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We share August 7th, 2016 by

Farmers love to experiment, especially in trying out new crop varieties, even if it takes patience to get results. With cassava, for example, one has to wait months or even a couple of years to see what a new variety is like. In 2015, the Nigerian Saint Paul Catholic Mission gave a handful of vitamin A-rich cassava stems to Mary Ntia and her husband Emmanuel. This variety produces a yellow root which, like other yellow vegetables, has a lot of vitamin A. The couple took the new cassava home to their village of Ikot Akpan Ntia, in Nigeria’s South-South State of Akwa Ibom. The community is so remote that extension agents have not been there in years.

I was visiting the village in May of this year, asking farmers about cassava varieties they grew, and what people wanted to see in new cassava varieties.

Mary and Emmanuel planted their vitamin A cassava and at the end of the rainy season harvested a few plants. The couple liked the large roots, so they replanted the stems in a full-sized garden, intercropped with maize. This garden experiment will allow them to see how the cassava performs under normal field conditions.

Mary and Emmanuel will also test the cassava’s suitability for processing, once they get enough roots to ferment and toast as gari (see previous story on making gari). They also want to see if the cassava stores well underground. The best varieties can be kept in the field and harvested a year or more after maturity. This is crucial in the humid tropics, where there are few long term techniques for food storage.

sharing vitamin A cassavaEmmanuel dug up one of the older plants. After showing off the large, yellow roots to his visiting social scientists, Emmanuel hospitably invited us to take the stems home. When we demurred, an elderly couple stepped forward. They had been quietly watching and they were keen to start experimenting with vitamin A cassava, so Emmanuel handed them the stalks of the harvested plant. The old couple would cut the stems into pieces and plant them. “This is what we do,” Emmanuel said as he handed over the stems, “we share the stems with our neighbors.”

When a new cassava variety enters a community, farmers grow the variety, share the planting material with others and evaluate the cassava for at least two years, until they feel that they know it. Then farmers will keep sharing and multiplying the new variety. If the new variety meets farmers’ standards, they will keep growing it and sharing it.

So far, most improved cassava varieties find a place in farmer’s fields and gardens. Participatory varietal selection (PVS) is one way of structuring collaboration between smallholder farmers and breeders, to select crop varieties that farmers want to grow. Formal efforts like PVS capitalize on tropical farmers’ inherent creativity and curiosity, but smallholders will still spontaneously share planting material, and experiment on their own.

Further viewing

You can watch videos about participatory varietal selection here: Selecting new rice varieties and Succeed with seed.


On this visit, I had the good fortune to be accompanied by Nigerian researchers Adetunji Olarewaju, Tessy Mady and Olamide Olaosebikan.

The field work mentioned in this blog was part of the IITA lead Cassava Monitoring Survey project funded by institutions including RTB (CGIAR research program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas) and IITA.

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Meeting the need for groundnut seed March 13th, 2016 by

While saving seed on-farm is common practice, many farmers also rely on other seed sources, like local markets. When the rains start, however, the demand for seed may be so high that the market fails to supply it in a timely way. Fortunately, smallholders have their own creative ways of meeting the need for seed, as we recently found out.

0739 onion harvest and onions for seedOn our first day of filming in Bawku, a small town in northern Ghana separated from Burkina Faso by a river, we are amazed by farmers’ ingenuity and drive to succeed. We are making farmer training videos on onions under a scorching sun, in 40 degree heat. Issah Bukari, like many other farmers, grows onions in the dry season because that is when onions are attacked by fewer diseases.

0791 water is gold - digging well in riverbed to water onions“Let me show you where we get our water to irrigate our crops,” Issah insists, leading us to the nearby river.

To our surprise the river has no water. Women carry their babies on their backs and push their bicycles across the dry riverbed. Every year, the border between both countries changes from a wide river to a winding, sandy avenue.

Issah shows us a ten-meter wide circular pit he has had dug. We begin to realise how much effort it takes to get water in the dry season.

“I pay a lot for people to dig the well. Every three days they have to dig deeper to get enough water. But it is worth it, because in the dry season water is gold.”

0786 Issah Bukari grows groundnuts for seed on edge of sunken onion beds to profit from irrigation waterIssah grows his onions in sunken beds to conserve the precious water.

Issah’s garden is quite diverse. Papaya, mango and cashew trees grow scattered across his fields. On the edges of some of the sunken beds, healthy looking maize is grown. Not as a cereal crop, but as a snack: roasted maize cobs fetch a good price this time of the year. We also see some hibiscus plants used to make a refreshing, red lemonade.

0719 groundnuts for seed grown on edge of sunken onion beds profit from irrigation waterWhat looked like creeping weeds from afar, the only green spots left after the onion harvest, turned out to be groundnut plants.

“How come you grow some scattered groundnuts in the dry season?” I ask Issah.

“This is my guarantee to have groundnut seed by the time the rains come,” he replies.

By growing groundnuts for seed on the edge of the sunken onion beds, the groundnuts profit from the irrigation water given to the onions.

Groundnut seed, like many other legume crops, is rich in oil and gets quickly rancid in warm climate. Farmers therefore cannot easily save groundnut seed for the next season.

As illustrated in “African Seed Enterprises”, farmer groups and private seed companies that provide legume seed in one season may struggle to guarantee supply in the next.

FAO book coverContinuity of supply is a big challenge. Sometimes seed enterprises cannot get enough foundation seed themselves to grow enough legume seed when farmers need it (except when large orders are placed in advance by development projects).

To deal with the uncertainties of access to water and access to seed, farmers like Issah Bukari innovate with cropping patterns, space and time.

Seed agencies are often highly critical of farmers’ practices to save seed, claiming that farmer saved seed does not even deserve to be called seed at all. As we see here, there is a lot more to saving seed than simply putting it in a sack (or “brown bagging” as the practice is sometimes disapprovingly called). Farmers use creative solutions, sometimes going to great efforts to produce small amounts of the varieties they need, in the dry season, to have seed ready to meet the rains.

Literature cited

Van Mele, P., Bentley, J.W and Guéi, R.G. (eds.) 2011. African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. CABI Publishing, UK, 256 pp. Downloadable from: http://agroinsight.com/books.php

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Nurturing ideas, and seed March 6th, 2016 by

aa 8196 cassava on eroded hilltopLegume crops are best known for their protein-rich pulses and leaves. But some legumes are not eaten, they are called “green manure” because they are grown to fix nitrogen and add organic matter to the soil. These gifts from nature offer farmers opportunities to improve their soil, but it is still a challenge to find out which legumes work best under given conditions, as a recent experience suggests.

aa DSC_1053 CrotolariaIn two Southeast Asian countries that I visited last year, Thailand and Vietnam, farmers growing cassava on hillsides had seen their fertile topsoil washed away by torrential downpours. In some places, the soil had been further impoverished by years of using mineral fertiliser without also enriching the soil with organic matter.

Soil erosion control and soil fertility management techniques are the topics of two farmer training videos that Agro-Insight developed with CIAT (The International Center for Tropical Agriculture).

aa DSC_1054 Crotolaria being ploughed underWe learned that national institutes were trying to get crotolaria seed in farmers’ hands while suggesting that farmers sow the seed at the first rains, and then plough the plants under six weeks later, as a green manure, just before planting the cassava.

Some farmers were eager to try out the green manure but couldn’t get enough seed. As one explained: “We only get one lot of crotolaria seed, and we don’t know how to multiply the seed.” Like other legumes, crotolaria seed is fairly easy to grow, but it will mean setting aside small seed plots, and ensuring that the harvested seed is properly stored for the next season.

Green manures may improve cassava production, benefitting farmers and cassava buyers, processors and consumers. But this will only work if more farmers know how to multiply and conserve seeds of crotolaria and other green manures. But while green manures may work well under certain conditions, other innovations with legume crops may be an even better bet.

Four years ago, I worked with ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in West Africa on a series of videos to help farmers improve soil fertility and fight striga, a parasitic weed. Cereal-legume intercropping was promoted as one way to improve soil fertility, but farmers struggled to keep their cowpea seed viable. Seed is a living thing, and so inherently delicate, but legume seeds have more oil than most seeds, and can easily become rancid. ICRISAT accepted our suggestion to develop a farmer learning video on storing cowpea seed. Farmers who watched the video were inspired to intercrop cowpeas with cereals as a way to restore soil fertility.

This time around in Thailand a similar need came up, and farmers and researchers all saw the importance of improving the soil to boost cassava harvests. But even though crotolaria looked like a promising green manure crop, farmers who made their living on small plots of land were not in a position to set aside land for producing seed of a green manure crop. Producing food is a more urgent need and requires all available land. While producing the videos we learned that some farmers grow a legume crop, such as cowpea, peanuts or soya beans in between their cassava.

aa 8381 Hoang Van Hoi and family planting groundnut as cassava intercropIn the end, we decided not to mention crotolaria in our video: it was still an idea at infant stage, needing more effort to be grounded with farmers. Over time, some farmers may turn into crotolaria seed growers, making the green manure a viable option for cassava farmers, but until that time nurturing the idea in a training video without proper access to seed would only create frustration.

The success of this innovation will depend on more farmers and scientists putting their heads together, and on then allowing the farmers to get used to crotolaria as a new, green manure crop. Researchers are well intentioned when they promote their ideas, but even good ideas need more ground work than most researchers realize.

Related videos:

Growing cassava on sloping land

Growing cassava on poor soils

Reviving soils with mucuna

Storing cowpea seed

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The sunflower: from Russia with love, and oil January 3rd, 2016 by

Some 4,000 years ago, native North Americans of what is now Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and surrounding states were domesticating a whole set of crops, most of which you have probably never heard of.

For reasons we do not fully comprehend, when ancient peoples made the transition to agriculture, they never domesticated just one crop by itself. In the first stage of agriculture, first farmers planted and tended wild plants, species which they and their ancestors had been gathering for generations. Within a few centuries, the farmers would select for larger seeds or roots, depending on which part of the plant they ate. This change in form is usually what archaeologists refer to as domestication. By more stringent definitions, domestication is when the plant can no longer reproduce on its own, in the wild, as is the case with maize and potatoes.

The native North Americans domesticated the sunflower (Helianthus annuus), but also the summer squashes (yellow and green varieties) and the acorn squash, all derived from Cucurbita pepo. The other ancient North American crops included the little barley (Hordeum pusillum), goosefoot or lambsquarters (Chenopodium berlandieri), erect knotweed (Phalaris caroliniana) and sumpweed or marsh elder (Iva annua).

young sunflowerBesides the little squashes and the radiant sunflower, the other native crops now survive only as weeds. As North America was one of the last centers of domestication, the crops may still have been robust enough, just wild enough, to reproduce themselves as weeds. As my wife Ana noticed, the sunflower itself is a hardy, fast-growing, weedy-looking plant before it starts to flower (pictured).

Except for the sunflower and the squashes, all the other North American crops were slowly abandoned, probably because they were much less productive than other crops (maize, beans and the larger squashes) which arrived from Mexico, about 100 BC. But the sunflower was valued for food (including oil), dye and even medicine.

sunflowers in the sloughs envAnother 1700 years later, the settlers in North America were uninterested in growing the sunflower, although they happily adopted maize, beans and squash. The settlers certainly knew of the sunflower, but they had a diet that was fairly rich in animal fats, especially from pork, and may have found it too tedious to process the oily little sunflower seeds. But many wild species of sunflower still thrived all over the continent.

The sunflower was taken from Mexico to Spain in the 1500s and slowly spread across Europe, largely as an ornamental, eventually reaching as far east as Russia. The sunflower might have ended as an obscure garden flower, if religious taboo had not dealt it a winning hand. During lent, the Russian Orthodox Church banned butter and lard, but sunflower oil was too new to appear on the list of banned oils. The demand for sunflower oil surged, leading V. S. Pustovit of Krasnodar to breed a sunflower with a much larger seed head. Named the Russian Mammoth, this variety was introduced to the USA in 1893. The sunflower slowly gained in importance, but did not become an important crop in the USA until the 1950s

At first the crop was almost entirely exported as oil to Europe, but stiff competition from Europe and Argentina ended that market, and most US sunflower is consumed domestically.

Modern plant breeding saved the sunflower. By 2010 there were 750,000 hectares of sunflower planted in the USA, worth $634 million at the farm gate. About 60% of the crop is used as oil and meal, and 10 to 20% is for snack food and baking. About a quarter of the sunflower harvest is made into birdseed: in 2006 the USA spent $3.35 billion feeding wild birds, roughly equal to the GDP of Fiji.

Under the changing pressure of economic demand, a crop can evolve quickly, from garden flower to Lenten oil to bird food. Once abandoned as a crop in its center of origin, the sunflower is now here to stay, thanks to a little love from Russia and plant breeders.

Further reading

Selig, Ruth Osterweis 2004 Origins of agriculture in Eastern North America, pp. 258-272. In Ruth Osterweis Selig, Marilyn R. London and P. Ann Kaupp Anthropology Explored (Second Edition). Washington: Smithsonian Books. 473 pp.

Smith, Bruce D. 2014 The domestication of Helianthus annuus L. (sunflower). Vegetation History and Archaeology 23(1):57-74

USDA 2015 Sunflower seed. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/soybeans-oil-crops/sunflowerseed.aspx


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Onions from Agadez November 1st, 2015 by

9914 red onions for sale at roadside shopWhenever somebody has a monopoly over a certain food crop, or tries to create one, sooner or later other people will pop up to compete.

The red onion variety, Violet de Galmi, originally comes from the village of Galmi, a small community in Niger, about 500 kilometres east of Niamey close to the Nigerian border, where it has been grown for over 100 years. Its pungent flavour and thick bulbs, combined with the vast, informal Hausa trading network, has made this onion popular across West Africa. In fact, onions are Niger’s second most important export product after uranium, making Niger the largest exporter of onions in the entire region.

While companies sell packaged seed of this variety across the USA, India and Southeast Asia, in the 1990s, a private seed company in Senegal, Tropicasem, a subsidiary of the French seed company Technisem, further bred the Violet de Galmi onion and obtained rights to exclusively market it in nine West African countries. When farmers in Niger found out that a company had claimed exclusive rights to their onion, they were outraged and asked their government to act on their behalf in this case of bio piracy. The farmers won.

But monopolies can go beyond seed.

While thousands of farmers across West Africa grow this variety in the dry season, flooding the market with onions and making prices drop, Violet de Galmi is prone to diseases in the rainy season. This reduces the supply of onions, which become a sought after, precious commodity.

Although Violet de Galmi onions do poorly in the rainy season, there is one place in Niger where they thrive: the valley of Agadez, known as the gateway to the desert, some 500 kilometres north of Galmi. In the rainy season, the trade of red onions in West Africa has been in the hands of the Hausa people, all the way from collection at farm gate to the street hawkers in African towns, thousands of miles away from the Agadez onion fields.

9919 cutting leaves from onions at harvestAs more and more people in cities are eager to add onions to their daily dishes, even in the rainy season, the market now faces a huge demand. And innovations love an unmet demand.

While making a series of farmer training videos on onions in northern Ghana, I was impressed once more with the ingenuity of farmers, trying out seed of new varieties, adjusting their planting calendars and cropping practices to fill a market niche. Salifu, one of the farmers I talked to in Bawku, smiled as he told how he travelled as far as Kumasi, 600 kilometres south, to get seed of a new onion variety.

Seeds of new onion varieties are now making their way into West Africa, and more onions are now being grown in the rainy season, spurred by farmers’ ingenuity and their drive to make the most of high prices. With this expanded supply, the trade monopoly of the harvested onions is also bound to be broken.

Food is too precious a commodity to stay in the hands of a few.

Further reading:

GRAIN. 2015. Seed laws that criminalise farmers: resistance and fightback.

Related farmer training videos:

Making more money from onions

The onion nursery

How to make a fertile soil for onions

Installing an onion field

Managing onion diseases

Harvesting and storing onions

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