Tigray is the northernmost region of Ethiopia. It was the region worst affected by the famine of the 1980s, and frequently suffers severe droughts. It is home to almost 4.5 million people, 80% of whom live in rural areas and depend largely on subsistence agriculture. The traditional cereal crop is Tef or Teff (Eragrostis tef), a grass-like plant with small seeds which is used to make injera, a large flat round bread, but many other cereals, including wheat, are also grown.
|The location of Tigray in Ethiopia. Map: Wikipedia|
|Harvesting Teff in Northern Ethiopia. Photo: A Davey, licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.|
We worked with local partners there in a project funded by Irish Aid from 2007 to 2010 to achieve a breakthrough in increasing the food security of poor farmers in the region. Using the client-oriented methods pioneered by Prof John Witcombe, we identified two Indian wheat varieties, adapted to Ethiopian conditions, which give higher yields when rainfall is scarce.
Working with Mekelle Agricultural Research Centre (MARC), and Tigray Agricultural Research Institute, Mekelle (TARI), local farmers made decisions about what elements of the different varieties were important to them. This method is called is called participatory varietal selection or PVS, and CARIAD is a world-leading exponent of its use. Farmers often identify traits such as taste and quality, which are not tested for in traditional breeding programmes. PSV methods, which can be used anywhere, have already identified many farmer-preferred varieties of different crops. In India and Nepal, DFID-funded studies have shown that varieties of rice and maize identified using these methods have been widely adopted, leading to substantial improvements in the food security of resource-poor farming families. They are also highly effective in maintaining or even increasing on-farm biodiversity, as a wider range of crop varieties is grown, each occupying a specific niche in the cropping system.
PVS involves farmers in the research from the start, and is highly effective in identifying varieties suited to their needs and preferences, particularly in drought-affected or infertile areas. Farmers work with CARIAD and local partners to identify new varieties that suit their particular needs for yield, flavour and time to maturity. These are then widely distributed through farmer-to-farmer contact, and community-based systems can be set up to provide enough good quality seed to farmers.
Here, the two varieties were tested against a locally-recommended check variety, HAR 2501, by 32 farmers at different locations in Tigray during 2008 and 2009. The variety HI-1418 produced 2.3 t ha-1 grain, and HUW-468 2.5 t ha-1, compared with 2.0 t ha-1 for the check, increases of 15 and 25%. Because they mature around 2 weeks earlier than the check variety, the new varieties are much more drought tolerant, especially at the critical pre-harvest period. They also have good straw production, do not lodge (fall over), and have high disease resistance and good cooking quality. The grains of both varieties are hard, large and amber coloured, all traits that farmers prefer.
|Project staff and farmers in Mekelle inspecting the new varieties. Photo: DS Virk|
The two farmer-preferred varieties will provide food for many hungry people in Ethiopia. Before the project, farmers in the region preferred traditional low-yielding varieties, as the locally-recommended modern varieties were too late to mature. However, during the testing, the farmers overwhelmingly preferred the new varieties, over both the traditional and the modern varieties, and were keen to grow them again if seed were available.
The proposal by TARI to release the varieties nationally for cultivation in drought prone areas was accepted by the Ethiopian National Variety Release Committee in February 2011. According to Dr Eyasu of the Mekelle Agricultural Research Centre (MARC), they are “the first varieties ever released by MARC and TARI, and this would not have possible without the help of CARIAD.”
TARI now plans a major programme of seed production and will disseminate these varieties widely in rainfed, drought-affected areas. They will benefit over 350,000 households on the 210,000 ha in Tigray and the Southern regions where wheat is grown.
The selected varieties have also been tested in Southern Ethiopia as part of the same project. Dr Virk had initially identified them in a PVS project in Gujarat, India, funded by the from 1996 to 2002 and managed by Bangor University.