Neglected no longer: Africa’s
promising dryland crops

Familiar cereals and legumes have fed Africa for centuries. Crops like sorghum, the millets, pigeon pea, chickpea, and groundnuts are well-adapted to the semi-arid tropics, and they will strengthen Africa’s food security in a changing climate. CIMMYT is working with national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES) to modernize seed production while engaging with farmers, breeders and others to design the future varieties that will meet the demands of farmers and other value chain actors.

Some of the favorite food crops in sub-Saharan Africa, such as groundnut (peanut), cowpea, pigeon pea, chickpea (garbanzo), sorghum, pearl millet and finger millet, are well-adapted to dryland ecologies in Africa and worldwide. These legumes and cereals are expected to fare well in the changing climate.

Sorghum is an ancient crop of African origin, which is naturally drought- and heat-tolerant. The groundnut is an important source of food and oil in East and Southern Africa, where it is grown mainly by smallholders, often women. Groundnuts are high in proteins, as are pigeon peas, chickpeas and cowpeas. These crops are rich in vitamins and minerals, and they are adapted to drought and to poor soils. They are often eaten by the farm family, but they also find a ready market when offered for sale. However, Africa’s cherished crops face challenges including uneven seed quality, climate change, pests and diseases, which threaten farmers’ harvests. All of the dryland crops need to be bred for even greater drought resistance, plus the specific pests and diseases that attack each one.

As the national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES) have become more sophisticated, CIMMYT is changing the way it engages with them. Instead of CIMMYT breeding new crop varieties and asking the NARES to evaluate them, CIMMYT co-develops varieties with the NARES in different environments. Then promising lines can be shared with other partners for evaluation and eventual release.

In August, 2021, CIMMYT was asked to lead the Accelerated Varietal Improvement and Seed Delivery of Legumes and Cereals in Africa (AVISA) project, as part of CGIAR’s Global Science Group on Genetic Innovation. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the project is breeding new varieties and strengthening seed systems to increase the productivity, and resilience of these nutritious food crops, and to help African farmers feed the continent.

CIMMYT has started breeding sorghum, the millets, and groundnut. It is supporting breeding programs for pigeon pea and chickpea. CIMMYT shares funds and breeding responsibilities with the NARES. Improving farm biodiversity with these dryland crops will help to manage climate change by moving away from dependence on crops like rice, maize, and wheat.

In the past, the dryland crops were under-valued by formal research, but even when new varieties were released, adoption was low. CIMMYT will improve adoption by promoting gender equity, and by gathering social science data to ensure that new varieties meet the demands of men and women farmers, processors, consumers, and other such “market segments.” Descriptions of the traits that market segments need in a new variety are called “product profiles.” CIMMYT will breed new varieties with these traits. Then the most promising advanced lines will be evaluated by farmers, and the NARES.

Farmers assessing improved varieties of sorghum in Burkina Faso. ©Baloua Nebie / CIMMYT.

Currently, in Africa the informal sector handles at least 95% of the seed of these dryland crops. To further speed the adoption of new varieties, CIMMYT is engaging with small and medium seed companies, to distribute seed to farmers.

CIMMYT has three sustained interventions with networks of NARES, CGIAR, universities and small and medium enterprises (SMEs):

  1. Regional crop improvement networks are established.
  2. CGIAR and NARES programs are shared for a greater regional impact.
  3. The networks receive capacity development.

At a meeting in August 2022, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, teams of NARES met from six East African countries (Malawi, Mozambique, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia). Plant breeders and social scientists (including gender specialists) shared groundnut product profiles, written on templates developed by CGIAR’s

Excellence in Breeding (EiB) platform and the Initiative on Market Intelligence (IMI). CIMMYT encourages each country to define its own product profiles and market segments, but comparing notes allows national breeders to collaborate on traits of regional importance. The meeting was also a first step towards creating a regional network with CIMMYT and the national programs for groundnut breeding. The network will breed groundnuts with more food oil, and with resistance to rosette virus, a key plant disease.

The Sorghum and Pearl Millet Crop Improvement Network for West and Central Africa met in September 2022, with CIMMYT and NARES from Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Ghana, Togo, and Chad, along with three West African seed companies, three farmer organizations and the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development (CIRAD). The Network finalized definitions of market segments and identified crop traits that are key at the regional level.

Farmers evaluate groundnut at the Nachingwea station in Tanzania. ©Susan Otieno / CIMMYT.

Farmers discuss the potential of sorghum hybrids. ©Baloua Nebie / CIMMYT.

The Chickpea and Pigeon Pea Improvement Network Workshop was held in Nairobi in November 2022 with CIMMYT and partners. In December, breeders from Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi visited the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and selected 506 lines for sharing.

In Ghana, CIMMYT and the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR-SARI) are writing product profiles for cowpea and sorghum, as well as for groundnut. In East Africa, CIMMYT and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) are writing product profiles for pigeon pea, and chickpea.

Progress with seed has been rapid. By the end of 2022, CIMMYT’s partners had reached 4.8 million farmers with 30,600 tons of seed of improved legume and cereal crops, enough to plant nearly a million hectares.

CIMMYT is also engaged with a related CGIAR initiative, Crops to End Hunger (CtEH), to improve crop breeding and seed production of food crops in various African countries. In late 2022, CIMMYT started projects with CtEH to improve seed production for sorghum, millets, groundnut, pigeon pea, chickpea, and maize in Kenya.

A second CtEH project, the Kiboko Research Station Upgrade, introduces cold storage to improve inter-country transfers of improved seed, while installing solar energy to power facilities without emitting carbon.

The CtEH project, Enhancing Genetic Gain of Crops for Resilience through Modernization of ISRA-CNRA Bambey/ Senegal Research Station will build an irrigation system for year-round crop breeding of sorghum, millets, and groundnuts. The project will screen varieties for resistance to various crop diseases and to the parasitic weed, striga.

“These crops have the advantage that they are well known in Africa,” says Harish Gandhi, CIMMYT’s breeding lead for dryland legumes and cereals. “People know how to grow and prepare them. These nutritious foods can sometimes be made a bit healthier, or they can be bred to resist serious plant diseases. They perform well in the drylands, and they can play a role in adapting to climate change. This will be good for consumers and for smallholders, especially women, who can improve their incomes with greater access to modern seed.”

In 2022, CIMMYT hired new staff, and now has over 20 people working on these important cereals and legumes in Kenya, Senegal and Mexico.

A group member harvests groundnut in Tanzania. ©Susan Otieno / CIMMYT.

Crops like sorghum, the millets, pigeon pea, chickpea, and groundnuts are well-adapted to the semi-arid tropics, and they will strengthen africa’s food security in a changing climate.

CIMMYT has started breeding sorghum, the millets, and groundnut. It is supporting breeding programs for pigeon pea and chickpea.

The Chickpea and Pigeon Pea Improvement Network Workshop was held in Nairobi in November 2022 with CIMMYT and partners.