Thanks to its tolerance of poor soil, harsh conditions, pests and diseases, cassava is a stable, low-cost staple for millions in sub-Saharan Africa. However, it’s not solely subsistence and small-scale farmers that benefit from the crop – it provides incomes and an industry for medium and large-scale enterprises in the region too.
Despite its widespread importance for food security and as a cash crop, cassava is underperforming and not meeting its full potential for commercial production and processing, export and use in local industry. The average root yield per hectare in Nigeria – the world’s largest producer – is less than half of what it could be.
It starts with seed
One of the biggest barriers to boosting cassava production in Africa lies within the seed production value chain, which is severely fragmented.
“About 90% of cassava seed in sub-Saharan Africa comes from the informal sector and the seed quality is unknown and often infected with viruses,” says Dr. Lava Kumar, Head of the Germplasm Health Unit at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). There aren’t many professional seed producers in vegetatively propagated crops such as cassava, and seed regulatory agencies often lack sufficient capacity to promote and enforce quality seed regulations.
Furthermore, seed regulations are cumbersome and expensive for smallholder seed producers to follow and are often avoided altogether. Still, the most consistent challenge in the industry continues to be a general lack of awareness and information on seed availability and production.
Scientists from the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB) envisioned a system that addresses these barriers to improving the industry and integrating the fragmented value chain. Towards this, they developed ‘Seed Tracker’, a web-app that focuses on improving cassava seed production and access, usable on any internet-enabled device. In a webinar last month hosted by RTB, Dr. Kumar shared progress and led discussions about the capabilities of the app and its potential to revolutionize cassava production in sub-Saharan Africa.
“This is the world’s first web-app for seed value chain integration for enhancing quality seed production and market access to help seed producers meet their potential,” he told participants.
Seed Tracker collects and organizes seed production information, making it easier for institutions to monitor seed quality and certify producers. It provides a database for ready access to information, such as seed quantity, location, variety, geography, and availability. It is a place where producers can find on-demand expert advice on agronomy, plant health and more.
“The inbuilt algorithms of this program connect all key stakeholders, from seed producers, to regulators, traders, and extension services. It’s an integrated suite that allows access to digital data collection tools from any internet-enabled device, and is customizable for different institutional accounts,” Kumar adds.
For example, the app can let buyers know when and where new crop varieties are released, helping to support the adoption and impact of improved varieties developed through breeding programs. It can also help seed producers understand national regulations and register their seeds, a task that used to be so onerous that producers would sidestep registration altogether.
Pilot successes in Nigeria
In 2015, the ‘Building an Economically Sustainable Integrated Cassava Seed System’ (BASICS) project worked with the government of Nigeria to pilot the Cassava Seed Tracker. They customized the program specifically to meet the priorities of the National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC). The Director General of NASC, Dr. P Ojo on 10th October 2018 formally declared Cassava Seed Tracker as e-certification platform for cassava in Nigeria.
“The Cassava Seed Tracker is helping NASC to understand who, how much and where seed is produced so they can be trained, mainstreamed and certified. It helps them to understand the rules, regulations and best practices to produce quality seed. In time, it will evolve people from informal seed producers to formal seed producers,” explains Dr. Khalid Ishiak, Director Seed Certification and Quality Control of NASC.
The Cassava Seed Tracker is already easing operations, reducing costs, and forecasting trends in production and regulation in Nigeria, where the largest number of people in the world depend on the crop for their food and livelihood. The program was even a finalist in the nation-wide Google Impact Challenge and stood out as a game-changing tool to create economic opportunities in local communities.
Improving seed systems at scale
Seed Tracker has shown its ability to enhance Nigeria’s cassava seed system. However, the software has the potential to transform seed systems both regionally and beyond cassava alone. Designed with scalability in mind, the app has the power to formalize and mainstream production of many food security crops that are equally important but have yet to actualize their full potential.
“We are already using the Seed Tracker platform to design and pilot programs for multiple crops that IITA will be involved in, such as yam,”says Kumar.
The tracker is ready to go. Still, researchers emphasize that this is not a tool to simply be downloaded and implemented. It intentionally requires tailoring depending on the user needs, crop and system, country, and seed regulation structure. With eight other customized platforms in the works, the versatile Seed Tracker technology alludes to a brighter future for the seed production value chain, across fields and scales.