Demand-Driven Plant Variety Design
"Demand-driven" approaches to R&D can greatly increase smallholders' adoption of new varieties. So scientists need to connect closely to the channels that give these farmers access to improved seed, and use the resulting crops.
Sowing the seeds that meet customers' needs
The Syngenta Foundation wants to maximize the benefits of international research and development for smallholders in developing countries. Improved crop varieties are a key focus of that R&D, and can greatly contribute to improving food security. However, technology solutions alone are not enough.
Customer demand is a vital ingredient for successful businesses. This also applies to the breeding of improved crop varieties for smallholder farmers in developing countries. It is essential for food security that public programs generate more varieties that farmers and their customers want to use. Some government programs include farmer participation in variety development. However, typically the public sector focuses less on demand than private companies do.
Program funders often support specific objectives matching the Millennium Development Goals or national policies, such as ‘improving drought tolerance of food staples in Sub-Saharan Africa’. Funds go into, for example, the discovery of new genes, research to understand their function, and incorporation of key beneficial traits into the best local varieties. The emphasis is therefore frequently on technology rather than customer demand.
Before you start, involve potential users
‘Demand-driven’ plant breeding puts customers at the heart of R&D. It involves users even before the scientific work starts. These ‘users’ are not only farmers, but also stakeholders right along the value chain. They influence how the crop is traded as:
- fresh food
- processing material
Adoption of new varieties by smallholders depends on more than just their intrinsic benefits. Good quality seed needs to be:
Seed organizations, however, can only flourish when they have a range of sought-after varieties to sell that bring benefits along the value chain.
Designing a ‘customer-driven’ variety means taking into account the preferences and needs of key stakeholders. The table below lists some possible crop features. Market researchers ask farmers, seed companies, processors, consumers and others to rank the importance of each requirement. Breeders then review the wish list for technical feasibility. Because developing new varieties can take a long time, breeders need also to assess how customer preferences and agriculture could change over the next decade.
Examples of characteristics contributing to an ideal variety
|Consumer aspects||Agronomic performance|
Yield in different climates and soils
|Crop and food processing||Seed production|
Resilience to transport
Clear benefits over existing varieties
Key requirements of demand-driven variety design to build Africa’s seed sector
Integrating demand-driven design into public sector breeding requires support from governments and donors. Researchers and breeders need access to reliable market knowledge, and be able to translate it into their work. This may require partnerships with the private sector. Additional considerations may also be important: for example, some national authorities only register new varieties that meet particular yield criteria. Some major preconditions for more demand-driven crop design in Africa are listed below.
Creating a design that has customer support is the start of a program. Later, however, technical difficulties can arise. If they do, maintaining the customer focus and not lowering the technical specification are essential for subsequent adoption.
- Customer-designed varieties: Seed organizations require portfolios that meet a wide range of stakeholders’ needs in different regions.
- Multi-disciplinary inputs: Stakeholders along the entire value chain need to be able to inform scientists about their various requirements.
- Scaling up production: Breeding strategies need to enable cost-effective large-scale seed production.
- Public breeding capacity: Many African countries lack capacity for demand-driven crop breeding. Opportunities for investment in National Agriculture Research Systems need to be identified.
- Enabling environment: Governments need, for example, to encourage public-private partnerships, easy transport of germplasm and speedy registration of varieties that meet customer demand.
- Public-private partnerships: PPPs can greatly boost seed scale-up. They enable public sector breeders to access information, germplasm and routes to better farmer adoption. The private sector can access more testing capability and tailor new varieties to strengthen commercial seed channels.
Training for the future – Pan-African educators supporting breeders
A group of Pan-African educators has recognized the need to address plant breeders’ lack of knowledge and expertise about markets and drivers. They have been working together since the end of 2014 to identify best practices in the public and private sectors. They have created a “state-of-the-art” education module for use in PhD, MSc and continual professional development programs. Its aim is to train the next generation of African breeders on how to serve both farmers and their markets.
See what Pan-African educators have to say:
Rowland Chirwa (South African Bean Research Network), Demand-led markets and demand-led breeding
Agyemang Danquah (WACCI), Ghana's tomato industry: 'demand-led' breeding in practice
Eric Danquah (WACCI), "Demand leads the way"
Appolinaire Djikeng (BecA-ILRI Hub), Sharpening the tools we already have
Jean Claude Rubyogo (CIAT/PABRA), Avoiding the “Airline Syndrome”
Hussein Shimelis (ACCI), "The work has only just begun"
Pangirayi Tongoona (WACCI), Towards food security
Nasser Yao (BeCA-ILRI Hub), Demand-led genetics and molecular breeding
The Demand-led Information Platform
A wide range of papers are in use for the demand-led training publications and as direct information sources. This list will continue to evolve.
Useful links and further information:
- Here are DLB-related interviews with two of our partners, Eric Danquah (2016) and Gabrielle Persley (2017).
- Access the full-length paper. Demand-driven plant variety design.
- AgPartnerXChange: for information about demand-driven R&d. This innovative platform aims to improve the capacity for public-private partnerships that engage smallholders. Here, for example, is the site's paper on "Scaling Demand".
- The first-ever ‘demand-led’ training session, run in Kenya for bean breeders from 15 countries.
- In November 2015, our Senior Scientific Advisor, Vivienne Anthony, addressed TropAg, a new biennial conference on the science of tropical farming. Her presentation asked: "Can demand-driven breeding increase smallholder adoption?"
- In November 2014, African educators met to develop training materials for breeders. SFSA was closely involved. Here's what happened.
- On World Food Day 2014, the Alliance for Agricultural R&D for Food Security announced its first project. This aims to ensure that new crop varieties better meet the needs of African smallholders. The new initiative brings together our Foundation and Australian partners. Here's the media release.
- "Demand led plant variety design for emerging markets in Africa"
(Paper by the Australian International Food Security Centre)
- "Demand-led innovative R&D"
(Presentation by Viv Anthony, SFSA)
- Change management in agriculture to achieve smallholder impact at scale,