As I note in my article on Alertnet this week, the current drought in the Horn of Africa is affecting millions of people, mostly poor smallholder farmers and pastoralists. Besides the emergency aid necessary to help this population and prevent people dying from hunger, we must act to mitigate the impact of the next drought.
Farmers need to grow varied crops that can endure drought stress. These crops exist, and farmers traditionally cultivate them to feed their families: millet, sorghum, pigeonpea, chickpea, cowpea, beans etc. But yields are often low partly due to lack of access to improved seeds: varieties which can resist warmer temperatures, less water and pest attack. If more smallholder farmers in drought prone regions grew improved varieties of dryland crops, their communities would be better prepared for prolonged dry spells and scarce rain.
We need to find ways to promote these dryland crops. Innovations such as cheap trial seed packs help get improved dryland crop varieties into the hands of farmers, particularly women who are eager to tackle hunger and malnutrition in their households. Women have less access to improved seeds and making these as affordable as a cup of tea is a big step in the right direction.
These drought tolerant crops are very important for smallholder farmers. Yet, ironically, the research and private sector have overlooked these “neglected” crops because they are seen as subsistence food, with minimal market value.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is not only supporting key agricultural research to develop more productive and nutritious versions of these crops, but also helping ensure that small farmers have access to the results of this work. By prioritizing country policies on seed systems, input delivery and markets, the foundation also helps create a market value chain, essential to increase farmer demand for, and therefore supply of, these crops.
International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and partners are working towards these agriculture development goals. The HOPE project looks at ways to link market “pull” to stimulate the production of sorghum and millets in selected regions while Tropical Legumes II aims at getting improved varieties of legumes such as groundnuts and pigeonpea to millions of poor farmers in the coming decade.
Concrete efforts like these are essential to help smallholder farmers grow food adapted to the local conditions, to buffer their communities against drought and get them out of hunger and poverty.
For more information on the tools to help tackle the drought and famine, long term, read the full article.