The main crops grown and adapted to the semi-arid region of East Africa are finger millet and sorghum, which provide food, feed, and money to the population, but they have been pushed to the perimeter of the governments’ priority crops in the region, according to experts.
The experts added that the two crops have the potential to boost food security, improve people’s livelihoods, and contribute to industrialization during the virtual launch of the East African Center of Innovation for Finger Millet and Sorghum in the region, which will be based at the National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI) in Uganda on Thursday (March 09).
They claim, however, that countries in the region have not done enough to increase crop production, which is currently at less than a tone per hectare.
“The challenge with these crops has been that they have been subjugated to only consumption but also production and productivity has been very low,” said Ambrose Agona, Director General of the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), noting that research has shown that finger millet and sorghum can be used in beer brewing and confectioneries.
So far, NARO has formed a collaboration with Uganda Breweries Limited (UBL) with the backing of USAID to work in research to transform local varieties such as sorghum, barley, and cassava into high-yielding and aflatoxin-resistant kinds to feed the beer sector.
The National Semi-arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI) in Uganda, in collaboration with the Tanzania Agriculture Research Institute (TARI) and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, will implement the USAID-funded project through Cornell University’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement (KALRO).
Makerere University, ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics), IBP (Integrated Breeding Platform), and the National Agricultural Research Laboratories, Kawanda are among the other collaborators (NARL).
The US$934,301 project aims to harness finger millet and sorghum genetic resources for higher productivity and usage in East Africa’s dry and semi-arid regions.
Dr. Scovia Adikini, project leader and principal investigator at NaSARRI, said the project will benefit more than 400 million people who live in dry land regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, despite low productivity, frequent droughts, devastating floods, and pest and disease outbreaks threatening their livelihoods.
The East African Center of Innovation for Finger Millet and Sorghum, she said, will provide a framework for national breeding programs to leverage resources, strengthen synergies, and harness opportunities to accelerate the development, release, promotion, and adoption of varieties that meet the needs of women and men.
“The Centre will bring together the best tools, technologies, methods, and expertise to empower smallholder farmers in the semi-arid region of east Africa, particularly women, youth, and the poor, to transition from subsistence to increased food and nutritional security, incomes, and shock resilience,” she said.
According to Kelly Merchan, a communication specialist at Cornell University, the new Centre is one of four around the world that are working to improve sweet potato, millet, common bean, sorghum, and cowpea production.
The other centers are: cowpea improvement for yield, disease resistance, adaptation, and nutrition security in Malawi, in collaboration with Tanzania and Mozambique; development and dissemination of crop innovations for smallholder farmers and rural populations in West Africa, in collaboration with Burkina Faso and Niger; and a regional hub for plant cultivar development in Senegal, in collaboration with Burkina Faso and Niger.
Dr. Rebbie Harawa, the regional director of ICRISAT and a representative in Kenya, emphasized that current crop research requires a fresh approach that considers climatic resilience, nutritional value, and farmer income.
She believes that strong public-private partnerships are needed among agricultural actors to support the smooth transmission of technologies and improved crop varieties from research institutes to farmers in order to boost crop production.
She continued, “Scientists and countries must also share information, knowledge, and capacity building to complement each other’s areas of weakness.”
Dr. Simon Byabagambi, the USAID representative in Uganda, emphasized the importance of collaboration across agriculture sector actors in order to obtain the greatest results for farmers in terms of technology and improved crop types in order to improve the region’s food security.
“Working in silos will not help us,” he said, adding that USAID is implementing a number of initiatives to improve food security and farmer incomes, including improving inclusive market systems, agriculture research activities, commercialization of technologies generated, and inclusive community growth.