African farmers to yield new crops seeds

New seed index hopes to solve challenges for smallholder farmers


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A new initiative has been launched to help improve smallholder farmers' access to modern, and more productive food crop varieties.

The African Seed Access Index (TASAI) is the first ever initiative dedicated to monitoring the state of Africa’s seed sector. It issued detailed scorecards on seed development and distribution, with a focus on increasing choices for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. 

African smallholder farmers - the farmers owning small-based plots of land on which they grow subsistence crops and one or two cash crops - often lack access to varieties of staple crops such as maize, soybean, sunflower and wheat.

TASAI organisers hope to improve access for smallholder farmers to varieties of seeds that are adaptable to each region's conditions, that are also affordable, and of high-quality. The organisation hopes this will also translate in farmers being better able to meet the continent's food challenges. 

Seeds in South Africa are imported in bulk at 60,000 or 80,000 kernels, for large farmersThis leaves smallholder farmers - who often only require less than five kilos - in a situation where they have to fend for themselves without any assistance, and often get varieties that are 30 or 40 years old.

Meeting food demands

Commenting on the index launch, Joe Devries, of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, said it's crucial that smallholder farmers in Africa have access to a wide range of crop varieties because small farms are the mainstay of food production in the region.

"Seeds may not be a cure-all, but without a healthy seed sector it's hard to see how African farmers can satisfy the food demands of a population growing faster than anywhere on Earth and adapt to climate change that are rapidly altering farming conditions."

Dr Edward Mabaya, principal investigator for TASAI, at the launch in Nairobi said that food security was a key factor for African agriculture, which is dominated by smallholder farmers.

He said smaller packets of seeds can make things more affordable for farmers with smaller plots of land.

"So we are coming in with this problem in mind and working our way upstream to identify the problems that may be causing this weak flow of appropriate technologies reaching farmers," Mayaba told BBC.

South African crop seeds performance

TASAI's assessments were released on Thursday last week and they focus on seed sectors in four pilot countries - Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

For example, TASAI says South Africa gets strong marks for having a competitive seed sector and for shepherding new varieties from breeders to farmers relatively quickly.  

Over the last three years, South Africa released 221 varieties of maize, while Kenya released 35, Uganda 12, and Zimbabwe 28.

It takes an average of 12 months to release a new variety in South Africa, compared to three years in Kenya and Uganda, and almost two years in Zimbabwe.

Despite the challenges in the continent, South Africa stands out for having developed a large, mature and diverse commercial seed sector. 

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