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SATrends Issue 7

June 2001


  1. Space-Age Partnership in West Africa
  2. Bad Taste is Good
  3. Out of Africa
  4. Seed Priming: Rhapsody in Simplicity
  5. Highlights of Previous Issues


1. Space-Age Partnership in West Africa

A new kind of partnership powered by space-age technologies is emerging in West Africa. The new initiative is led by the Institut d'economie rurale (IER) – the national research system of Mali – in collaboration with ICRISAT and with support from a host of national, regional, and international partners.


TraoreStory web.jpg (5656 bytes)What makes this initiative different is that it takes the normal roles in a partnership between a national and an international institution and turns them upside down. Because the initiative's aim is to establish a facility for spatial and simulation technologies for the direct benefit of West Africa, it was logical to base the facility within the national program itself, rather than in the lab of the international partner. This way, the national partner bears ultimate responsibility for the project, while technical expertise is provided by both IER and ICRISAT.

The use of geographic information systems (GIS), allied to remote sensing and modeling, constitutes the cornerstone of this initiative. GIS tools help researchers decipher patterns, relationships, and trends across locations. When it is fused with remote sensing and modeling, the result is a jolt of power to research, especially natural resource management. This is precisely what this unique joint initiative has set out to do.


The objectives of the initiative, which was formalized recently through a Memorandum of Understanding between IER and ICRISAT, are to:

Capacity building of national programs is one of the main thrusts of this effort. As part of the newly launched Climate Prediction and Agriculture (CLIMAG) project, for which the facility is serving as a data hub, specialized training sessions were organized for national scientists. The goal of the project is to mitigate the impact of climate change on the agro-ecosystems of West Africa.

The facility recently organized a training course also on the use of APSIM (Agricultural Production Systems Simulator). Says Pierre Sibiry Traoré, the ICRISAT scientist who heads the facility, "The experience gained in the training will be used for future projects, such as to evaluate the forecasting capability of APSIM's Millet and Soil Phosphorus modules to increase crop production in millet-based cropping systems in the Sahel."

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2.Bad Taste Is Good

In nature, it pays to be wild. Wild relatives of common crops are often safe from attacks by pests and diseases that assail cultivated species because they taste so bad. These wild species provide a genetic reservoir from which scientists can draw to develop resistant varieties.      

Helicoverpa armigera, the pod borer, is the most dreaded pest of pigeonpea and chickpea, robbing poor farmers of over a billion dollars annually. Despite screening more than 14 000 pigeonpea germplasm accessions at ICRISAT-Patancheru, adequate levels of resistance have not yet been found.

But there may be light at the end of the tunnel. If wild pigeonpeas can keep podborer at bay because of foul flavor, the answer to resisting this insidious pest may lie in identifying the genes that govern bad taste.

To tap resistance genes from the wild relatives, scientists are trying to find out what makes the farmer-cultivated pigeonpea types more mouth-watering than their wild relatives. The scientists are studying the differences in physical and biochemical characters that might account for the borer's preference for munching on the farmer's crop.

ICRISAT, in collaboration with two British organizations, the Natural Resources Institute and Jodrell Laboratory, is delving into the fascinating world of the pod borer's gastronomy to identify the insect's feeding stimulants on pigeonpea. The joint project, which is supported by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), investigates the insect’s responses to different plant parts or to isolated chemicals from plant extracts using specific bioassays.

Some interesting findings so far:      

Summing up the value of this study, Dr. H.C. Sharma, ICRISAT entomologist, said, "Successful identification of the feeding stimulants/antifeedants and the associated plant structures will provide an immediate benefit: a marker with which plant breeders can select less susceptible pigeonpea genotypes."

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3. Out of Africa

Novel partnerships between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and ICRISAT are paving the way for rural entrepreneurship in Africa. Pigeonpea cultivation for export to the huge Indian market is an increasingly important income channel for poor farmers in Mozambique.

In northern Mozambique, for example, smallholder pigeonpea farmers are accustomed to facing an annoying problem around October each year: pigeonpea buyers would suddenly lose interest and prices would plummet. Market research by TechnoServe, a marketing-oriented NGO, and ICRISAT soon showed why.

Pigeonpeas in this region mature around mid September, a few months earlier than the Indian crop. The crop is then shipped to India for processing into dhal (split grains). The idea is to get the crop to India when supply is short and demand high, thereby ensuring the best price. But it’s tricky business. If the harvest is delayed by a few weeks, the Indian pigeonpea harvest inundates the market, prices drop, and Mozambiquan farmers are out of luck.

One possible solution is to promote earlier-maturing varieties that can reach India between May and September when prices are highest. ICRISAT has developed several promising cultivars, but farmers have been reluctant to adopt them because of pest problems. Cotton, the primary cash crop in the region, is similarly affected. The project partners, putting two and two together, realized that if cotton could be grown in rotation with pigeonpea, the cash-rich cotton companies could help control insects on both crops. The relationship is not one-sided. Cotton farmers also gain through improved soil fertility, thanks to pigeonpea and its nitrogen-fixing qualities. With everybody looking at a win-win situation, TechnoServe was able to convince the cotton growers to offer their support.

When a group of pigeonpea processors from India was invited to examine ICRISAT's early-maturing varieties for quality, the largest processor in India showed keen interest and commissioned TechnoServe to carry out a feasibility study on constructing a processing plant in Mozambique. The study was completed, and the decision has now been made to proceed with this investment.     

tanzania web.jpg (5791 bytes)In Tanzania too, the TechnoServe/ICRISAT partnership is gaining similar successes. In 1998, TechnoServe conducted a study of the European market, and found that buyers were willing to pay a 20-25% price premium for graded pigeonpea. TechnoServe developed a business plan for a Tanzanian trader to export pigeonpea to Holland. The trader was able to secure financing for 200 tons, and smallholder pigeonpea farmers received a 20% price premium for their grain. (left, ICRISAT scientists and partners in Tanzania)

Despite these exciting developments in advancing the welfare of poor people, however, additional challenges were created. The problem of mixed grain quality persisted. To address this, ICRISAT is now working with the Department of Research and Training in Tanzania to test improved varieties. These varieties are being multiplied for sale to farmers, who have the incentive to buy improved seed because of the price premium they will get for high quality grain.

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4. Seed Priming: Rhapsody in Simplicity

A seed germinates when it absorbs sufficient moisture from the surrounding soil, a signal that conditions are conducive to growth. In drought years, moisture absorption by the seed is uncertain, if not impossible.

At such times some farmers provide the moisture directly to the seed through the simple act of soaking the seed in water before sowing. This is called seed priming – giving the seeds a head start, and thus an advantage, over non-primed seeds.

Scientists from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), in collaboration with the Indian Farmers fertilizer Cooperative Organization (IFFCO), improved on the idea, and applied the method to selected crops in western India, with promising results.

In connection with a DFID-supported project to promote chickpea following rainfed rice in the Barind area of Bangladesh, ICRISAT was provided additional support to study a specific problem. The special project was asked to evaluate the interaction between on-farm seed priming, nodulation, and disease incidence in chickpea in Bangladesh and India over 11 months. Peoples Resource Oriented Voluntary Agency (PROVA), a non-governmental organization based in Rajshahi, and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), are the other partners of this seed-priming project.

In the rainfed High Barind Tract area of Bangladesh, farmers grew only one crop of rice a year during the rainy season, then left the land fallow until it rained again the following year. Adding another crop could boost incomes and food supplies, but after the rains cease, the soil dries from the top down. Any crop following rice would have to chase the receding soil moisture, but only a crop with roots that penetrate deep and quickly would be able to survive.

priming web.jpg (6079 bytes)

Fortunately, using the seed-priming technology, the project scientists succeeded in their race against receding soil moisture and hardening soils, and were able to help farmers grow a second crop, chickpea, soon after the rice was harvested.

(Picture: fields sown with primed (right) and non-primed seeds (left)).

Seed priming dramatically improved early seedling establishment, resulting in yield gains as high as 47%. Better emergence, early growth vigor, more biomass, and more pods, all contributed to increased productivity.Also, the earlier maturity helped the crop escape drought.

This startling intervention is being confirmed in over 100 on-farm trials during 2000/01. Also, besides the increased yields, the legume could improve soil fertility, so spillover benefits to successive rice crops can be expected.

Seed priming techniques on chickpea are also being evaluated in farmers' fields in the rice-based systems of Nepal, and for sorghum and pearl millet in Zimbabwe.

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Highlights of Previous Issues:

May 2001: Dodging Drought in Kenya •Vietnam and ICRISAT Save Watersheds •Farmers Enrich Malawi's Soils •Groundnut Mystery Disease Identified

April 2001: Women Farmers Guide Scientists in NamibiaAshta Puts it Faith in IPMSahelian Farmers Place Their BetsChina and Pigeonpea: Love at Second Sight

March 2001: Agriculture: an Ally Against Global Warming?•Breaking the Spell of Witchweed•Groundnut Taking Root in Central Asia and the Caucasus •Zimbabwean Smallholders Drive the Research Agenda

February 2001:Somalia: Seeds Deliver Hope Amidst Chaos •The CGIAR Fights Desertification in Africa •Creating the World's First Molecular Marker Map of Chickpea•Aflatoxin and Cancer: Cracking a Hard Nut in Developing Countries

January 2001: Things Grow Better with CokeŽ: Micro-fertilizer System Sparks 50-100 Percent Millet Yield Increases in the Sahel •Groundnut (Peanut) Production Accelerates in VietnamPigeonpea Broadens Farmer's Options in SudanPrivate Sector Invests in Public Plant Breeding Research at ICRISAT.

December 2000: International Symposium on SAT Futures•Centers Team Up to Help East Timor •Spatial Variability in Watersheds• World's First Cytoplasmic Male-Sterile Hybrid Pigeonpea •Groundnut (Peanut) Variety Boosts Malawian Agriculture •National Researchers Persevere in El Salvadorv •ICRISAT Celebrates India-ICRISAT Day •ICRISAT and World Vision International Work Together in Southern Africa.