Seed collecting, conservation and collaboration in West Africa

As a young boy growing up in Niger, Hamidou Falalou fell in love with the search for answers and knew he wanted to become a scientist. When, later, he saw climate change threatening local food security, he decided to dedicate his career to helping develop crops that were more resilient to its effects.

Today, Falalou is the manager of the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) regional genebanks in Niamey, Niger and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

The genebank conserves more than 47,000 seed samples, primarily of millets, groundnut, sorghum and pigeonpea, but also of other crops grown in West and Central Africa, including cowpea, rice, wheat, maize, sesame, okra, onion and Bambara groundnut.

The genebank conducts seed collecting missions in the region, together with local partners, and provides training in collection, seed multiplication and conservation activities.

We sat down with Falalou to hear more about his recent collecting work in Chad.

The ICRISAT regional genebank is in Niger. ​Why was it important to collect crops in neighboring Chad? 

Chad is an area of high diversity for several crops that are important in the region, such as groundnut, pearl millet and sorghum, but there are areas of Chad where seeds of these and other crops have never been collected. We need to collect the diversity of these crops now, before it is lost forever as a result of climate change or changes in farmers practices.

By working with national institutes—in this case the Chadian Institute of Agricultural Research for Development (ITRAD, from its French name)—we strengthen their ability to conserve the diversity that is part of their national heritage. And the whole world also benefits from their local knowledge, contacts and resources—for example, ITRAD arranged all the necessary permits and authorization for the collecting missions in Chad, provided vehicles for the mission and shared collected materials with the ICRISAT genebank, from where anyone can request them.

What crops did you collect during this project, and from where?

In 2020 and 2021, ICRISAT and ITRAD visited 116 villages in the Sahelian and Sudanian zones in Chad and 392 villages in Niger with the  Institut National de Recherche Agronomique du Niger (INRAN) and collected samples of groundnut, pearl millet, sorghum, maize, fonio, chili, cowpea, eggplant, soybean, rice, melon, Bambara groundnut, papaya, onion, okra, cucumber, squash, sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and dazo (Coleus dazo), an edible tuber. In total, 1517 seed samples were collected in Chad and 1436 in Niger.

What happened to the seeds that were collected?

First, we test the seeds for viability. Then, we dry the seed lots with sufficiently high viability for storage in cold rooms. We also multiply the seed to make sure that we have enough for conservation and to share with other researchers. We then characterize the different seeds for traits like disease and pest resistance, drought and heat tolerance.

And we sent duplicates of the most interesting seeds to farmers so they can continue to be used and contribute to food security.

Once we have enough seeds of the different varieties, we share them with the national genebank—in this case Chad’s—and with appropriate international genebanks. For our key crops, that means they go to ICRISAT in India, but Bambara groundnut and cowpea, for example, go to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria and rice goes to AfricaRice in Ivory Coast.

Breeders at ICRISAT and other institutes are using some of the seeds we collected to develop more climate-change-resilient crops for farmers in the region.

How can plant breeders and others find out more about the crop diversity that was collected?

We are in the process of adding passport data about the collected seed samples on the Genesys website, which is free for anyone to access. That’s information like the species, where, when and how the seeds were collected, where and how they are being stored and their availability, that sort of thing. Very important information for anyone interested in using crop diversity in research or breeding.

Data on traits such as disease and pest resistance will also be made publicly available, after we do the necessary experiments.

This information, together with the unique identification number allocated to each sample, will allow breeders and others to identify materials that meet their needs and to request samples from the genebank that holds them.

The materials held at international genebanks will be available through the Standard Material Transfer Agreements (SMTAs) of the Plant Treaty upon request.

What do you hope for the future of your work? 

We want to continue our discussions with farmers and other partners about the importance of maintaining crop diversity and how to use it better to support future generations.

I want breeders to be able to find seeds in genebanks that have interesting traits and use them in their breeding programs and other research. I will be happy when all African countries have a functional national genebank, and when farmers, breeders and others can have their requests for seeds fulfilled quickly.

To achieve this, we really need to create a network of people and organizations engaged in conservation and use of crop genetic resources because only together can we really solve problems like hunger and poverty and improve global resilience to climate change.

Key to this is getting governments to support genebanks, including appointing well-qualified staff and giving them the resources they need. We also need financial support from donors, including the Crop Trust, to continue working with farmers.

Working together, we can develop climate-smart crops and put them in the hands of the farmers who need them to feed their families.

You mention the need for a network of people and organizations working in the field of genetic conservation and use—has anything been done toward establishing this? 

The Crop Trust has done a lot toward achieving this in the region. It’s working with almost all countries in the region, and our partners here know the Crop Trust well. So when we communicate with these partner genebanks and say that we are working with the Crop Trust, they immediately say, “ah, we know what that is.”

Specifically, the Crop Trust financially supported meetings in 2020 (Senegal) and 2021 (Togo) to establish a regional network of genebanks working in West and Central Africa. At our latest meeting in 2021, we adopted a name, the “PGR management network in West and Central Africa for climate-smart agriculture, food and nutrition security (WECAN-PGR)” and set out an action plan for 2022.

The Trust helps facilitate our work, our contacts and our job.

High-grain-yielding sorghum at the ICRISAT Niger Research station. Photo: ICRISAT/Hamidou Falalou.