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May 31, 2008

Africa is the new frontier for hybrid seeds

Babou Galgo, a 61-year-old farmer, proudly showed off his prized harvest from last season: two shiny gold medals from the regional and federal government and a slick certificate praising his "outstanding performance in increasing agriculture production and productivity."

What he had done was boost his corn yields on his small farm in southern Ethiopia an eye-popping sevenfold over the past several years. Even more impressive, he had boosted the well-being of his family as well: With the added income, they moved out of a traditional mud-brick tukul and into a brick and concrete house furnished with a refrigerator, television and DVD player, rare luxuries for a farmer in one of the world's poorest countries.

Indeed, not long ago, Mr. Galgo would have had no need for a refrigerator as meager yields had him struggling to feed his family. "It's the seeds," he says, noting the reason for his reversal of fortunes. "Hybrids."

Africa's nascent push to finally feed itself is turning the clock back to the early part of 20th-century America. It was in the 1930s and '40s when Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International popularized hybrid seeds in the U.S., swelling corn yields throughout the Midwest. Seven decades later, African farmers and U.S. companies are trying to recreate the same boom that turned America into the world's breadbasket, only this time in the harsh climate -- environmental and political -- of Ethiopia and greater Africa.

If agriculture has a final frontier, it is Africa. After agriculture transformations in Asia and Latin America since the 1960s, Africa remains the one place where the farming potential has barely been scratched. African agriculture has less irrigation, less fertilizer use, less soil and seed research, less mechanization, less rural financing, fewer paved farm-to-market roads than any other farming region in the world. Conflict in many parts of the continent has chased farmers out of their fields, and neglect by both local governments and international development experts have let Africa's agriculture infrastructure fall into dire disrepair.

American farming interests, like those of agricultural icons Pioneer and John Deere, have avoided large swaths of Africa in the past, believing that farmers were too poor to pay for their products or wary of political instability that has rocked some of Pioneer's other African operations. But now, with global grain surpluses down, demand rising and prices soaring, the calculations at home and abroad have changed and progress can't come fast enough.

In Ethiopia, only about one-quarter of the country's total corn area is planted with hybrid seeds. Hybrids, produced from conventional breeding to increase yields and to thrive in harsher climates and to resist pests, usually can double or triple harvests over the standard seeds passed down through generations. And there are only several thousand tractors for more than 50 million people who depend on farming to survive.

"Africa is the only continent where per capita food production is declining, so the need is there," says J.B. Penn, the chief economist of Deere & Co. and a former undersecretary at the U.S. Agriculture Department. The present food crisis "is solved only through higher production," adds Paul Schickler, president of DuPont Co.'s Pioneer unit. "That is what is needed in Africa, through the use of better technology, genetics and agronomic practices."

Chombe Seyoum sees the need and potential every day. A farmer himself, Mr. Seyoum began selling John Deere equipment in Ethiopia two years ago hoping both to accelerate the mechanization of his country's farmers and to fulfill his father's vision. In 1968, his father bought a small John Deere tractor and introduced machine farming to his region of the country's southern wheat belt. Several years later, Emperor Haile Selassie was toppled by a communist dictatorship, farmland was collectivized and some of the Seyoum family's machinery was confiscated.

Mr. Seyoum studied to become an engineer. But when the communists were ousted in the early 1990s, he returned to farming and saw how far his country had fallen behind as he worked to rebuild the family farm.

Now, from his office in Addis Ababa, he sells Deere equipment -- 100 in the past two years. While drought and hunger still plague parts of Ethiopia, the fertile Rift Valley and highland regions, given good weather, have the country rivaling South Africa as the continent's largest cereal and grain producer south of the Sahara. Rising corn and wheat prices have spurred demand for machinery from farmers hoping to expand their acreage. Making up for lost time, Mr. Seyoum welcomes customers ready to purchase big-ticket machinery.

"We are in a rush," says one customer, Abdi Abdullahi Hussein. Mr. Hussein once worked with nomadic herders before seeing the business potential in farming this year. The spring planting season was fast approaching and he badly needed a tractor. He and a partner have about 60 acres and he intends to rent the tractor to others. "Our idea is to introduce technology in our area and plow more land," he says.

Mr. Seyoum suggests an 85-horsepower tractor costing about $30,000. Mr. Hussein doesn't flinch at the price; He has pooled his savings with neighbors' who will share the tractor. In Ethiopia and throughout Africa, banks are reluctant to lend to farmers who have little collateral; pooling money is a common way to raise the funds. But he cringes at the four-month delivery time from Deere's factory in Brazil. Instead, he ponders a 65-horsepower tractor, which will be available sooner.

"We've got a long list of people coming to us for tractor service," says Mr. Hussein.

As Mr. Hussein leaves, another farmer arrives to complete a purchase of a combine. Haji Kawo, like most wheat farmers in Ethiopia, plants by hand and harvests with a machine. After years of hiring others to cut his wheat, Mr. Kawo decided to get into the harvesting business himself. He figures he can pay off the $70,000 combine within a year given that there are 20,000 small farmers in his area who need harvesting service. He envisions moving from farm to farm during the harvest season much like combine services that methodically move up from the southern U.S. and into Canada.

Offering to help with financing, Mr. Seyoum sees Mr. Kawo as a model farmer who can demonstrate the benefits of mechanization to others and drive sales. Ethiopian farmers "see a success somewhere, and they want to do it, too," says Mr. Seyoum.

Melaku Admassu, an Ethiopian who runs Pioneer's operations here, uses the same farmer-to-farmer sales method that Pioneer employed in the U.S. He began by handing out seeds from the back of his pickup truck, particularly to farmers like Babou Galgo who worked land near the major roads so more people could follow the growth of the hybrids. At harvest time, Mr. Admassu would return with small scales to weigh the yields and compare them to the harvests of farmers who weren't using the hybrids.

"When I heard that only 1% or 2% of the U.S. population are farmers, and they feed the whole country, I couldn't believe it," Mr. Admassu says. "I started dreaming that if every farmer in Ethiopia increases production, we can change the whole country. We can change Africa."

It has certainly changed lives in the Rift Valley lakes region. When Mr. Admassu first came to his village with the new seeds and advice on how to better till his land, Debebe Ayele, 47, was struggling to feed his family. "We were getting food aid," he says. "I was ready to try anything to improve my situation."

The new seeds were a risk. They were more expensive than the standard fare and they were new. He planted two acres the first year, then four and now he rents land from his neighbors to increase his acreage. His harvests multiplied and for the first time in his life he had regular surpluses to sell on the market. He replaced the thatched grass roof of his house with corrugated iron. He bought better furniture and better clothes. He wants his children to go as far as they can in school.

As Mr. Ayele recites his progress, Mr. Admassu beams. "When we see our farmers go from barefoot to shoes, we know that is because of increased production," he says.

Farmer Galgo is ready for another upgrade. Sitting in his comfortable living room, beneath wall murals of Jesus and a peace dove, he tells Mr. Admassu, "I want to expand my land and buy a tractor. A big tractor, with a lot of power."

Another tractor customer.

Agbios

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