Ethiopian farmers profit from scaled-up, fast-track production of disease resistant wheat seed
by Mike Listman / December 7, 2017
A sunny November day brings hundreds of farmer seed producers to Doyogena, a scenic highland village in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNP). The visitors form a bustling line to collect more than $90 each – on average – in profits from representatives of the Zereta Kembata Seed Multiplication and Marketing Union.
“The union receives seed grown by more than 1,100 farmers, several hundred of whom are women, belonging to 8 farmer cooperatives,” said Yosief Balewold, general manager of the union.
With help from Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency, Zereta Kembata began in 2016 to collect, clean, pack, and sell seed of wheat, potato, sorghum, and faba bean. “This year we marketed nearly 27 tons of the new, disease resistant wheat seed; that’s enough to sow around 270 hectares of the crop.”
Pitted against a yearly onslaught of fast-evolving fungal diseases that can infect as much as $200 million worth of the crops they are growing, more than 75,000 small-scale wheat farmers in Ethiopia’s 4 major wheat-growing regions will have gained access by late 2017 to a vital asset—over 400 tons of new, disease resistant wheat varieties of wheat seed, much of it produced by other farmers.
Marketed in tandem with science-based recommendations for growing wheat, the annual seed supply has steadily increased since 2014 through the Wheat Seed Scaling Initiative, led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“We’re energizing and diversifying Ethiopia’s wheat seed sector, partly by involving and benefitting both formal and farmer seed producers, including women and men,” said Bekele Abeyo, a CIMMYT scientist who leads the project.
With money from union shares purchased by farmer cooperatives and a regulatory 30 percent reinvestment of earnings, the union is building a large warehouse to store seed. In a smaller shack nearby sits a 0.75 ton steel seed cleaner donated by the Wheat Seed Scaling Initiative, which has been working with Zereta Kembata and other seed producers identified as outstanding by SNNP policymakers.
“Ethiopia has seen a rapid rise in recent years of new and deadly strains of stem rust and yellow rust, wheat adversaries since biblical times that have lately mutated to overcome resistance genes bred into many modern wheat varieties,” said Ayele Badebo, a CIMMYT wheat pathologist based in Ethiopia. “Farmers must swiftly begin to sow a range of varieties bearing new resistance genes, but limited access to the seed has been a bottleneck.”
In addition to assisting government-managed seed producers and 4 seed companies, through the initiative CIMMYT supports 10 farmer unions that purchase, pack, and sell the seed grown by numerous farmer cooperatives, as well as 12 farmer seed production associations, including 5 women’s groups, who profit from growing and selling quality seed of the new varieties.
“The Seed Scaling Initiative gives wheat farmers 25-50 kilograms of wheat seed, based on land availability, to kick-start their seed production operation,” explained Terefe Fitta, manager of the Seed Scaling Initiative. “The farmers pay back the ‘loan’ at harvest with the same amount of seed, which is given to other prospective farmer seed producers, and so on.”
A critical innovation of the initiative has been to link farmer seed producers directly with sources of “early-generation” seed, principally state and federal researchers. “The project has also brought on board laboratories that monitor seed production and test harvested seed, certifying it for marketing,” said Badebo, citing those accomplishments as lasting legacies of the Initiative.
Women seize chance to advance
Recognizing the critical role of women in Ethiopian agriculture and rural communities, the Seed Scaling Initiative is supporting several women’s seed producer groups. An example is the Tembo Awtena Women’s Seed Producers Association, in Angacha District, SNNP.
Established in 2014, Tembo Awtena is the first women’s cooperative in the district. The group first tried to bake and sell bread but reformed in 2015 to produce seed, having heard that it was profitable from other farmer cooperatives.
Through the Seed Scaling Initiative, CIMMYT gave the association around two tons of seed to start and Ethiopia’s Southern Seed Enterprise purchased the entire first year of seed production at a 20 percent premium over market price because the quality was so good, according to Amarech Desta, Tembo Awtena chairwoman.
“In 2016, with support from CIMMYT, we sold more than $7,400 worth of seed,” said Desta, adding that word of the association’s success had attracted 30 additional women farmers in 2017, bringing the total membership to 133.
Desalech Ashamo, an association member who is a single head of household, received nearly $300 for the seed she grew in 2017 and used the earnings to paint her house. “A big advantage is that all our seed is sold in one lot, rather than piecemeal, so we receive a lump sum that can be used for a significant household project.”
Desta explained that, despite Angacha being a very traditional community, men support women’s seed production activities. “My husband knows the benefits are for all and the men even help us with field activities.”
Tembo Awtena members are especially pleased at being one of the three women’s seed production groups in the Oromia and SNNP regions to receive seed threshers recently through the Seed Scaling Initiative. Association members had been threshing the wheat seed manually, a long and laborious process, according to Desta. “With the new machine we will be able thresh in one hour what would take us three days by hand,” she said.
The chairwoman also has plans for an office, a storage area, a milling machine, opening a shop to sell farm supplies, and gaining recognition and publicity to share their story with others who may benefit.
Power from valued partnerships
The success of the Wheat Seed Scaling Initiative depends on the commitment and contributions of diverse national and global partners, among them the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and state and district level officials in the Amhara, Oromia, SNNP, and Tigray regions, which are home to 90 percent of Ethiopia’s nearly 5 million wheat farmers. Most of the varieties come from breeding lines of CIMMYT and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA); a number were developed through the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat (formerly Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat) project, led by Cornell University and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) under their UKAid project.