An international organisation is funding a breeding research program to deliver quality seeds to 400,000 local farmers, in a drive to get farmers to switch from retained seeds, which are often halving yields. Smallholder farmers tend to use retained seeds because of their availability and the low cost of acquiring them compared to hybrid seeds.
However, ,according to a 2008 study by the African Journal of Agricultural Research, retained seeds tend to have low disease resistance and score poorly on yield. Three quarters of smallholders are currently using retained seeds, said Joseph D DeVries the Director of the new seed program, Programme Africa for Seeds Systems (PASS).
Yet in the first harvest, retained seeds yields tend to be 25 to 30 per cent lower than for hybrid seeds, and in successive seasons “yields decrease by 50 per cent,” said DeVries. PASS, funded by Alliance for Green Revolution (AGRA), is now supporting research breeding institutions such as Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), seven local seed companies and training 3700 agrodealers from around the country on quality seed breeding and grassroots information dissemination.
The agrodealers are also being taught to run the cash flows and stock management in their businesses. In addition, 10 Kenyan science students at Masters and PHD levels in plant breeding have also been sponsored for courses on quality seed breeding, for the reason that lack of “sufficient skilled seed production specialists” is exacerbating access to quality seeds, said DeVries. The scientists are also being drawn from KARI.
Agrodealers, who are the point of contact with farmers, are being trained in the range of quality seeds released by accredited institutions like KARI. Private seed companies will also be linked to KARI breeding programs to ensure they are using quality foundation seeds. Foundation seeds are the seeds that authorised breeding institutions like KARI release to seed companies for multiplication and dissemination to farmers and agrodealers.
Currently, seed companies lack the full infrastructure to reproduce and market improved or new seeds of staple crops. Among the Kenyan staples, some 60 per cent of maize is grown from hybrid seeds, as nearly all seed companies produce the seeds. But according to KARI data, only 1 to 2 per cent of farmers in Kenya are using new or improved potato breeds.
But the $150m PASS initiative, targeted at 13 African countries, is now focused on all the popular staples consumed in Africa, including maize, beans cassava, sorghum, rice and sweet potatoes. In these 13 countries, the demand for quality seeds stands at 0.5 million tonnes, yet only 0.2 million tonnes are supplied. That is “40 per cent of the demand being met,” said DeVries.
The PASS initiative has selected seed companies to support based on its focus on staples. The seed companies had to have wide markets, be selling seeds at a fair price and in small packages, offer a diversity of seeds crops and be “focused on small holder farmers,” said DeVries.
Locally, the seed drive, is also addressing aprticualr challenges. For example, potato “certified seed is very limited in distribution in Kenya”, said John Onditi, a potato breeder at KARI Tigoni station. The high expense of investing in potato reproducing laboratories compared to maize, has seen many private seed companies shy from investing in the area.
But KARI is now working with two institutions that have potato multiplying technology: the Agricultural Development Corporation in Molo, and Kisima Farm in Timau, to multiply new breeds. KARI has also brought in scaled-down technology known as aeroponics to accelerate the production of disease tolerant tubers. Per plant, the technology produces five times more tubers. At a cost of Sh100,000, KARI is encouraging private breeders and farmers to adopt the solution.
Written By Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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