Seed Systems in Mali and Other West African Countries

Based on reporting by Eva Weltzien-Rattunde and Mamourou Sidibe as well as deep dive M&E work and interviews with project leaders.


With high population growth, large proportions of rural populations, and high levels of malnutrition, including micronutrient deficiencies, Mali and the Sahel region in general rank among the lowest on the United Nations Human Develop­ment Index. Seed Systems in Mali is a long-term project now led by Baloua Nebie following Eva Weltzien-Rattunde’s retirement from ICRISAT in 2016. It focuses on various aspects of participatory breeding for improving sorghum- and millet-based systems in the Sahel region. The project has from its inception in 2006 worked with a network of large farmer organizations in all three West Africa CoP countries. The research network orientation taken by this project was seen as a promising approach for building capacities for expanding farmers’ seed systems. A key aspect was to expand farmers’ capacities in terms of increasing the crop and varietal diversity in their systems. A network of variety testers, seed producers, and seed marketing specialists was built within these farmer organizations to enhance the reach of the seed.


For the FRN Deep Dive activities, only the Malian partners and activities of the Seed System III project were concerned. The main partners were Cooprosem (a farmer seed cooperative in Siby commune started in 2003); Institut d’Économie Rurale (IER), ICRISAT, and ULPC (a union of farmer cooperatives in the Dioila district started in the late 1990s for cooperative grain marketing). The collaboration started in 2006 and has since 2016 received support from the McKnight Foundation for its sorghum breeding and seed system activities.

Research Activities

The Seed System III project objectives were to identify institutional and social measures that contribute to, limit, and/or sustain farmer managed seed enterprises. It focused specifically on communication tools that enhance uptake of new varieties or hybrids of traditional cereal crops by small-scale farmers in Mali. Initiating studies on gender relevant consequences resulting from the dissemination of specific cultivars of sorghum and associated crops was a feature as well.

The partners identified key components of sustainability for seed enterprises managed by farmers and their organizations: continued varietal improvement and capacity for local seed sales as well as the functioning of the farmer union and its ability to serve its members effectively.

In Phase III, the partners continued to work on building skills and refining tools for farmer managed variety identification for future seed production. Additionally, they initiated specific studies and actions around seed sales and organizational effectiveness with the farmer cooperatives and union.

A number of simultaneous activities needed to take place on both the agronomic and organizational levels. For example, work was done on varietal development and testing not only for sorghum and millet but also for several legumes, and farmers applied the tools to other crops of their choosing. Farmers developed a process for identifying varieties appropriate for specific contexts (OxC). Farmer-developed tools and approaches provide other farmers with information about the new varieties and what will likely perform best in their farm system. Data collection has been simplified to limit the number of required field visits, given that trial fields are often far from the home. Data on harvest yields are collected and culinary tests are conducted in the trial villages. Gender differences in terms of varietal needs and knowledge about specific traits are highly significant.

The collaborative learning around seed dissemination options and its linkages to the cooperatives’ organizational effectiveness advanced simultaneously. This involved training farmer facilitators, creating new structures (local seed committees), and ensuring equitable sharing of benefits while monitoring the application and modification of the unions’ bylaws.

What This Project Is Helping Us Learn About FRNs

Each FRN project provides opportunities for learning on specific aspects of what it means to build and manage a farmer research network.

A strong network makes scaling easier: Seed Systems III has a large network of farmer groups and a long history of working with them. A major learning of this FRN is that when you have a strong existing network, one can easily fit options to contexts since farmers are the leaders in these discussions and feedback sessions, defining contexts and identifying and describing suitable options. One can also more easily add a new dimension of collaboration, such as seed production and dissemination, once new varieties have been successfully identified or added to the work with other crops.

FRNs may require innovative approaches to build organizational effectiveness: Another major learning is the importance of paying attention to organizational factors and building organizational effectiveness. In discussions with relevant types of members it came out that the farmers’ union had a centralized decision-making and communication structure, especially with respect to seed sale decisions. The creation of local seed committees was proposed and implemented, giving the farmer facilitators more flexibility and room for their own initiatives. These committees fostered more horizontal communication and sharing as well as coordination between cooperatives in their communes (village-level). In the process, it became clear that the “strength” of the union of cooperatives really depends on the level of engagement of the individual members in their own cooperatives.

Facilitation is crucial: Having local facilitators who are well-trained for variety testing and other research methods has made it possible to scale up. The number of tests increased, so research could be done with a large N. While this presents challenges in terms of compiling results and providing feedback, it would not be possible without the facilitators. They supervise the tests, collect the data, do planning, manage protocols, and more, all in the local language. These facilitators can thus assist individual cooperatives to take up initiatives, such as providing seed on credit to some members, or conducting demonstration plots under specific growing conditions in their area.

Feedback and planning supports engagement: Holding end-of-season workshops (bilans annuels) is an effective way to engage not only the farmer but other local actors in many stages of the research process. Participants represent different actor groups from the various villages or communities. At these workshops farmers present their experiences, impressions of specific trials, new varieties, seed production results, and more. Researchers present an overview of the analyses conducted on the trial data from the past season. Based on these insights, using small working groups, the workshop proposes the activities, options, and conditions for the next season. Once these options for new activities have been agreed upon by the workshop participants, the facilitators provide feedback to their village/community and elicit interests of individuals to conduct specific types of trials, seed production, or agronomic experiments.

Seed systems are social systems. Sorghum seed and millet seed are not sold in Western African cultures: Seeds are given as gifts or exchanged but not for money. Moreover, it is considered a dishonor not to have one’s own seed since a good farmer is able to produce and keep seed from year to year. This project used farmer engagement and the power of the network to find solutions to these cultural constraints and help build a seed system that can disseminate new options for different contexts and support people’s livelihoods.

Women must be involved: A final lesson about FRNs is concerning the importance of ensuring that women can engage at every stage and attend each event. In Mali and elsewhere, women and men do not have the same production priorities, constraints, and ways of working; thus, they do not have the same needs in terms of varieties. In addition, women’s role in the household places them in a central position to have an impact on nutrition. This project therefore made it a condition that a group of women be involved in all trials.

Community of Practice:

Farmer research network (FRN), West Africa