New Partnership Aims to Empower Farmers in Guinea-Bissau

Above, left and right:  Designing field plans and laying out trial plots for testing newly-introduced varieties of Guinea-Bissau’s main food crops at INPA-Contuboel research station.

Guinea-Bissau is a country of approximately 2.1 million people located to the south of Senegal.  Its Human Development Index ranking is 179th out of 184 countries, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.  Decades of political instability have weakened Guinea-Bissau’s public institutions, including its agricultural research institute, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisa Agraria (INPA).  Yet agriculture accounts for approximately 50 % of Guinea-Bissau’s GDP, and is the principal occupation of 75% of the population.  

Through an invitation from the World Food Program, several seed systems specialists from Seed Systems Group (SSG) recently traveled to Guinea-Bissau to assess farmers’ access to improved seed and other technologies.  During these missions we observed that due to decades of neglect of its agriculture sector, Guinea-Bissau’s estimated 200,000 farmers obtain some of the lowest crop yields we have seen anywhere and decided to act.

The root cause of food insecurity and economic stagnation in Guinea-Bissau’s rural areas is low farmer productivity.  Here rice cultivation predominates, but Guinea-Bissau imports approximately 60% of its annual rice consumption.  Approximately one-third of children are chronically malnourished.  Failure to act in such a situation means the country will continue to depend on low yielding crops and unsustainable food aid interventions.  The introduction and adoption by farmers of high-yielding crop varieties together with other technologies can significantly improve food supplies and get rural economies going.  

Knowing that nearby Mali possesses one of the most active crop breeding institutes in the region, we approached the Director General of Mali’s national agricultural research institute, Dr. Modibo Sylla, for assistance.  Dr. Sylla and the Malian crop breeders came through brilliantly and supplied seed of their most recently-bred varieties of rice, maize, sorghum, millet, cowpea, and groundnut free of charge.

SSG shipped the seed to Guinea-Bissau and established an agreement with WFP and INPA for their testing at INPA’s station in Contuboel, located several hundred kilometers from Bissau, the country’s capital.  In late June, SSG’s vice-president for West and Central Africa, Dr. Issoufou Kapran, traveled to Contuboel together with WFP agronomist, Danilson Coelho, to work with INPA-Contuboel’s technical team to lay out and plant plots for testing the set of improved varieties.

Much still needs to be done to capitalize on this initial intervention.  First, we need to measure the results of this season’s variety trials.  Then, we will need to secure funds for multiplying and delivering seed of the new varieties together with messages to farmers for how to cultivate them.  But there is now hope that the farmers of Guinea-Bissau will soon have access to seed of high-yielding, climate resilient varieties, their crop yields will rise, and the country will have a fighting chance of attaining food security and improved economic growth and stability.

The work described above was made possible by WFP, the Sall Family Foundation and Gresham and Ruth Roskamp, who support SSG to get improved varieties off the shelf and into the hands of Africa’s left-behind farmers through a newly established “Off-the-Shelf Fund”.  This support also allowed us last month to import and plant hybrid maize multiplication plots in Madagascar.

Introducing higher-yielding seeds and seeing farm families achieve bigger harvests is about as good as it gets for agronomists and breeders, and we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to do this work.


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