Help for soybean industry in Africa starts with the source

October 21, 2015
African soybean breeders visit U of I


  • Soybean farmers in Africa have access to only few low-yielding varieties of seed from their country’s national breeder.
  • U of I is home to the USDA Soybean Germplasm Collection, with over 20,000 unique soybean types.
  • Plant geneticists at U of I are educating African soybean breeders so they can develop better varieties.
  • Feed the Future Innovation for Soybean Value Chain Research hosted a first-ever conference in Ghana for policy makers and producers.

URBANA, Ill. – If you want a bountiful soybean harvest, start with high-quality seeds. This is simple for farmers in the United States who can choose from hundreds of seed varieties. For farmers in developing countries, it’s not that easy. Why?

Soybean breeding in Sub-Saharan Africa is not well developed, and soybean farmers have access to a very limited number of varieties that do not have the yield potential of varieties typically grown in North or South America.  

University of Illinois plant geneticist Brian Diers and USDA-Agricultural Research Service plant geneticist Randy Nelson are working on a solution to this problem. Rather than training farmers how to grow inadequate seed, they’re going to the source, sharing their own tricks of the trade with soybean breeders.

Diers and Nelson demonstrated how they run their breeding programs  to three visiting soybean breeders from Ghana, Ethiopia, and Zambia. And not just any breeders—these three are at the national and international level in their countries. The tricks included simple, tried-and-true strategies that range from how to physically arrange envelopes of seeds for field planting to managing thousands of new soybean experimental types each year.

“In the past, we’ve put technology in the hands of the farmers, forgetting that agricultural research has been gutted in these countries,” said Peter Goldsmith, U of I economist and principal investigator of USAID’s Soybean Innovation Lab. “This program through Feed the Future is focused on helping researchers in developing countries. It targets the key influencers to change the foundation of the soybean system. If we can affect the source, it will have a ripple effect down through the soybean supply chain.”

Goldsmith explained that the goal is for breeders to begin to understand how to improve their own programs – showing them ways to improve their efficiency, increase the scale of their program, helping them see the types of equipment that they need, and how to introduce new seed varieties.

“They haven’t had new germplasm for decades,” Goldsmith said. “U of I is home to the USDA Soybean Germplasm Collection, which has over 20,000 unique soybean types and has good relations with Brazilian soybean breeders so we can provide African breeders with high-yielding varieties that they can use as parents.

“Currently, we’re working in five African countries, but we’ve been contacted by soybean breeders in many others who also want the training and better germplasm,” Goldsmith said. “They all have the same problems. Even at the national research institutes in Africa, they are harvesting soybean by pulling plants out of the ground by hand; then women gather around and hit them with sticks. This is not an effective or sustainable technique.”

This month a conference was held in Ghana to give policy makers and those who work with farmers the opportunity to visit farms and to learn more about soybean as a commercial crop.

While out in the field practicing how to operate a hand planter, one of the national breeders said that he’s proud that the conference is hosted at his home institution, the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute in Ghana.

“I think it will open up the gates for research,” said Nicholas Denwar. “They will get to know what the stakes are in the soy industry, what varieties farmers want to grow, what varieties industry wants, and what can they use soybean for.”

Denwar explained that processors and feed mills have to import soybeans and soybean mill from Brazil to supply the nation’s poultry farmers. He would like to see soybean for animal feed grown in Ghana.

“The government intends to make agriculture very businesslike and to grow agriculture,” Denwar said. “We think that soybean is one of the crops that can feed into that agribusiness model.”

Godfree Chigeza, who was recently hired at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Zambia, said that soybean is the fastest-growing crop in Africa. “People are now aware of the importance of soybean, not just in terms of human nutrition, but in terms of poultry feed,” he said. “Farmers are diversifying into soybean for animal feed. They are able to get income, and then they are able to send their kids to school. That’s very important. In the past, the only emphasis was on human food crops—things like maize, cowpea, drybeans—but you need to understand that for farmers to move from poverty they need to have income, and crops like soybean provide farmers an opportunity to have income so that they can reinvest into their farm practices.”

Goldsmith elaborated on how this program is a very different approach to how researchers can address real needs and affect change in developing countries.

“There have been critiques of programs that just provide emergency support, yet do little to avert the next calamity,” he said. “There have been critiques of grain delivery programs that distort markets and decrease incentives for local production. There have been critiques of university research because it affects journals but not livelihoods. And there have been critiques of development efforts that just implement projects with no regard to sustainable solutions or effectiveness. Feed the Future ‘research for development’ breathes new life into how universities can be relevant and extend their service mission to include the developing world.”

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