SATrends Issue 27                                                                                                                  February 2003


  • Getting it Right:
  • Progeny Sans Papa!
  • Sending Sorghum to School
  • Industry Spurs a Sorghum Forum in Tanzania
  • 1. Getting it Right:

    Improving the efficiency of regional crop breeding and seed systems in southern Africas

    Since 1983, ICRISAT’s Sorghum and Millet Improvement Program (SMIP) has been working alongside the national research programs of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries. This effort, which contributed significantly to the general well being of southern African farming communities, was facilitated by USAID

    (Left, a field of millet and groundnut in Lucydale, near Matopos, Zimbabwe).

    SMIP started reviewing the patterns emerging from its regional trial responses and variety releases in 1998. It quickly became evident that although better varieties were being released in the region, it was being done piecemeal. Each country would release the same variety, frequently at dramatically different times.

    For example, sorghum variety Macia was first released in Mozambique in 1989. However, it took over 11 years for the variety to be released in Tanzania. Farmers in that country thus had to wait nearly a decade for access to a variety offering at least 25% more yield than their traditional varieties. No one knows how many hundreds of unnecessary trials were conducted.

    Regionalization provides three benefits:

    • Saving Since 1999, SMIP has been analyzing data of trials across 41 southern African testing sites. Selecting a few representative test sites for regional testing without loss of information means that the number of breeding sites can be reduced from 41 to 15, thus saving approximately $20,000 per year (about $500 per site) in variety development costs.

    • Seed security enhanced. One of the major advantages of multi-country releases is regional seed security. If sorghum seed is in short supply in Tanzania, the country can look to Botswana for seed stocks. If Zimbabwe faces severe drought and needs pearl millet seed, stocks may be available from Namibia.

    • Seed markets strengthened. Multi-country releases also create incentives for commercial seed companies because companies prefer to sell a limited number of varieties across a large market. However, if one variety is released in 3 or 4 countries, the market becomes significant enough to encourage a commercial investment. A case in point: the Seed Co Ltd is multiplying Macia for sale in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana and Tanzania.

    If SADC adopts a formal policy of regionalized releases and supports regionalized breeding, seed companies will take a more active interest in the products of these programs. This will also increase the likelihood that seed will be readily available in the event of another drought.

    For more information contact

    2. Progeny Sans Papa!

    You have heard of hybrids, and you have heard of hybrid vigor, but you have probably not heard of hybrid seeds sans sexual reproduction.

    Asexual reproduction, usually associated with very low forms of plant or animal life as a norm, has also been expressed in sophisticated plant systems.When asexual reproduction results in the formation of seeds, the process is known as apomixis.Apomixis occurs in both dicotyledons and monocotyledons.

    This story reports apomixis in chickpea, a well-established and sophisticated dicot.

    Chickpea, an important source of dietary protein, is a diploid, self-pollinated crop, and hence does not have a cross pollinating system, the usual source of hybrid vigor.Though some experimental crosses of chickpeas display heterosis, a system to exploit this is not available.

    Seed purity is important to chickpea farmers since there is strong consumer preference for the size, color, and uniformity in seeds.Unlike other legumes, chickpea does not have a workable seed production system such as the male sterile system, which can ensure pure hybrid seeds.

    In normal fertilization, one of the two gametes from a pollen grain fuses with the polar nuclei of the embryo sac to form the endosperm, and the other fuses with the egg to form the zygote, which together grow into a seed. In chickpea apomixis it was observed that only partial fertilization, i.e., formation of the endosperm takes place, and triggers the formation of the seed, producing offspring which are carbon copies of the mother. Clue! There is no paternal input. (Right, apomictic plants resembling their female parent. In the far right corner is the pollen donor used in the crossing program).

    Chickpea has a rich wild species gene pool of which only two compatible species have been crossed with cultivated species.Attempts are underway to cross incompatible species.Crosses using cultivated species as the female parent and incompatible wild species as the pollen donor produced pods with aborted seeds. Aborted seeds had hybrid embryos at different stages of development.Reciprocal crosses were carried out using Cicer pinnatifidum and C. bijugum as the female parent and the cultivated chickpea cultivars ICCV10 and ICC 92318 as the pollen donor. These crosses resulted in apomictic progeny.Morphological, cytological, fluorescence microscopy and molecular analysis confirmed the apomictic nature of the progeny.

    Using apomixis, high quality pure seeds, those that will not segregate with unanticipated characters, can be produced without the requirements of isolation. This will greatly ease development, multiplication and maintenance of high vigor cultivars of chickpea.

    For more information contact

    3. Sending Sorghum to School

    Primary school children in parts of Tanzania enjoy free breakfast and lunch, courtesy the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). Each year, the program in Dodoma and Singida districts in central Tanzania uses up to 10 tons of maize. But these are dry areas, where drought-tolerant sorghum is the main staple. Why not use locally grown sorghum for the schools program, instead of bringing in maize from elsewhere?

    First, two questions had to be answered. Will the children like sorghum? And will it be possible to obtain regular supplies of sorghum grain at competitive prices?

    ICRISAT worked with a local miller, Power Foods Ltd, to develop and test sorghum food products. Based on the tests and discussions with the WFP, we estimate that at least 30% of the maize currently used in the program could be replaced with sorghum.

    ICRISAT then asked the Tanzania Food and Nutrition Centre to conduct taste trials to evaluate the acceptability of sorghum in two food products – breakfast porridge (uji) and stiff porridge (ugali), which is served at lunch. Power Foods provided sorghum meal for the tests. The sorghum porridges were sampled by 106 children from three schools currently receiving maize for their feeding programs. Almost 98% of the children found sorghum acceptable as a replacement for maize in both kinds of porridge. They also compared soft porridge made from dehulled versus whole grain. Dehulled was slightly preferred, mainly because the porridge turned out whiter.> (Left, school children pose happily after breakfast!).

    Recent surveys by ICRISAT and the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture have shown that availability was not necessarily a problem. In favorable rainfall years sorghum can be readily purchased from the local market, in sufficient quantities and at acceptable prices. In December 2002, WFP contracted Power Foods to supply 400 tons of dehulled sorghum for the school-feeding program. All the grain was produced by farmers in Dodoma district. So the efforts by SMIP have paid off twice over. Smallholder farmers have a new, stable market for their grain, and their children get to eat traditional, nutritious food. That is certainly food for thought!

    For more information contact

    4. Industry Spurs a Sorghum Forum in Tanzania
    For the past 20 years, ICRISAT has been working with its regional partners of the SADC to improve sorghum and pearl millet through SMIP. When SMIP started working in Tanzania, less than 50 tons of sorghum were being commercially processed each year. The country annually produced more than 700,000 tons of this grain, but virtually all of it was consumed as a subsistence food crop.

    While SMIP has encouraged representatives of the milling, brewing and animal feeds industries to consider the commercial potential of this crop, the market’s sustainability depends on the initiatives of the grain processors themselves. Larger and more consistent levels of commercial demand will stimulate farmers to invest more in producing this crop. Varieties suited to industry needs are obviously most likely to be chosen. Crop management practices may be adjusted to increase productivity, as long as demand for the end product is consistent. During the past few years, SMIP efforts have stimulated more than a 20-fold increase in commercial purchases. However, this level of commercial processing remains small relative to the crop’s enormous potential. (Right, sorghum, becoming more and more popular in Tanzania).

    In 2002, SMIP facilitated the establishment of a national Sorghum Forum led by private industry interested in expanded commercial production and processing. The composition of the executive committee leading the Forum is a clear indicator of the seriousness of purpose with which Tanzania’s private sector has taken on the development of the sorghum market. The committee consists of:

    • a major grain trader,
    • the largest sorghum brewer in the country,
    • the country’s largest miller, and
    • the head of the Animal Feeds Association of Tanzania.

    Forum membership is drawn from a broader group of traders and processors willing to experiment with sorghum.

    The Forum, which was formally registered with the Government of Tanzania in early 2003, has initiated several innovative projects. Examples are the development and testing of hand threshers for the use of sorghum in feeding people debilitated by HIV/AIDS. The Forum is also lobbying the Government to promote the inclusion of sorghum in the nation’s Strategic Grain Reserve.

    For more information contact