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.

Here's news of a 2018 DLB workshop for Zimbabwean plant breeders. 

In November 2017, we and partners were very busy at the TropAg conference in Brisbane, Australia.  Among other activities, the Demand-Led Breeding team launched a book: "The Business of Plant Breeding / Market led approaches to new variety design". Published by CABI, the ISBN is 139781786393814. 


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
  • seed

 Adoption of new varieties by smallholders depends on more than just their intrinsic benefits.  Good quality seed needs to be:

  • available
  • affordable
  • accessible

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 aspectsAgronomic performance

Cooking qualities
Storage life
Nutritional qualities

Yield in different climates and soils
Resistance to extreme weather
Response to fertilizer and crop protection
Resistance to key pests and diseases
Water usage
Germination time and growth cycle
Ease of harvesting
Quality and yield of animal fodder

Crop and food processingSeed production

Resilience to transport
Suitability as raw materials
Speed of processing
Quality of end-product

Germination rates
Propagation and production
Resistance to seed-borne disease

Seed sellers

Clear benefits over existing varieties
Pricing and profitability 
Access to germplasm
Intellectual property and other rights
Certification systems

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

May 2016

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: