Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT), funded by the African Development Bank, is revolutionising African agricultural production by accelerating the provision of improved seeds and other farming technologies and practices tailored for the continent’s diverse soil and climate conditions. Report by Neil Ford.
Sudanese farmer Hachem Ahmad Salam has been working his wheat fields for more than 20 years and was yet to see the much-anticipated African green revolution, touted to transform the continent into a breadbasket to the world, come his way. Things may be about to change. An African Development Bank (AfDB) agriculture initiative is helping him to revolutionise how he does agribusiness and boost his crop yields.
The AfDB-funded Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation initiative, or TAAT, disseminates ‘best bet’ crop seed varieties, agricultural inputs and farming practices to farmers by directing proven technologies across the African landscape. With tens of millions of smallholder farmers potentially benefiting from TAAT, the initiative is bringing a green revolution closer to home.
“With the support of the TAAT wheat project, I received improved wheat seed as well as training on row planting and other production techniques at farmer field school,” says Salam. He also says the TAAT programme’s heat-tolerant seeds helped increase his wheat harvest from an average 1.8 tonnes per hectare to 5.5 tonnes per hectare, in a region known for seasons of unforgiving heat.
Transforming African agriculture
TAAT is active in Sudan and 27 other Sub-Saharan African countries, and seeks to encourage countries to work together on harmonising policies and regulations to allow the millions of African farmers to more efficiently access and make use of technologies like improved certified seeds, livestock and fish across borders and agro-ecological zones.
“The goal is to radically transform African agriculture into a competitive, profitable sector and help reduce Africa’s food import dependence by producing more of our own grains, produce, livestock and fish supplies,” said Dr Andrew Mude, an agriculture division manager at the AfDB responsible for the TAAT initiative.
Since its launch in 2018, TAAT has focused on nine priority areas, such as the promotion of beans, cassava, rice, wheat, maize, sorghum and orange-flesh sweet potato production. Improved aquaculture development and livestock rearing are also priorities.
Producing higher yields
A large part of the ‘tech’ in TAAT, is around improved seeds, providing higher yields and greater resilience to drought, heat, pests and other stressors. Take ordinary wheat, which needs temperatures between 20 to 26 degrees Celsius to produce high yields. Heat-tolerant wheat seed can thrive in areas where field temperatures rise in excess of 30 degrees.
As a result of these developments, in Ethiopia, farmers planting heat-tolerant wheat seed are cultivating bumper harvests in the country’s previously underused lowland areas – once considered too arid to produce quality grain. According to the AfDB, this not only reduces the country’s grain import bill, but also creates jobs and generates steady, decent incomes in rural agricultural communities.
The initiative engages partner organisations and implementing agencies to ensure a wide rollout. It works with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture on boosting bean production in eight countries in Central, East and Southern Africa. One implementing agency, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, is promoting TAAT-funded wheat production in seven countries, including East Africa’s highlands.
Crossing borders, harmonising policy
TAAT Coordinator Dr Jonas Chianu says the initiative aims to increase African food production by 120m tonnes over the next eight to ten years – a figure worth some $1.5 to $2.8bn, depending on future market prices.
Cross-border cooperation is key to ensuring that new seed varieties can be deployed for use across entire agro-ecological zones that stretch across numerous countries, rather than just within specific countries. As regional seed markets are opened up and national restrictions are lifted, TAAT officials say, a single seed-testing programme can result in new seed varieties that can thrive in upward of 10 countries that share the same agro-ecological zone.
TAAT collaborates with the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research centres (CGIAR) such as AfricaRice. Between the years 2011 and 2015, AfricaRice worked with Nigerian farmers to increase the use of new seeds, fertilisers as well as information and communications technology support. CGIAR also advocated for the introduction of public policy in support of cross-border cooperation.
By the end of the period, paddy rice production by test group farmers increased by 7m tonnes per year and average yields doubled. This success, buoyed up by regional harmonisation policy, resulted in about 4.2 tonnes of this climate-smart rice seed being supplied to four countries: Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Nigeria.
Much of TAAT’s implementation success lies in the numbers: in just a few years, about 30,500 tonnes of heat-tolerant varieties of wheat seed have been deployed in Sudan, 25,438 tonnes of seed have been distributed in Ethiopia and to date, 7,600 tonnes of seed are being utilised in Nigeria – a country that TAAT’s programme coordinator in Abuja says has significant potential.
“Nigeria stands to save a lot of money in reducing wheat imports, if more wheat was grown in country,” says Dr Chrysantus Akem. The challenge, he added, is the erroneous perception that wheat is exclusively a crop for Mediterranean area nations. TAAT is changing that perception, by deploying stress-tolerant wheat varieties developed to produce high yields in Africa.
In Nigeria, Akem says, farmers worked with TAAT to screen a range of stress-tolerant wheat seed over the last three years, and identified three varieties that produced up to 4x yields. “Tropical rainfall and comprehensive irrigation could allow wheat to be grown year round,” he added.
Fighting fall armyworm
TAAT is also part of the fight to counter the spread of fall armyworm, an invasive insect threatening crops of smallholder farmers. Fall armyworm first appeared in Africa in 2016, and without appropriate action, the insect could cause maize yield losses of an estimated $2.4–$6.2bn over five years. Fall armyworm prefers maize but can feed on over 80 additional species of plants including rice, sorghum, millet, sugarcane, vegetable crops and cotton.
In Zambia, TAAT is working with the government, seed companies and community leaders to distribute pesticide-treated and drought-tolerant wheat, maize and sorghum to farmers. Since 2018, TAAT has provided Zambia with over 28,000 litres of chemical used to treat close to 5,000 tonnes of seed, that resists fall armyworm infestation. Almost half a million Zambian farmers have benefited.
“We need collaborating partners such as TAAT to come in and complement what the government is already doing,” said Alick Daka, Deputy Director of Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture, during a recent tour of agribusinesses participating in the TAAT initiative.
From the lab to Africa’s fields
TAAT is supporting research to adapt global agri-tech best practices to the African continent. The AfDB is collaborating with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, which is using hydroponic technology to boost cassava plant production. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, about half of the world’s cassava production is in Africa: the crop is grown in more than 40 African countries.
“I believe we have a role to help usher in Africa’s Green Revolution,” said Dr Jennifer Blanke (pictured above talking to a Sudanese farmer), Vice President for Agriculture, Human and Social Development at the AfDB. “So many technologies exist. With these technologies, Africa should be able to leapfrog, but this can only happen if projects are scaled up,” she added.
Back in Sudan, wheat farmer Hachem Ahmad Salam says TAAT-supported agricultural technologies are doing more than improve his harvest – they are also improving his and his family’s quality of life. “My increase in income from TAAT-supplied wheat allowed me to send my two children to Khartoum to study at a private university,” Salam said.
(This story was produced with the support of the African Development Bank)