3) ICRISAT creates impacts in Africa

Farmers in eastern and southern Africa (ESA) were growing pigeonpea that gave low yields, took very long to mature, were susceptible to wilt and often suffered from terminal drought stress. But this situation was reversed when scientists from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) adapted pigeonpea in ESA, screened for resistance to wilt and incorporated bold white grain preferred by farmers and markets in the medium- and long-duration varieties.

After evaluation, a large number of these varieties were released in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. In eastern Kenya, over 10,000 hectares of medium-duration varieties resistant to wilt and cropped two times a year are being grown by farmers. Likewise, in northern Tanzania, two long-duration varieties, which are high yielding, having white bold grain and resistant to wilt are being grown in over 50,000 hectares. In Malawi two long-duration varieties have been released and pigeonpea seed is now included in the country's subsidy program.

Interventions specially designed for Africa

According to Dr William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, the Institute's scientific innovations in sub-Saharan Africa are designed considering the difficult conditions faced by dryland farmers of the continent.

"The drylands of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is home to more than 300 million people, the majority of whom have been left at the margins of global development. They continuously struggle to maintain and improve their livelihoods and ensure community survival in hostile natural environments. The contributions they make to the preservation of critical habitats, the maintenance of dryland biodiversity and its resilience, the enrichment of global culture, as well as their quest for progress and a better life deserve the strongest international support," Dr Dar said.

As the only international agriculture research institute working for improved agricultural productivity in the semi-arid tropics, ICRISAT is well placed to provide international public goods support in dryland agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, Dr Dar added. In this regard, ICRISAT has steadily increased its investments and pursued its commitments to SSA, which include strategic partnerships, capacity building and impact-oriented innovations for the continent's poorest of the poor. ICRISAT's interventions are focused on enhancement and management of genetic resources, agricultural diversification, agro-ecosystem sustainability and improving markets, policies and institutions.

Pan-African initiatives

It was not only the breeding and promotion of farmer-preferred varieties of pigeonpea in ESA that endeared ICRISAT to the communities; the Institute has also successfully implemented two interventions in many countries across SSA, which are fertilizer microdosing and the improvement of seed systems.

The fertilizer microdosing technique allows resource poor farmers to apply small, affordable and effective amounts of fertilizer to their impoverished land for improved soil health and crop production. It has the potential to end widespread hunger in drought prone areas of Africa, where soils are depleted and smallholder farmers rarely produce enough to feed even their own families.

Farmers who use microdosing apply 6 gram doses of fertilizer - about a full bottle cap or a three-finger pinch - in the hole where the plant is placed (at the time of planting). That translates to about 67 pounds of fertilizer for every 2.5 acres. The African crops are so starved of nutrients such as phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen that addition of even this micro amount often doubles crop yields.

The other project addresses the availability of quality seeds to farmers at reasonable and affordable cost. ICRISAT teamed up with a number of partners including the private sector to implement initiatives that encompass a number of critical activities such as the maintenance of breeder seeds, the production of foundation seeds and regional harmonization of seed policies. The initial activities started in Malawi, and are currently being scaled-up in several countries in West Africa through the West Africa Seed Alliance (WASA), and in eastern and southern Africa through the Eastern and Southern Africa Seed Alliance (ESASA) initiatives.

Promotion of other improved crops

Ethiopia has long been a producer of chickpea. However, the chickpea it produced were of the small-seeded varieties, thus limiting commercialization to local markets as international buyers sought larger-seeded varieties.

Working with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), ICRISAT introduced a range of large-seeded varieties from its germplasm collection and the breeding program at its global headquarters in Patancheru, India. The outcome was that Ethiopia became a chickpea exporting country and its farmers benefited from an improved income. Following the Ethiopian success, the production of chickpea has now spread to Mozambique and Malawi in southern Africa and to Tanzania and Kenya in eastern Africa.

If it was chickpea that improved farmers' incomes in eastern and southern Africa, it was the development of farmer-preferred varieties and hybrids of pearl millet and sorghum that has led to more money in farmers' pockets in Nigeria in West and Central Africa. ICRISAT in partnership with the Nigerian national agricultural research system developed a wide range of pearl millet and sorghum varieties and hybrids that are preferred by farmers, and some of these varieties also have the traits required by the markets.

Pearl millet farmers gave the highest priority to early maturity. With drought as the major constraint to pearl millet production in the north-eastern part of Nigeria, the smallholder farmers who grow pearl millet needed early maturing varieties to ensure an early end to the annual hunger period and food security for their families. For sorghum, high yield was ranked of highest importance.

Another success story is the production and release over the last eight years of rosette-resistant groundnut varieties in Nigeria, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda and Zambia Adoption studies in Uganda show that the new varieties have been adopted by up to 50% of the groundnut farmers in the major growing areas.

It's all in the genes

Through gene-flow studies and follow-up research ICRISAT scientists transferred the genes of desirable traits from experimental lines into farmer-preferred varieties to increase zinc and iron content in pearl millet and sorghum. Further, ICRISAT scientists identified and transferred genes that confer resistance to Africa's most deadly weed, Striga, to farmer-preferred varieties of sorghum using marker assisted selection techniques, giving farmers the option to raise Striga-free sorghum.

Low-cost aflatoxin testing takes Malawian groundnut to Europe

Improvement, in collaboration with the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi, of a food quality control system was through the development of a low-cost aflatoxin testing kit using the ELISA technique. The ability to accurately detect and quantify aflatoxin contamination at an affordable cost, allowed farmers in Malawi to re-establish groundnut exports to the quality-conscious European market, and stimulated interest in the approach in Mozambique and Zambia. Many other African countries are benefiting from this technology and appropriate management practices that reduce the initial aflatoxin contamination are being employed.

Agroecosystems development

The concept of the African Market Garden based on low-pressure drip irrigation systems was tested first on-station and around Niamey, then in several Sahelian (adjacent to the Sahara) countries. To date, ICRISAT's partners have replicated this model in eight countries, significantly adding to the intensity of work done worldwide. In the next three years, a generic strategy by which Sahelian farmers, with access to either river or groundwater, can substantially enhance their livelihoods by producing heat-tolerant vegetables will be established.

ICRISAT will continue to support efforts made by resource poor farmers and their communities to better adapt themselves to their changing environment in order to maintain and improve this environment, ensure adequate food security, and generate substantial income for an improved livelihood.

by ICRISAT. All rights reserved.