Pearl Millet breeding brings adapted and high-yielding varieties to smallholder farmers to enhance productivity and food security in West Africa.
This project and research was funded by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet, known as the Sorghum and Millet Innovation Lab (SMIL). This lab is funded by USAID and managed at Kansas State University.
Pearl millet is a staple food for millions of people, especially many of those living in extreme climatic production areas and economic poverty. In West Africa, pearl millet is one of the top cultivated crops by area. These are just two of the reasons why it’s important to concentrate on pearl millet production to increase farm productivity and food security for communities in West Africa and other countries.
The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet (SMIL) is supporting key research and improved seed to address this challenge. The Genetic Enhancement of Pearl Millet for Yield, Biotic and Abiotic Stress Tolerance in West Africa (GENMIL) project was started in 2018 to accelerate pearl millet innovations to increase food security and income.
Since its beginning in 2018, the GENMIL project has seen collaborative efforts from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique du Niger (INRAN) and the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA) through the Centre d’Etudes Régional pour l'Amélioration de l’Adaptation à la Sécheresse (CERAAS). In fact, modernizing the INRAN and ISRA breeding programs was a major feat of the project.
Dr. Ndjido Kane (CERAAS director, SMIL Senegal coordinator, and SMIL GENMIL project principal investigator) said, “We are modernizing breeding programs in Western Africa. As a program, we benefit from the technology we are bringing into the region because we can share the findings of what we develop for Senegal with other partners in the region since we share the same Sahelian drought-prone environments. We’re focusing more on trait discovery and product development and have new investments that can screen for drought tolerance.”
Even with new technologies, none of these advancements would be made without direct and frequent dialogue between scientists and farmers. This back-and-forth is critical for a high adoption rate of the innovations created by the scientific community. During this project, at least 160 farmers visited plots of pearl millet varieties in Senegal. With their feedback, resistance to biotic stresses such as Striga, downy mildew and drought were identified as the most important traits they consider when selecting a variety to grow in their field.
“We have to give credit to farmers. It's their management systems and knowledge we are using to see how we can improve those practices and systems in combination with the new varieties we are proposing to them,” said Kane.“We don’t want to propose something they do not want to use, so it is easier to ask them what they need. Each farmer brings their own knowledge and we add technical or scientific knowledge to move forward together.”
This collaboration has resulted in three open-pollinated varieties and the first-ever hybrid from the ISRA pearl millet program — all dual-purpose, high-yielding and richer in nutrient content compared to the most cultivated variety, Souna 3.
Farmers are adopting these new varieties, which is resulting in tripling the population of the crop being cultivated. This yield increase will result in improved food security and greater income and possibly new jobs being created.
“I use this example: the farmers will use one-third of their production as table food, but if they tripled production, they now have two-thirds left that they can sell, export or keep for the next year,” said Kane. “The result is increased income for the farmer and more readily available products for consumers.”
farmers provided feedback to researchers
Another pillar of this project is to empower human and institutional capacities. Many of the scientists on this project are young scientists in Senegal who are trained and work at one time in the U.S. This is a reflection of the desire of SMIL to train young scientists to conduct research and make a positive impact in their own countries.
Dr. Timothy Dalton, director of SMIL, said, “I really appreciate that SMIL is pairing American expertise and ingenuity with the best and brightest globally, and training students in developing countries and the U.S. By doing that, we're ensuring the next generation of food systems leaders are equipped and empowered to address the food security challenges that we know are coming tomorrow as well.”
The partnership with SMIL and the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) in Niger and Senegal addressed and supported the GENMIL project needs and provided resources to strengthen the research being conducted on a regional level. An example is the farming practices coping with disease or ecological factors are being added to the breeding product profile. All identified cultivars are integrated into local breeding programs and are evaluated on-farm for performance and their ability to scale. The involvement and mentoring of young scientists, as well as farmers and seed producers, will contribute to the goal of increased human and institutional capacity. This is essential to modernize and create sustainable breeding programs throughout West Africa.
The breeding program is dynamic, adjusting to demands and evolving as needs change. Kane added, “We have to think ahead on different challenges and demands. If you wait for something to happen, by the time you develop a product, the need has already changed. So the most challenging thing in the breeding program is to anticipate future demand and preference, and start the work now.”
This is another reason why equipping local scientists to work on projects like GENMIL is so important, and is not possible without supportive partnerships like SMIL.
CERAAS partners with nine USAID funded Feed the Future Innovation Labs, and Kane said, “The partnership we have with SMIL is one of a kind. SMIL was the first innovation lab that came to us and asked about the demands we wanted to address and how they could support us in meeting our goals. That made the partnership very beneficial and positive. It strengthened our ability to collaborate and achieve common goals. I hope that will be the case with future partnerships.”
Nat Bascom, assistant director of SMIL, summarizes it this way: “It boils down to how we can help the institution and the people within that environment grow. How do we help them develop as researchers and leaders? For the long-term, we will have helped West African researchers in their aspirations and long-term capacity to bring research to bear toward development goals in their country. That’s the legacy of a partnership like this.”
“We have to give credit to farmers. It's their management systems and knowledge we are using to see how we can improve those practices and systems in combination with the new varieties we are proposing to them. We don’t want to propose something they do not want to use, so it is easier to ask them what they need. Each farmer brings their own knowledge and we add technical or scientific knowledge to move forward together.”