Crop farmers in Kenya will access high quality seed varieties at affordable prices to increase yields and boost food security.
The entity to champion the project — QualiBasic Seed — will ensure strains of seeds developed by breeders are correct in genetic quality at all stages. The private entity will be housed in Nairobi under the aegis of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) that is nurturing it.
Already, the company has received an initial five-year funding of US$ 8.4 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative will save small and medium seed companies that struggle to proliferate foundation seeds from breeders without proper equipment to sustain quality.
AATF’s Director of Commercialisation Mr Donald Mavindidze says established multi-national seed companies through their inbuilt capacity to reproduce foundation seeds for themselves without compromising on quality enjoy undue advantage over small and medium ones.
“QualiBasic Company will create a level playing ground for all players in the seed production industry and protect farmers from compromised seeds when things go wrong in production, impacting negatively on yields, farmers profit margins and the general food security,” says Mavindidze.
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He explains that foundation or basic seeds of any crop are obtained after rigorous research by breeders to come up with new varieties of improved strains.
“The improved varieties are the result of crossing strains with useful qualities such as drought resistance, early maturity, water efficiency, pest resistance and the like to come up with a more versatile product.
“The seeds or kernels so produced are in small quantities (a few kilograms) that are passed on to seed companies to multiply in the pre-foundation stage through a controlled environment and proper equipment to produce particular hybrids in bulk for the farmers, a process too expensive for small and medium scale companies that find it hard to cope with the rigors to guard against quality loss and ensure that original strains are correct.
Mr Mavindidze says QualiBasic Company will ensure basic seeds from breeders go through the pre-foundation and foundation stage with their quality sealed at 100 per cent when they get to seed companies for mass production.
He says lots of products from breeders have been sitting without reaching the farmers because of the gap in seed production that QualiBasic Seed Company will fill.
“It can take as much as six seasons to get quality foundation seeds, something small and medium seed companies cannot pull off without losing profit margins, “notes Mr Mavindidze.
To underscore the importance of quality, AATF’s senior manager for projects management and deployment of products Dr Gospel Omanya gives the example of a maize seed developed to fight striger weed, a vicious crop killer common in Western.
“The seed strain is developed in a way that makes it tolerant to a herbicide known as imazapyr that is deadly to striger weed commonly known in Western as hayongo (Luo) or khayongo (Luhya),” he says.
He adds: “The herbicide is applied as a fine coating on the seed during hybrid production such that it takes in the herbicide at germination but the resultant seedling is not affected. The strain works like an immunisation or vaccination of sorts.”
He goes on: “Striger weed attaches itself to the roots of the germinated seedling, stressing it by drawing water and nutrients. In the case of herbicide tolerant seed, the weed takes in the herbicide as well, dying instantly in the process while the maize crop flourishes. The seed cannot be as efficient to resist the herbicide if the quality of its strain is compromised at the foundation stage because conditions do not meet the required standards. The Qualibasic Seed will ensure such hitches do not occur and seed companies and farmers are safeguarded against loss,” explains Dr Omanya.
The Executive Director of AATF Dr Denis Kyetere says though Nairobi will be the headquarters of QualiBasic Seed company, outposts will be in Zambia, South Africa and other countries for fast production of basic seeds.
“QualiBasic Seed will address the acute, technical, infrastructural and financial challenges encountered by small and medium enterprise seed companies in the maintenance and multiplication of quality seed essential in improving farm production,” said Dr Kyetere at an introductory session in Nairobi.
He said QBS would centrally serve the foundation seed needs of a growing number of companies, making certified seeds more affordable to farmers.
He cited the United States of America among parts of the world where similar models had been successful.
QualiBasic Seed operations will start with foundation seed for maize in East and Southern Africa before expanding to other legumes across Sub Saharan Africa,” says Dr Kyetere.
The Deputy Director for Agricultural Development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Mr Enock Chikava described investment in QualiBasic Seed as an effort to help smallholder farmers especially women realise the full genetic gains of resilient crop varieties.