Better seed to fight climate change in West Africa
©IFAD/Sanjit Das/Panos

Climate-Smart Agriculture

Better seed to fight climate change in West Africa

Farmers need all the support they can get to fight the adverse impacts of climate change and extreme weather conditions that are becoming more frequent. Outputs of maize and groundnut – two key crops for West African food security – could be greatly increased by better farmer access to improved seed, supported by good agricultural practices. Varieties developed by research institutes offer higher yields and stronger resistance to challenges related to climate change, such as drought. Two seed fairs, held in Kayes and Sikasso, Mali, between 20 and 25 June 2016, sought to create awareness of the seeds that are available to help farmers adapt to climate change, and provide opportunities for key value chain actors in West Africa to exchange information and feedback on seed systems.

The fairs, organised by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and CTA, brought together farmers, researchers, extension agents, agro-dealers and district planners to strengthen linkages and share information about improved seed that can help to combat climate change.

ICRISAT has developed early maturing and drought tolerant groundnut varieties to counter constraints that are severely hampering current yields. Other research organisations have developed improved maize varieties for the same purpose. Maize is one of West Africa's main staple food crops, while groundnut, which is rich in protein, oil and micronutrients such as iron and zinc, is essential for the health of rural communities and contributes to soil fertility, by fixing nitrogen.

However, climate change is badly affecting yields of both crops in the region, with recent declines caused by drought estimated at 15% in the case of maize and 38% in the case of groundnut. Recurrent droughts have resulted in local seed stocks being exhausted, because seed is being used as food.

"One of the options to help farmers adapt to uncertainties in weather is to improve their access to new improved, drought tolerant germplasm for major crops – maize and groundnut varieties," says Olu Ajayi, Senior Programme Coordinator, Agricultural and Rural Development Policy at CTA. "The seed fairs aimed to strengthen and stimulate linkages and information sharing among farmers, rural development change agents, researchers and private sector seed companies and agro-dealers on drought tolerant seeds that can help farmers to better adapt to climate change."

Despite the existence of improved seeds, many farmers lack access to them due to insufficient information, high prices and an ineffective seed production and distribution system. Challenges exist in both the public and private sectors. Lack of awareness due to inadequate extension services, coupled with poor agro-input dealer networks, prevent communities in remote areas from accessing certified seeds of the valuable improved crop varieties which could help them increase their yields.

Low profitability means that seed companies have little incentive to ensure sufficient quantities of improved seed reach farmers when they need it. A common problem among producers who succeed in acquiring drought tolerant maize and groundnut seed is crop failure caused by late planting, as a result of delays in acquiring the seed. Early maturing varieties that could overcome these difficulties are not widely distributed due to inadequate knowledge and poor linkages between actors in the seed value chain.

The seed fairs, which were organised back-to-back in two rural locations, where maize and groundnut are widely grown, aimed to create awareness of improved seed sources and varieties, as well as a forum for knowledge exchange on seed production systems among researchers, farmers and seed experts. It was hoped that presentations by experts would contribute to increased production and distribution of high quality maize and groundnut seed, while small packages of seed were distributed to farmers in an effort to introduce them to the benefits, so they could judge the results for themselves.