"We should increase crop yields to feed growing populations"

Dr Rebeka Gebretsadik has studied agriculture at Alemaya University in Ethiopia and did her PhD at the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. After having spent some years at research institutes in Ethiopia, she now works as a Senior Seed System Advisor in a project aiming at empowering smallholder farmer cooperatives to multiply improved seeds. The project is part of the “Supporting Sustainable Agricultural Productivity Programme” (SSAP) in Ethiopia, a cooperation of the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), the German private seed breeding company KWS Saat SE, and several other public and private companies. It is implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).


As the Berlin Institute has stated in the recently published study entitled “Food, Jobs and Sustainability”, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa need to become more productive. What is the role of improved seed hereby?

Since long ago, farmers in Ethiopia depend on the so-called informal seed system. That means, they save seed from the previous harvest or exchange seed between farmers. This accounts for 85 percent of the cereal seed used by smallholder farmers. The yield potential of these local varieties is low as compared to the improved varieties. In this way potentials from breeding and improved seed quality cannot be used.
Nowadays, agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa cannot feed the people in most of the countries. Ethiopia has to import food even though it has a conducive climate in different agro-ecological regions, very good soils and normally sufficient precipitation. So, in one way or the other sustainable crop productivity improvement is vital. For that, improved seed is a key factor.

Can you give us some figures about the potentials?

Let us take barley, which is a staple food in Ethiopia, especially in the populated areas in the highlands. That is why our project is mainly focusing on it. When farmers grow their local varieties of barley, they produce 1.4 - 1.5 tons per hectare. However, when they use improved varieties of food barley they may harvest on average about 2.4 tons per hectare. That is an advantage of about one ton which has a remarkable impact on food security. On research fields, with optimal agronomic methods and fertilizing, we even reach up to 4 tons per hectare.

Where does improved seed come from?

So far, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) crop breeding program is the main source of improved varieties in Ethiopia. This breeding program mainly exploits the widely available local landraces. These landraces are collected, conserved, and characterized by the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, EBI. Scientists in EIAR utilize this material. They do their breeding using the best fitting cultivars in order to produce a newly improved variety with the desired features.

So this is all done by conventional breeding?

Yes. Conventional breeding procedures are well suited to solve the problems at issue. For instance, a breeder may observe one plant with a genetic trait like particularly high yielding capacity but susceptibility to a certain disease. Another plant has lower yield capacity but may have some trait like resistance to this disease. Through classical crossing these traits can be combined. The breeder examines the progeny of this crossing for several plant generations and chooses only the most promising individuals to continue. After this selection process we will have a variety which combines high yield and disease resistance.

Does genetic engineering play a role in enhancing yields?

It might play a role in improving varieties with a very specific trait related to one single or only very few genes. However, yield potential is determined by thousands of genes. Therefore, genetic engineering cannot be used to enhance yields currently. Anyway, in Ethiopia it is not allowed to grow or to do research with genetically modified crops. This applies for most African countries except South Africa.

How does the improved seed reach the farmers?

Several improved varieties have been released and registered by the Ethiopian national research system. Initially, farmers did not easily accept them. It was a matter of creating awareness and of demonstrating the great advantage in yields compared to the local varieties. What is more, this improved seed unfolds its potential best if it is used with a full package of good agronomical practices. This package includes soil cultivation, sowing method and weed control, among others. All these factors contribute to increasing yields. In our project, the approach is to provide trainings on good agronomic practices to the nine collaborating model seed producer cooperatives ahead of the planting season before we supply them with improved seed.

Can the farmers afford to buy the improved seed?

If the farmers cannot buy them, it is not so much because of lack of money but more so because sometimes it is not available at the right place or at the time when they need it. Once the farmers are aware of the advantage of improved seed they are willing to spend money on it because they know that it pays back at the end of the season.
I once asked a farmer from one of our cooperatives whether he thought that he would find a market for the seed. He said: it is already sold to my relatives and neighbors. That was before harvest.
Actually, these cooperatives are supposed to go through the whole process of growing to cleaning the seeds and have it certified by the state seed quality regulatory laboratories. With the certification label that is proof of good quality and purity, the seeds will then go into the formal system, the commercial one, that is. But small-scale farmers are allowed to market their seed directly in the informal system. Since the certification is subsidized, the seed producer cooperatives can get the certification for their multiplied improved seed. Their clients, mostly smallholder farmers, prefer to buy it with the label even if it has a higher price because they know that money is spent for their benefit.
Currently, the nine cooperatives working with SSAP have to buy the seed. If some of their members cannot afford, the cooperative compensates and gives the seed to the members on credit. They would repeat that on a rotating basis in the next seasons. After two or three years the cooperatives have accumulated enough capital to be able to invest in the necessary infrastructure for seed multiplication like storing their seeds professionally, clean, dry and unmixed, that is.

Are there any private companies involved in the Ethiopian seed sector?

Until a few years ago, the formal system consisted exclusively of government enterprises. But the para-state seed enterprises alone cannot satisfy the huge demand. Now, in the new seed sector policy any private seed company is allowed to invest in the country. So far, only very few private companies from abroad are on the Ethiopian market. And they engage mostly in hybrid maize seed because this is more profitable for them, much more than, say, self-pollinated crops like improved barley seed that can be multiplied easily on farms from year to year.

How many people have profited from your project so far?

The improved seed, together with the trainings, has brought a lot of improvements for the members of the nine model cooperatives. In total, about 1,200 small-scale farmers are organized in these seed production cooperatives. They have not only increased their productivity but they can also strive for a better livelihood. They send their children to school. Their houses have tiled roofs instead of thatched ones. Some have purchased a solar panel for having light in the evening. Non-members, neighbors and relatives in the area observe this and may join or found new cooperatives. The seed our cooperatives have multiplied so far has been purchased and used by about 35,000 - 40,000 small-scale farmers. Our project approach can be scaled up. As a matter of principle, millions of smallholders could benefit from the system.  

Thank you very much for the interview.

Interview conducted by Sabine Sütterlin.

Reproduction with indication of source (Sütterlin/Berlin-Institut) permitted.

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