Dawn of a pan-African method for designing varieties with impact

Market and crop development specialists in Africa are making important steps towards embedding customer- and product-driven breeding practices in the region in 2020.

One the chief obstacles to agricultural development in Africa is the low rate at which farmers adopt improved varieties with the potential to improve livelihoods, resilience, food security and better nutrition.

In the multinational private breeding sector, it has become standard practice to identify the needs of customers and value chain actors (i.e. seed producers, farmers and consumers) in target markets, and to capture these qualities in a product profile to focus all resources on developing varieties with a high likelihood of success.

The CGIAR Excellence in Breeding (EiB) Platform has convened a group of experts and practitioners attempting to apply this concept to improve rates of variety turnover in Africa, who met for the first time in Nairobi, Kenya on 21-22 January, 2020. The goal of the meeting was to assess the best practices developed by groups including EiB, Demand-Led Breeding, the Modernizing Ethiopian Research on Crop Improvement (MERCI) project and the UC Davis Plant Breeding Academy.

The working group, which included representatives CGIAR centers, the regional seed industry, African teaching institutions and national research programs from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda working on five key African crops validated these methods against their own experiences and settled on a single model that combines the best aspects of each.

The immediate outcome of the workshop is a single, harmonized product profile template that will be promoted across public and private sector breeding programs in Africa and taught to the next generation of African breeders and seed market specialists. The template builds on an earlier exercise conducted by EiB that captured 264 product profiles covering 29 crops in addition to fish, from CGIAR, national agricultural research systems (NARS) and private sector breeding organizations.

“The document is widely acceptable as it covers the input of experiences of different groups,” said Joseph Mito of Seed Co, a company with broad presence in sub-Saharan Africa. “When adopted, It will provide a working tool that will guide and streamline breeding programs so that we end up with products that will be easily accepted and will replace the old varieties.” 

According to the group, a product profile should be developed by a cross-functional team that includes specialists in markets, socioeconomics and gender, etc. in addition to crop breeders (the team is likely to span more than one organization). This group analyses data about the target market, ecology and current varieties being grown by farmers. From there, it is possible to identify the traits that a variety must have in order to stand any success in the market, and the value-added traits that will persuade customers to grow the new variety instead.

To prioritize the limited resources available for breeding activities, a maximum of eight traits are identified that will ensure variety turnover and impact. Traits for nutrition and taking into account gender and youth are then added separately. The information is then summarized in a printout that can be used to plan breeding activities, measure progress, attract funding, market to customers and pass variety registration requirements.

In addition to the product profile template, the group will also produce a practical guide that covers how to apply it in the context of a demand-driven breeding approach.