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Hunger busters: Ed Mabaya on improved seeds in Africa

At a recent TEDx event in Johannesburg, South Africa, agricultural economist and development practitioner Ed Mabaya invited the audience to think of improved seed varieties as ‘tiny little robots’ that can be deployed to remote African villages to deliver nutrition and improved livelihoods. During his talk, Mabaya showed the impact of Bazooka maize, a drought- and disease-resistant variety that scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) helped develop. Read the below conversation with Mabaya to learn about the importance of improved seed varieties and how to make their use more widespread.

Q: How did your experience growing up in Zimbabwe motivate your career choice?

A: I am one of 11 children born to smallholder farmers in rural Zimbabwe. My parents are among the first generation of smallholder farmers who shifted from producing “just enough to feed the family” to “making the most from their land.” They were the early adopters of hybrid maize varieties in the 1980s, creating what was later referred to as Zimbabwe’s Green Revolution.

In addition to keeping their families well nourished, farmers like my parents could take their surplus to nearby city markets, make money and invest it in education and health for their children. Farming beyond subsistence indeed opened new horizons for their children. I am where I am today in part because my parents used improved seed.


Q: Why did you decide to focus on Bazooka maize and NABE 15 beans in your TEDx talk? Are there other crops with resistance to disease and drought that you consider ‘Hunger Busters’?

A: To showcase the transformative power of improved seed to a general audience, I needed one cereal and one legume crop variety that offered easy-to-understand benefits. My key requirements where higher yields, disease resistance and climate change adaptation. These are key challenges facing smallholder farmers worldwide. Having these attributes in one variety is as close as one can get to a silver bullet for smallholder agriculture.

Most importantly, I wanted varieties that have been successfully commercialized – not just prototypes. I find it easier to use farmer testimonials to not only demonstrate the benefits, but also to show that these technologies are available and affordable to resource-poor farmers. Both Bazooka and NABE 15 met all of these criteria. Bonus features for NABE 15 were higher levels of micronutrients and shorter cooking times.


Q: In your talk, you discuss how the genius of these seeds is not enough to scale up their adoption. Can you provide specific examples of bottlenecks, and how policy reform, partnerships and strategic investments have helped to increase the use of this type of seeds?

A: We have made significant progress over the past two decades in overcoming many bottlenecks that limit adoption of improved varieties by smallholder farmers. A recent example is the proliferation of fake or counterfeit seed in many African countries. If a farmer purchases certified seed that turns out to be fake, they will experience low germination and poor performance that is often worse than their own recycled seed. Not only do they lose a key investment for that season, but also they are likely to ‘dis-adopt’ certified seed.

However, several countries are taking notable steps to address the challenge. The Seed Trade Association of Kenya (STAK), working closely with the government seed regulator, is leading the effort to have security labels inserted in each packet of seed. These labels, authenticated via SMS on mobile phones, demonstrate the power of public-private-partnerships to deliver solutions to rural development.


Q: How do the key bottlenecks vary from country to country?

A: I am the lead investigator of The African Seed Access Index (TASAI), a tool that identifies bottlenecks on the improved seed value chains, from breeding all the way to agro-dealers in rural areas. Based on recent studies conducted in 14 African countries, we know that the bottlenecks vary significantly by country and crop.

For example, access to foundation seed is a key challenge for beans in Malawi, seed inspectors are inadequate in Senegal, and the availability of seed in small packages is limited in South Africa. More importantly, seed systems are dynamic and the constraints can change from year to year. A summary of ten emerging findings from recent TASAI studies is available online.


Q: Was there anything you wish you could have included in the TEDx Talk but had to leave out due to time constraints?

A: I could have used more time to describe the pathway that improved seed takes from research and development all the way to the village. Seed systems in Africa are highly complex, often involving multiple institutions with different interests. This complexity is the main reason why you will find ice-cold Coca-Cola in many African rural stores, but you might not find good seed.

The fact that seed is a living organism also presents the challenge of maintaining viability along this long and complex system. To understand the challenges of seed access in Africa, the devil is often in the details.


Q: What was the general response from attendees at the TEDx event? Did anyone ask surprising or difficult questions afterwards?

A: Overall, the presentation was well received. The general response was along the lines of “Wow! I had never thought of seed that way.” A few farmers in the audience wanted to know if and how they can get their hands on Bazooka and NABE 15 seed. However, there were several skeptics in the room who were mostly concerned about GMOs and the dominance of multinational seed companies.

I had anticipated these concerns and I tried my best to preemptively address them in my talk. While I find most these concerns to be misinformed, we would be remised to ignore them as they are shaping public perceptions of the formal seed sector. Unfortunately, it is hard to shift perceptions in just one talk.


Ed Mabaya is a scholar and a development practitioner with more than a decade of experience working with African seed systems. He is the Principal Investigator at The African Seed Access Index (TASAI), which monitors national indicators related to seed sector development. As a Senior Research Associate in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, he conducts research on food marketing and distribution, seed systems and the role of efficient agricultural markets in Africa’s economic development. He is also Assistant Director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD).

Mabaya was one of the speakers at the CIMMYT 50 celebrations in September 2016, and at TEDx MidAtlantic 2017. You can watch Mabaya’s talk at CIMMYT here and at TEDx MidAtlantic here.