With a billion hungry people and rapidly growing populations, the challenge of feeding the estimated 9 billion people by 2050 seems daunting. As Bill Gates pointed out in his Annual Letter this year, agricultural innovations are essential to improve food security for the most vulnerable. Getting improved seed varieties into the hands of small farmers is one way of increasing food production in the developing world where it is most needed.
But many things need to happen at the same time for innovation to reduce rural poverty and hunger. As highlighted in my recent photo gallery in The Guardian online (sample of photos below), we need to engage farmers, the national government, and research partners right from the start.
The wife and sister of Bedilu, a farmer trained by the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, to grow improved varieties of chickpeas.
Better seeds and farm practices mean better yields. When this is coupled with a high market demand, farmer incomes increase and they can further invest in their families and land. As Bedilu Mamo, a seed producer in Ethiopia says, “When you have money, you can make plans.”
Bedilu is one of the farmers trained by the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) to grow improved varieties of chickpea. The high yields from his seeds and the market value for the resulting crops has improved Bedilu’s income.
With his higher income he has bought more land, built a house, and helps educate and house his extended family. He is now planning a seed co-operative with fellow farmers to supply better seeds to local farmers and train them on crop management.
Bedilu is one of many to benefit from the Tropical Legumes II project that involves farmers in testing new varieties of drought tolerant and disease resistant legumes on their fields and uses their feedback.
Temegnush Dhabi (pictured in the photo at the top of the post), a 50-year-old farmer from East Shewa in Ethiopia, started working with researchers in 2007 to test chickpea in her fields. She is now harvesting up to four tons of grain from her 1.5 hectare farm.
Tropical legumes such as chickpeas, pigeon peas, cowpeas, common beans, and groundnut are a key part of farming systems in smallholder agriculture of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Not only are they high in protein and good for human nutrition, they also fertilise the soil by absorbing atmospheric nitrogen and releasing it into the soil.
In spite of their importance, crop yields had remained stagnant or even declined over the years, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, due to constraints like drought, pest and disease, and the unavailability and lack of access to quality seed of improved varieties.
Temegnush is one of nearly a quarter million small farmers benefiting from these new legume varieties and improved farm management practices since the project started in 2007. Working in 10 countries, the project has brought improved varieties of six major grain legumes to smallholder farmers, and much-needed farmer education programs.
The project is driven by looking at the needs and solutions in a holistic way. Working with farmers, agrodealers, market traders, and local government has ensured that training and tools, such as high-yielding seed varieties, have a sustainable impact and ensure many more farmers like Bedilu and Temegnush benefit in the future.