Seeds of capacity building in Africa’s agriculture

Maize seeds stored in a seed bank Copyright: Anita Sanchez/CIMMYT

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Michael Malakata reports on efforts to fight hunger in Africa by preserving seeds and boosting research into improved crop varieties.

In the face of impending climate change, many fear that Africa ― already the world’s poorest continent ― will be hit hardest in its ability to produce food.

Success in preventing food shortages in Africa will be achieved only if farmers maintain a wealth of seed diversity that can cope with ever-changing rainfall patterns.

In recognition of this, new initiatives are emerging that will hopefully bring about a green revolution, and ensure food security in Africa.

Starting from seeds

Seed banks have been identified as part of the solution. They preserve seed diversity, and can provide the raw genetic material to develop improved plant varieties.

In April this year, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the United Nations Foundation announced a joint initiative to safeguard 21 of the world’s most critical foods crops by preserving their seeds.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ― whose five year plan aims to provide African farmers with improved and adaptable crop varieties ― has emerged as a major source of funding for the initiative, putting forward US$37.5 million in grants.

The initiative will cover many ‘orphan’ crops ― important to the poor but largely neglected in modern plant breeding ― such as sorghum, millet, yam, cassava and cowpea.

The initiative will also fund a comprehensive global information system that will allow plant breeders everywhere to search gene banks worldwide ― including existing banks in Ethiopia, Rwanda and the southern Africa region ― for traits needed to combat new diseases and cope with climate change.

"The initiative will secure at-risk collections [of important food crops] in poor countries and document their astonishing diversity, making it available to meet the food needs of the poor," said Cary Fowler, executive director of Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Bumper crops

Current initiatives are not just about saving current crops ― there are also plans to improve them.

A new partnership between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation has allocated US$150 million to improving seeds ― including cassava, millet and sorghum ― through conventional breeding to increase their yields and make them suitable for Africa’s unpredictable rainfall patterns.

This work will decrease farmers’ dependence on hybrid maize seeds, which need sufficient rainfall to grow and already do not yield enough maize.

The partnership is working with policymakers in African governments, nongovernmental organisations, African centres of excellence and donors to bring about a green revolution.

At the Rockefeller Foundation meeting on biotechnology, breeding and seed systems for African crops on 26 March this year, Venancio Massingue, Mozambican minister of science and technology said, "Seed breeding is key to the modernisation of our economies through agriculture, and to providing jobs both in rural and urban areas."

Sorting seeds at a seedbank
in Ethiopia
Credit: Cary Fowler/Global
Crop Diversity Trust

"This is why science improves the lives of people."

Drought tolerant crop varieties are already starting to emerge. Mick Mwala, head of the University of Zambia’s crop sciences department, says they have already come up with new wheat varieties that are drought tolerant.

One of the partnership’s two initiatives, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, will help breed improved seeds and distribute fertilisers to improve soil health in Africa, as well as supporting projects to improve water resources and the distribution of farm produce to the market.

The second initiative, the Programme for Africa’s Seeds System, will help distribute these improved seeds and adaptable crop varieties to smallholders.

Chemical controversy

Scientists involved in the initiatives believe that improving seeds to resist drought and using fertiliser are the most effective ways of ensuring a good harvest.

But this approach has caused a stand off with Africa-based nongovernmental organisations who claim that Western countries are pushing for a corporate-controlled, chemical system of agriculture in Africa.

In a signed statement, several nongovernmental organisations ― such as Ethiopia’s Africa Biodiversity Network, Uganda’s Centre for Development Initiative, the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network and Kenya Genetically Modified Organisms Concerned ― attending this year’s African Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya (25 January), rejected the Gates-Rockefeller initiative.

They called the initiative a "new foreign system that will encourage Africa’s land and water to be privatised for growing inappropriate crops for export, biofuels and carbon sinks, instead of food for African people".

But Roy Steiner, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s senior programmes officer, told SciDev.Net that the foundation’s focus is to bring about a sustainable green revolution through seed breeding and improvement in Africa.

"We need to find ways to interact with small scale farmers. It is a long road but we have to make progress. The possibility is there and the potential is there," he said.

People power

Another obstacle to the success of these initiatives is the scarcity of qualified African scientists to create these new seed varieties.

Africa faces problems with funds ― to train enough scientists, and to provide them with attractive salaries and contracts.

Brain drain is also decreasing the size of the science community ― many qualified scientists have already migrated to greener pastures.

The Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) is trying to address this problem.

The organisation ― made up of 12 eastern and southern African universities, led by Zimbabwe’s African University and Kenya’s Kenyatta University ― will launch an initiative in August this year to provide postgraduate programmes in agriculture-related fields such as aquaculture and fisheries, agricultural resource economics, food science and nutrition and dryland resource management.

Ethiopian National Genebank
Credit: Cary Fowler/Global
Crop Diversity Trust

They hope to secure financial resources to support more scientists to masters and docterate degree level. Those scientists graduating under RUFORUM-sponsored programmes will be given jobs in research institutions, boosting research capacity.

The development is part of current efforts by African higher learning institutions to build capacity for Africa within Africa.

RUFORUM regional coordinator, Adipala Ekwamu, said the 12 African universities are collaborating to accelerate agricultural research and biotechnology development in Africa. Up until now, RUFORUM had been supporting training in agriculture-related fields only to a masters degree level.

"We need a new institutional framework to make universities more responsive to emerging challenges in the region and to respond to those challenges in a national and regional development paradigm," said Ekwamu.

The success of RUFORUM’s initiative, however, still depends on how much African policymakers support the organisation financially, he said.

"We are not asking for gigantic funding but a little that will keep our programmes moving. Sixty per cent of our scientists in the region will soon retire and so we need funding to continue training more," Ekwamu said.

Seeking support

So far ministers from Malawi and Mozambique have publicly said they are in support of science and technology as the only means to improve people’s lives.

Massingue said his government has set aside over US$30 million for seed and fertiliser distribution, and will work side by side with RUFORUM to increase the amount of research and training for scientists.

Kainja Kaluluma, Malawian Minister of Women and Child Development, said science and technology is "our engine in national development and the Malawian government will support scientists" and that the government would give increased support to research, technology and training.

In an era where economies are driven by scientific and technological developments, no single country in African can ignore science and still expect to thrive.

The continent of Africa has the basics ― land and water ― to produce enough food for its people. Combined with initiatives to train scientists, develop seeds and improve farmer’s access to this technology ― with support from African policymakers ― the battle against hunger in Africa could be won.