Trees for the Future, a non-profit organisation based in the United States, said: "I completely agree with the idea that tree seeds need to be certified because that would ensure that farmers don't waste their time planting seeds that may not work".

Jean Rwihaniza Gapusi, head of the Ruhande Forestry and Agroforestry Research Station in Rwanda, added: "Certification [of seeds for agroforestry] is the most important thing to do in any country because if the seeds are not certified, diseases [from uninspected seeds] could be introduced into the agro-ecosystem".

Gapusi said that, instead of relying on exotic species, African countries should promote regional tree species that are more ecologically suitable.

Link to full paper in Agroforestry Systems  [212kB]