Africa, now home to a population of more than 1.2 billion people, which is expected to double by 2050, faces a mounting challenge of feeding its people, growing its economy, creating decent jobs and improving the quality of life for its citizens.
Transforming agriculture, the sector that employs the majority of Africans and holds the greatest promise for economic prosperity, will be critical in this pursuit.
Yet despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on agricultural development, most of Africa’s farmers continue to harvest one tonne of grain per hectare, consigning them to an impoverished, subsistence existence.
Experience from the frontlines of agricultural development in Africa reveals that a major factor in this dilemma is the lack of access to quality seeds.
The breeding and supply of seed of higher-yielding crop varieties has been the starting point of virtually every Green Revolution experienced around the globe. Yet the critical challenge of seed scarcity among Africa’s farmers became evident in the early part of this century almost by accident.
At that time, maize farmers in parts of East Africa were battling a serious infestation by a parasite called Striga that was hitting their yields hard. This prompted research on different maize varieties resistant to the parasite.
In the process of doing so, however, the researchers discovered that even farmers who had no Striga on their farms were still getting very low yields. There must be a broader problem than Striga, they concluded.
A broader set of analyses led to the conclusion that a lack of plant breeders and funding to support the creation of new varieties was at the heart of the challenge.
Yet every African country had agricultural research stations where the work could be done, and no shortage of eager young agriculturalists ready to learn the science of plant breeding.
Equally important, every country possessed its share of seed entrepreneurs and vendors eager to create businesses from the supply of new seeds.
In 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation came together to establish the Programme for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) within the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to address the challenges associated with supplying Africa’s farmers with higher-yielding, locally adapted seed.
A decade later, crop breeders working in public institutes around the continent have developed over 600 new crop varieties. Over 500 plant breeders have been trained at MSc and PhD levels through the programme.
Africa’s emerging “agri-preneurs” have likewise stepped forward in large numbers to work with breeders to fill the seed supply gap, bulking up seed of the new varieties on production plots in 18 countries and selling the seed through local shops known as agro-dealers.
The new seed is in high demand. Approximately 110 recently formed seed companies are now producing over 130 tonnes of certified seeds every year, sufficient for about 15 million farmers around Africa.
Just as it did elsewhere in the world, the invisible hand of improved seed is broadly lifting farmer productivity in Africa. Crop yields across the continent are shifting upward for the first time in decades.
As we travel across the land, the evidence we are seeing is clear: Thousands of smallholder farmers have shown that they can double and triple their harvests, provided they have access to seeds, fertiliser, and expertise.
The importance of establishing functional, responsive seed supply systems in every African country is now well past the proof-of-concept stage, and represents an imperative for Africa’s prosperity. And the goal of ending hunger in Africa now appears achievable in our lifetimes.
Seeds alone, however, will not get the continent on a path to prosperity. Farmers will require access to credit facilities as well as links to national and regional markets to sell their surpluses.
Policies that promote the activities of private agri-businesses, and access to capital for their growth are needed to extend the revolution to the outer boundaries of African agriculture.
The task ahead is enormous and the road is long and winding. However, we now have a reliable map. The output of Africa’s agricultural scientists and entrepreneurs show that this is a high-return area for investment in alleviating human suffering and providing real opportunities for Africa’s growing population of young people.
Joe DeVries is the vice president for programme development and innovation at AGRA.