Engaging Universities in Integrated Seed System Development: Lessons from Mekelle University
Fetien Abay, Institute of Environment, Gender and Development Studies, Mekelle University, Ethiopia.
The need for policy and institutional support to develop an integrated seed system that really serves African smallholders is explained. Mekelle University (MU) is the key implementing partner for the Integrated Seed Sector Development (ISSD) programme in the Tigray region, Ethiopia, where farmers rely heavily on the traditional seed system. MU works with farmers, consumers, other public institutions and private companies to develop interventions using seeds of local crops as opposed to the varieties (e.g. hybrid maize) that are favoured by commercial enterprises involved in the formal seed sector.
Lack of access to improved seed and planting material
Currently, more than 80% of the seed planted by African farmers is produced by the informal seed sector and this will remain so for the foreseeable future. In the informal seed system, individual farm households carry out all seed functions, including seed development, multiplication, processing and marketing, while the formal/commercial system comprises specialised organisations with distinct roles in supplying seeds of new varieties. Unfortunately, there is limited collaboration between stakeholders in the formal and informal seed sectors. This means that many farmers often do not have access to early generation seed (EGS) of new, improved varieties for a range of food crops or high-value fruit and vegetables. Building horizontal linkages between the informal and formal sectors at each functional level (e.g., research and development, seed production, enterprise) is critical in facilitating transformation of the seed industry, and the public sector including universities, research organisations and extension, has a vital role to play in this process.
Several factors limit access to improved seed for African smallholders:
- Poorly developed infrastructure: Long distances between farmers and seed outlets, poor roads, high transportation costs and inadequate storage arrangements have a negative impact on seed quality.
- Inadequate extension services: In many countries, extension services are not readily available or easily accessible. Farmers often need such services to guide their decision-making on production and use of quality seeds and to understand the benefits.
- Inadequate seed policies: In some countries, seed policies encourage investment to support the development of integrated and quality seed systems, whereas inadequate/inappropriate policies in others can serve as disincentives to further seed development. Seed regulations should facilitate the development of a heterogeneous, competitive group of seed producers while protecting the rights of all producers and customers. In many African countries, stringent variety release procedures, plant breeders’ rights and plant variety protection laws favour formal seed sector enterprises. Removing compulsory seed certification and restrictive trade licensing requirements (e.g., for open-pollinated maize and sorghum) would permit the production of quality seed by smallholders and sale among neighbouring farmers. Involving smallholders in contract seed production would enable seed companies to benefit from existing informal farm-level seed systems. It is therefore important to promote indigenous seed varieties and to support biodiversity-based farming systems that build local seed exchange.
The Mekelle University seed programme
MU is the key implementing partner for the Integrated Seed Sector Development (ISSD) programme in the Tigray region, where farmers rely heavily on the traditional seed system. A strong farmer-researcher linkage group was established, in which the importance of farmer-breeders is recognised. The farmers’ right of full access to enhance varieties as well as for a partial ownership of breeding rights (including the recognition of farmer-selected and officially released varieties) was secured from the start. The Ethiopian Plant Breeders’ Right Proclamation also recognises farmers’ rights.
Under its seed programme, MU carried out a wide range of mutually reinforcing activities:
- Participatory plant breeding (PPB) – through the combined effort of breeders in MU and local farming communities, three high-yielding barley varieties with improved nutritional qualities (β-glucans, Fe and Zn) were developed and officially released by Ethiopia’s national variety releasing committee (Abraha et al., 2013). The PPB work was farmer-led as well as demand-driven and aimed at increasing yields and nutritional value while enhancing the tolerance of local varieties to biotic and abiotic stresses. Farmers also regained access to endangered local varieties in participatory varietal selection (PVS) trials. Farmers at almost all of the sites have a substantial share of the local market for the seeds they are producing (Abay et al., 2011). This demonstrates that plant breeding with locally adapted varieties “may have much to offer the farmers of Tigray” (Abraha et al., 2013).
- Partners working in the seed sector have been identified and a joint vision and regular discussion forum in the seed sector have been established. Moreover, senior officials were involved and facilitated (as well as participated in) study visits to other African and Asian countries in order to learn about the need for regional quality assurance and certification, regional seed quarantine systems to isolate seeds that may have been exposed to a contagious or infectious disease, seed quality laboratory facilities, a quality control system, and the participation of private investors in the seed sector.
- Collaboration among stakeholders for the multiplication and distribution of EGS was chosen as an alternative strategy to mitigate the problem of basic seed shortage in the region. MU conducted discussions with the various stakeholders to reach consensus on ways to share tasks and responsibilities. Partners included Tigray Agricultural Research Institute (TARI), the Ethiopian Seed Enterprise (ESE), and private investors. The multiplication of the first released farmer-developed variety (FDV) reached 5000 farmers in the second year. MU also produced EGS in village schools and distributed multiplied seed back to model farmers on a contractual basis to return the seed after harvesting and sell the rest to the local community.
- The plant breeding department of MU has been engaged in variety development, registration and release for faba bean and barley. The barley varieties Felamit, Fetina and Hirity have already been released by the National Varieties Release Committee (NVRC). The Seed Safety Through Diversity project targets co-operatives in accessing these improved varieties. Using the same model, the plant-breeding team of MU has been able to expand into sorghum and finger millet breeding and seed dissemination in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia.
- Capacity building at several levels has been supported by: (1) providing PhD scholarships abroad in addition to providing co-funding for PhD research within the country; (2) providing short-term training for experts, development agents working with local seed businesses (LSBs), and other stakeholders in the seed production; (3) preparing a seed production and marketing training manual; (4) promoting research and studies that bring a tangible impact in empowering LSBs in their quality seed multiplication, storage and distribution; and (5) sponsoring MSc students for conducting thematic research and designing training and capacity-building programmes to empower the LSBs.
- Women have been engaged in the improvement of local food products by using second-graded seeds for product processing. This enabled LSBs to diversify their business and better target consumer preferences for particular varieties and crops. A case in point is the increased demand for lentil and chickpea by the women co-operatives, which led to a partnership of MU breeders with Holetta and Debrezeit legume breeders. This in turn led to increased attention for linseed, both as a rotation crop and for its nutritional value. The demand for these and other crops attracted the interest of a private company, NAS Food Company, which started preparing various products on the basis of food security crops such as finger millet, sorghum, lentil and chickpea.
- Seed-cleaning machines have been provided to two LSBs. The machines are expected to clean seed of the LSBs and of the local community at a reasonable price. This will save time, boost productivity, generate income, guarantee clean seed and promote competence in the seed business.
- Flyers, brochures, newsletters, billboards, T-shirts, caps, posters, calendars and the Internet (e.g. www.ISSDEthiopia.org) were used to share experiences and promote results.
Universities, with their wealth of highly qualified academic staff and potential for agricultural research, are currently recognised more for their teaching role than for research. Furthermore, linkages with other aspects of the national agricultural research and innovation system (NARIs) are generally weak and need to be strengthened to enhance agricultural performance. Universities can consider establishing and strengthening multidisciplinary teams within their universities and extending this to facilitating and supporting the establishment of multi-disciplinary collaboration among institutes that are devoted largely to specific problem-solving research in the fields of food, agriculture, agricultural economics and rural development. Such teams and institutes, while maintaining a high level of autonomy, would remain firmly linked to teaching and post-graduate studies, in addition to conducting targeted research. For example in Ethiopia, Hawassa and Mekelle Universities established the Institute of Environment, Gender and Development studies (IEGDS) with donor support. Currently, both institutes are conducting multi-disciplinary research.
With respect to ISSD, public universities need to consider how to:
- assist seed-insecure subsistence farmers who may be unable to purchase seed available in the formal market but could benefit significantly from access to high-quality seeds of local varieties with improved drought and disease resistance developed through an improved informal system, and;
- better identify and distribute improved varieties of smallholder crops for which there is little commercial interest. Seeds of new varieties could be distributed on kind loan basis. Through the establishment of LSBs and PPB programmes, farmers can be integrated in every aspect of the seed system as active participants in seed research, the release process, seed production, and seed distribution through farmer-to-farmer seed exchange networks. Some may become independent seed entrepreneurs producing seed for the local market or work as contract seed producers or seed traders for other private and public seed companies.
The lessons from MU suggest that the enhanced role of public universities in seed systems that benefit smallholder farmers can work.
Abraha, A., Uhlen, A.K., Abay, F., Sahlstrom, S. and Bjornstad, A. 2013. Genetic variation in barley enables a high quality injera, the Ethiopian staple flat bread, comparable to tef. Crop Science doi: 10.2135/cropsci2012.11.0623
Fetien, A., Walter, B. and Åsmund, B. 2011. Network analysis of barley seed flows in Tigray, Ethiopia: supporting the design of strategies that contribute to on-farm management of plant genetic resources. Plant Genetic Resources 9, 495-505.
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