OPINION:- Can we turn the tide on hunger with a new wave of seed support?

by Joseph DeVries | Seeds Systems Group
Wednesday, 28 August 2019 10:58 GMT

Julien Amouzou (second from right) is CEO of Togo’s leading seed company, Le Paysan. He produces about 400 metric tons of seed of maize and soybean per year, but Togo needs 14,000 MT of seed of these crops annually. (Photo taken by Joe DeVries)

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Supplying African farmers with high-yielding, climate resilient varieties of crops could slash hunger and malnutrition

Joseph DeVries is the President of Seed Systems Group, an Africa-based nonprofit committed to extending the benefits of better seed to all African farmers. 

Across many drought-stricken countries of Africa—countries that depend on local farmers for food—good seed could not be more valuable or harder to find.  In especially short supply are varieties of improved seed developed to withstand extremes of climate and to boost the yields of hungry farmers. Instead, farmers rely on the same reused, low-yielding seeds planted by their forebears.

The situation is urgent. While the number of hungry people in Africa was falling up until 2015, the trend has since reversed. About 20 percent of Africa’s population (256 million) face severe food insecurity.  The rise of extreme weather has diminished the productive capacity of the land, and per-capita food production is declining. Food is becoming less available to a significant portion of the population.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Fifteen African countries with a combined population of 315 million people and average child malnutrition rates of 38 percent could greatly improve food security and nutrition by developing their seed industries and supplying farmers with high-yielding, climate resilient varieties of the crops they grow.  A recent analysis reveals that even if only one-third of the farmers in the 15 countries are able to obtain improved seed, they could generate an additional 25 million metric tons of food worth US$4 billion.

We know that such rapid development is possible, because other African countries have already achieved it. 

Locally owned seed companies that emerged over the past ten years in 15 other African countries now produce 150,000 metric tons of seed annually, enough to plant 7 million hectares and provide food and income for 20 million African farm families. These African enterprises produce more than 700 new certified, climate-resilient crop varieties representing 14 crops as varied as maize, beans, leafy greens and sorghum. 

This first wave of seed innovation in Africa came from hundreds of crop breeders, working mostly in obscurity in far-flung government-funded research stations. Funds by international donor agencies and partners like The Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave the push needed to unleash a bounty of locally adapted crop varieties.  Research organizations then teamed up with private seed entrepreneurs to multiply, package and distribute the seed far and wide. Meanwhile, essential changes in government policies and regulations supported the growth of a private seed sector.

In countries where new seed has been introduced even poor, small-scale farmers’ fields are producing more.  Private seed companies and small farm supply shops have proliferated.  Hired tractors are working overtime, sometimes via Uber-style apps that allow farmers to get plowing services faster and cheaper.  Planting better seed also brings other technologies like fertilizer, irrigation, and mechanization within reach, as their costs get spread across a bigger harvest.  Farmers can consider a whole range of new choices. 

But Africa is enormous, and international support for the development of seed systems has been largely concentrated in a select group of countries favored by history, geography, or language group.  What about Africa’s other farmers?

They number close to 40 million, and live in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Chad, Madagascar, Benin, and Angola.

Today in Chad, a country of 15 million people, conflict and climate change have left  nearly 3.7 million people without reliable access to food. In rural areas, up to 44 percent of people suffer from undernutrition. Crop yields are about a third that of countries with better developed seed systems. But the country has large areas suitable for food production. And, the government recently passed a seed law that welcomes private sector investment. It has also pledged to increase the amount of improved, certified seed planted on local farms from 2 percent to at least 20 percent.

The threat of widespread hunger in sub-Saharan Africa has been one of the continents’—and the world’s—most persistent and daunting challenges of the past half-century.  The rapidly growing population, complex mix of ecologies, and increasing droughts and floods can make progress toward food security frustratingly difficult.

But things are starting to change.  The example of countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Ghana, which have increased corn yields by an average of 60 percent since the mid-2000s, should be emulated.  They are part of a wider movement that has planted the seeds of change through the dynamic growth of a private-sector African seed industry serving the needs of millions of smallholder farmers. As African governments and development partners support this growth, African farmers will be able again to turn the tide on hunger.