Improved Seed and Regenerative Agricultural Practices Offer Real Hope for Africa’s Farmers

bove:  Dr. John MacRobert, SSG VP for East and Southern Africa, offers advice to seed producers on rehabilitating exhausted soils in Central Madagascar.

What makes a farmer’s crop productive? Some will argue it starts with the seed, and that is largely true. Without good seed of locally adapted crop varieties, farmers cannot get onto the productivity ladder.  Hence, the Seed Systems Group team works with that principal goal in mind. From identifying adapted, productive varieties and producing Early Generation Seed with National Agricultural Research Organizations, to scale-up of seed supply by private seed businesses, to farmer awareness creation with Village Based Advisors and seed marketing via agro-dealers, the development of the seed system contributes significantly to improving farmer productivity. 

However, good seed needs to be planted into good soil, and the crop needs to be well managed to achieve levels of productivity that provide improved household nutrition, income, and national food security. Thus, crop productivity really starts with the soil, and notably soil conditioned for the crop seed to be planted and grown.

Good soil, or what may be termed “healthy soil,” is soil that contains a balanced range of crop nutrients, adequate organic matter, good structure, and resists erosion. Several management factors contribute to healthy soil:

  • Reduced soil disturbance,
  • Crop rotation or inter-cropping cereals and legumes,
  • Retaining residues to cover the soil, and, where possible, 
  • Incorporating livestock into the farming system.

All these practices and more help to maintain and improve soil productivity, and have been recently termed “Regenerative Agriculture,” an approach to farming that aims to be less extractive, more cyclical (especially regards carbon), organic, and life-promoting than industrial, inorganic and chemical-intensive farming methods.

The way this can be done is context-specific, and there is a close relationship between the farm’s soil properties and the crops a farm family grows. The better the fit between the two, the greater the chance of improving productivity. Thus, local seed systems must be oriented to the diverse farming systems of Africa and be supportive of the best sustainable agronomic practices. While seed businesses often focus on high value crops such as hybrid maize, we believe that all crop seeds need to be considered in the seed sector so that farmers have access to good seed of the crops suitable for their environmental, home and market contexts.

In our recent visits to Burundi, DR Congo, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Somalia, it was obvious that farmers do not depend on one crop alone. We find farmers growing rice, sorghum, millets, pigeon peas, soybeans, Bambara nuts, common beans, groundnuts, and cowpeas in a wide range of configurations, either as sole crops or combinations of rotations or intercrops. In some cases, the diversity is truly astounding. Moreover, within each crop there are multitudes of varieties, both traditional and of recent release.

Developing seed systems which increase the productivity of such diverse farming systems is challenging but also presents abundant opportunities. During our recent field visits we have been encouraged by the great array of improved varieties that are being developed by national and international research institutions, and we are finding local entrepreneurs taking up seed production and marketing as a sustainable business in almost every region of Africa. These emerging seed companies are engaging with government departments to take up new varieties and produce quality seed. Most important, when these seed companies deploy their seed into farming communities, the response is enthusiastic, as farmers try the new varieties and experience improved productivity.

Seed systems development is not the domain of any one organization. It requires the participation of many stakeholders who embrace the goal of sustainable farmer productivity as their prime motivation. We are in this together. Come along with us on this exciting journey!

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