- Sub-Saharan Africa is facing one of its biggest farming crises in living memory. COVID-19 is dealing a blow to farmers already struggling with floods, drought, pests and diseases.
- Emergency relief must provide high-quality seed for future harvests, not just food to be consumed now.
- Supplying certified seed for nutritious crops that are treasured in traditional African diets is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of achieving future food security.
Sub-Saharan Africa is facing one of its biggest farming crises in living memory. Floods, drought, devastating diseases such as maize lethal necrosis, and pests such as fall armyworm and desert locusts weakened its food supply even before the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures. An even bigger problem is looming on the horizon. All these disastrous factors are not only hurting the current crop, but disrupting the supply of quality seed for future harvests. As a result, seed demand is expected to outstrip supply by nearly twice in the coming seasons, based on expert opinions from seven African countries compiled by the AVISA research project.
The challenge for relief organizations and governments will be to ensure availability and access to high-quality seed for the most nutritious crops, so farmers can feed themselves and their nations. Failure to do so could result in a vicious cycle of meagre harvests, malnutrition and poverty.
Here is what aid organizations, governments and research institutes can do to stave off the looming crisis and build a sustainable future for African farmers.
The seed challenge
Supplying certified, high-quality seed is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of achieving future food security. Such quality seed has been selected, bred and treated for drought and disease resistance, high yields, and a short growing period from sowing to harvest. It can double the yield of legumes and cereals, all other things being equal.
In a crisis like the one we are facing right now, seed assistance programmes suddenly face a sharp rise in demand. However, it takes at least a season to produce and supply the required seed, once stocks are exhausted – meaning 3-9 months, depending on the crop. Meanwhile, farmers are likely to resort to sowing ordinary grain that was originally intended as food, not seed. To the naked eye, grain for consumption and high-quality seed for next year’s harvest look the same. A farmer will only know the difference days or weeks after planting, and sometimes not until it’s harvest time.
Many African farmers struggled to obtain quality seed even before the pandemic. There were instances where seed consignments of rice in Mali, sorghum in Burkina Faso and Maize in Uganda had lower germination capacity, vigor and genetic purity than expected of quality seed. One estimate suggests that more than 95% of legume and dryland cereal seeds in Africa are from sources of unknown quality. Such low-quality seed can lead to persistent food insecurity, as harvest after harvest yields disappointing results. The coronavirus crisis is likely to exacerbate this problem. Farm production in the upcoming crop season will probably be low across Africa owing to lockdowns and floods in East Africa.
Relief organizations and governments have recognized that they must step in to prevent a farming crisis that could result in famines, and are preparing to fill a massive seed shortage. They are currently the biggest procurers of seed in Africa, say partners working with the AVISA research project. Seed-producing organizations and agriculture research institutes across Africa have been asked to reserve their seed for relief orders after the pandemic. In Nigeria, the government and ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) are distributing seed to 10,000 farmers to shield them from the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown measures.
Any short-term efforts to boost seed supply must ensure quality if we don’t want to cause long-term problems. But how can we achieve this in the face of soaring demand and a global pandemic?
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Beans and nuts for nutrition
One solution is better cooperation between development agencies, seed institutions – private, public and community – and agricultural research organizations at the national and international level. Such linkages exist, albeit in a limited way, and predate COVID-19. Governments and relief agencies could step in to strengthen these links, and facilitate seamless cooperation.
Cooperation with research organizations and seed institutions can help relief agencies access high-quality seed sources. It can also tackle another challenge: helping farmers plant the most suitable crops for long-term food security.
In the present crisis, the most suitable crops are nutrient-dense cereals and legumes. African cereals such as sorghum, finger millet and pearl millet, and legumes such as groundnut, chickpea, common bean, cowpea and pigeonpea, can help tackle any threat to food and nutrition security in one go. Chickpeas for example are high in iron, zinc and magnesium, and a portion of only 100-200g can meet an adult’s daily requirements of those nutrients. They are also high in protein and fiber. Varieties exist that can be sown and harvested within 90 days from sowing. These nutritious crops are treasured in many African diets, and are part of food systems that have sustained the continent generation after generation.
Chickpea, for instance, is commonly eaten in Ethiopia in the form of shiro, a stew paired with sourdough flatbread. Groundnut soup in Uganda is the main accompaniment of matoke (banana and plantain) staples. Chickpea, pigeonpea, common bean, cowpea and groundnuts are mixed in various proportions with maize to form githeri, a delicacy in many rural homes.
Growing such legumes alongside or in between cereals offers a whole range of benefits to farmers. Legumes help with crop rotation, fix nitrogen in the soil, cover and protect the soil and break the cycle of pest, disease and weed that afflicts monocultures. Cultivated mostly by women, legumes are typically consumed at home, balancing cereals with proteins, vitamins and micronutrients. Surplus is sold at high prices.
Producing and supplying seed to grow nutritious, suitable and vigorous crops requires agricultural research and development. Agriculture research institutions can help relief agencies promote the right crop and the right variety in the right place, all the way to supporting the best post-harvest management practices such as conditioning, cleaning, drying, storing, and processing the crops.
CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future, has worked with African governments through its centres, such as the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and ICRISAT, to support crisis-hit seed systems. In Ethiopia, a collaboration with the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research ensured access to quality chickpea seed after a drought. In Northern Uganda, post-war relief efforts focused on distributing quality groundnut seed.
If it endures beyond COVID-19, the region-wide cooperation described here could assume early warning capabilities to anticipate spikes in demand for high-quality seeds in certain areas. It would also build links with markets, which are necessary to create resilient supply chains after emergency relief.
A cooperative, connected system would be well-poised to stimulate demand for nutritious foods and promote nourishing diets based on people’s traditional preferences. Ultimately, a solid and well-considered seed system could not just help us respond to this pandemic. It could also help Africa reach its Sustainable Development Goals, and work towards a prosperous future.