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Crops such as millets, sorghum, groundnut, chickpea, pigeonpea and other grain legumes are important staple foods that are not only resilient to harsh weather conditions but are also healthy and packed with critical micronutrients required for our normal health and development. For example, gluten free pearl millet is a good source of iron and zinc which help reduce anemia, a condition that is of high public health significance in most developing countries. Similarly, nitrogen fixing legumes are not only excellent in improving soil fertility in sustainable way and sources of high quality feed to livestock but are also a major source of dietary protein in the diet of the poor in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa. They are considered as “poor man’s meat”.
These nutritious and climate smart crops offer an alternative to the better known (more popular) and supported staple crops like rice, maize and wheat, production of which has been declining as a result of pest attacks, diseases and changing weather patterns. If we are to meet the rising food demand due to population growth, it is necessary to increase supply of diverse foods. Grain legumes and dryland cereals (GLDC) are critical to meeting this need.
So why is adoption of improved varieties of these crops still so low?
This is one of the key questions that experts from east Africa, west Africa, India and western countries deliberated on during a recent workshop in Nairobi. According to Dr. Alastair Orr, a seed systems researcher, “one main reason for low adoption of these crops is the challenge of scaling up quality seed”. His advice to the attendants of the workshop, who had met to develop a seed systems strategy for these important crops, was that they would need to address what he called four separate drivers of adoption – Awareness (creating demand for seed), Advantage (ensuring the seed meets farmers’ needs), Affordability (farmers ability to purchase seed) and Access (availability of seed when farmers need it).
Unprofitable business models for seed entrepreneurs and producers, poor policy support (low investment and complex regulations) and inconsistent demand for GLDC grain (weak markets for food and feed products) were identified as the main systemic bottlenecks for scaling out seed of GLDC crops.
“The grain market will create a seed pull”, Dr. Moses Siambi (ICRISAT Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa) argued in his remarks. “If we don’t find markets for the grain, the farmers will not invest in the seed. Grain markets will create the demand pull for improved seed by the smallholder farmer.
What needs to be done?
There was a consensus that there is a need to redefine the seed systems business model and perhaps a lot more focus should be put on innovating around the markets for these crops.
Four strategic thrusts were identified as critical to unlock the bottlenecks hindering success of the GLDC value chains.
Enhancing market demand through diversified product development
With limited GLDC food and feed products in the markets globally, and the low global demand for the products due to low awareness (compared to wheat and maize products, for example), the market remains below the potential. There is need to invest in R&D around food science and value addition to make a variety of products available for different market segments. Awareness creation and marketing of these products is key and will help stimulate a demand pull and open up markets for the GLDC grain, which will in turn provide a pull for quality seed.
The Kenyan government has joined in the support of opening up markets for dryland cereals in the country. The Cabinet Secretary of Agriculture, Mr. Willy Bett, recently announced that the government will introduce a new policy to make it a requirement for millers to blend maize with millet, sorghum or cassava. “Through this initiative, we shall reduce the issue of malnutrition by two per cent annually and also give millet, sorghum or cassava farmers a chance to sell their produce,” he said
Increasing access to dynamic market intelligence
There exist weak linkages between seed producers, marketers/distributors and users. This has led to lack of accurate data and information regarding seed and grain demand/supply making reliable forecasts for planning purposes difficult. There are now plans to establish structures for market intelligence to gather and share relevant information with all stakeholders. This will help increase efficiency in their business planning.
Enhancing market responsiveness through technology development.
To respond to the needs of the markets, it was agreed that it’s necessary to develop technologies that suit various needs. Market segmentation and targeting was the way to stimulate and enhance demand and supply of GLDC grain and seed. Development of hybrid materials was highlighted at crucial for both cereals and legumes. For cash crops like groundnuts, emphasis was laid on the need to segment markets not only into national, regional and international markets but also based on industry needs (oil, protein content) for confectionary, livestock feed, peanut butter, etc.) uses. There is need to document industry quality standards or industry needs and align variety release requirements.
To increase volumes of grain produced and reduce drudgery, it was suggested that there is need to develop variety attributes that also allow mechanization. ICT was seen as crucial for structuring and optimizing the demand and supply chains thus improving efficiency and compressing costs.
Lobbying and advocacy for systemic policy changes
Lack of support, low investment, complex regulations, lengthy processes and interference by governments were noted to considerably affect the success of the GLDC value chains. To unlock these bottlenecks, there is need for concerted efforts to engage and seek support from various government institutions. Some of the suggested areas of intervention will include dealing with issues such as facilitation of seed trade, waiving registration fees for publicly developed varieties, introduction of quality assurance systems, use of TASAI (The African Seed Access Index) indicators for advocacy and monitoring progress, use of IT platforms for quality assurance, harmonization of regional seed policies and seed trade as well as pushing for policies to incentivize private sector investments.
The GLDC seed systems strategy development workshop which was organized by ICRISAT and its partners under the CRP GLDC program took place in Nairobi on November 30 and December 01, 2017. The workshop brought together more than 70 experts from 40 organizations representing farmers, private seed companies, governments, universities, NGOs, CGIAR, NARS and other research and development organizations.