The Feed the Future Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS) Helping Africa’s Farmers Diversify Their Cropping Systems

SSG’s Irene Mughi, Hélène N’dafidina and Georgina Ehemba, with Susan Ndung’u of FIPS Africa, discussing cowpea and millet seed supply systems with local farmers in Tetane Mbambara, commune Notto, Thies, Senegal.
Madame Fatou Sarr, who produces over 300 ha of cowpea annually, visits one of her seed production fields near Louga, Senegal.

In recognition of the need for crop and nutrition diversity in the varied farming systems of Africa, the U.S.A. government’s Feed the Future is implementing a Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS). Funded through USAID, the program will focus on soil health and improved under-invested crop varieties that will contribute to food security by helping African farms diversify their farming systems with traditional African crops. USAID has partnered with CIMMYT and Seed Systems Group (SSG) to implement the seed systems strengthening component of the program in six countries, namely, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Senegal, Tanzania and Zambia.

Africa’s farmers have traditionally cultivated a wide range of nutritious, resilient crop species.  These crop mixtures have historically allowed farm families to maintain diverse diets and sustainably cultivate the varied micro-environments and soil types found within their farms.  Each crop species also makes essential contributions to the diets and incomes of rural communities and allows them to mitigate the risk of climatic shocks. In recent decades, however, high rates of population growth and diminishing farm sizes among Africa’s smallholder farmers have led to food shortages at both household and national levels, forcing farmers to make difficult choices between maintaining diverse farming systems or shifting to only a few, high-yielding crops simply to have sufficient food to survive.  Their decision-making has inevitably been influenced by the comparatively higher productivity of several staple crops – maize, rice, common beans, and cassava, among others.  

As a result, the cultivation of some indigenous and traditional food crops (ITFCs) has dwindled.  Diets have become more uniform, and the built-in resilience of African cropping systems has been reduced.  Average crop yields of some crops have increased, but often at the cost of household nutrition and the overall resilience of African farming systems. 

In response, the U.S.A. government, in partnership with FAO and the African Union, has established the “Feed the Future Vision for African Crops and Soils Project”.  VACS will identify the most nutritious crops in each of the African Union’s five regions, assess the climate challenges afflicting these crops, and seek to boost public and private investments in them to help prepare farmers for the anticipated effects of climate change. To improve soil health, VACS will work to reverse the trend of land degradation by improving availability of soil management information, enabling farmers to make informed decisions about what to grow, where to grow it, and which soil management practices to apply. 

Within this context, the seed systems strengthening activity will initially identify and promote access to seed of improved varieties of six crops, namely, pearl millet, finger millet, cowpea, pigeon pea, mung bean, and amaranth.  The initiative will apply lessons learned from commercializing improved varieties of staple crops to increasing access to IFTCs through seed supply chains.  We believe that with some suitable refinements, seed promotion and delivery systems, including Village Based Advisors, small packs, and private, local seed companies, can be strengthened and broadened to enable smallholder farmers to adopt improved varieties of historically under-invested crops, thereby improving household nutrition, incomes, and resilience.  

The selected crops have the advantages of being both nutritious and an important source of farmer income provided crop yields can be increased through the promotion and adoption of improved varieties and agronomic practices. By involving local permanent actors within seed systems to take up production and supply of improved seed of these crops and helping to link smallholder farmers to markets for the sale of surpluses, we believe the FTF VACS seed systems strengthening activity can help establish sustainable value chains for under-invested crops.  

VACS offers Africa’s farmers new opportunities through traditional crops.  SSG is proud to be playing a key role in making this a successful investment for everyone concerned.

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