Dual-Purpose Seeds in Senegal Make Life Easier and More Profitable for Farmers
Innovative, specially-bred dual-purpose millet and cowpea seed varieties can be grown on the same plot of land at the same time and grow bigger plants faster.
Every day in their southwestern Senegal home, second-generation farmer Ousmane Willane and his family of 20 eat a millet-based porridge for breakfast, and cowpea — known as the black-eyed pea in America — with rice or couscous for dinner. Millet and cowpea are dietary staples in Senegal, and Willane has been farming both for around two years.
In 2021, Willane, a participant in the Peace Corps Senegal Master Farmer program, was selected to grow dual-purpose millet and cowpea. The Master Farmer program is a joint effort between Peace Corps Senegal and Feed the Future. Eighty Senegalese farmers took part in the program, which ended in April. Program leaders provided farmers with a demonstration plot, farming equipment and other inputs, as well as dual-purpose millet and cowpea seeds. Scientists have bred these seeds to be dual-purpose (i.e., they simultaneously produce more quality grain for human consumption and more quality fodder for livestock), more drought-resistant and nutrient-dense and crucially, farmers can grow them on the same plot at the same time. Scientists have also improved the agronomy, or the crop production, of the improved varieties by increasing planting densities (i.e., nearly double), supporting even greater productivity and profitability with reduced labor requirements due to crowding out weeds.
With dual-purpose seeds paired with improved field crop production and soil management, there’s no need to cultivate multiple plots for each use, which saves farmers time, labor and land — that’s key at a time when the Senegalese population is growing and farmland is being lost to the construction of buildings and roads, according to Arfang Sekou Sadio, associate Peace Corps director of the agriculture program in Senegal.
“Promoting dual-purpose [seed] varieties is crucial to maintaining and increasing agricultural production, feeding people and animals and spending less money on food imports,” Sadio said.
The dual-purpose millet and cowpea seeds led Willane’s plants to grow more quality grain and more quality livestock feed, allowing him to make more profit and provide for his family on the same area of land. Within 20 days of his first planting of the dual-purpose millet seeds, Willane was happy to see how quickly the plants had grown, and other farmers in his area commented on the plants’ size and color. His dual-purpose cowpea seeds yielded ripe plants in less than 55 days, compared to approximately 90 days the plants can take to mature, said Aliou Faye, who works with Willane and is the country coordinator for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sustainable Intensification. Faye explained that dual-purpose seeds can produce up to three tons of produce per two and a half acres per year, while typical seed varieties produce less than one ton on the same acreage. This can generate hundreds more dollars for farmers, Faye estimates.
“Dual purpose [crops] give people the opportunity to feed everyone in their family and you have some more [leftover] you can sell,” Faye said.
Millet and cowpea are important in Senegal for a few key reasons. People consume millet not only on an everyday basis, but also at religious celebrations and at events such as funerals, baptisms and weddings, according to Sadio. Cowpea, meanwhile, is a short-cycle crop that’s well-adapted to erratic rainfall, extreme heat and nutrient-deficient soils. The leaves and stems of the plant are also used as animal feed, and when farmers plant both dual-purpose seed varieties on the same plot — known as “intercropping” — their increased plant density shade the soil faster, reducing evaporation of precious water from the soil and reducing weed growth.
The Senegal Master Farmers program is an example of how innovations in seed technology can support food security in the country, and Willane’s success is a powerful example. Since his participation, he sells his extra bounty to local buyers, and has used his profits to build sturdier homes for his family. He has now become a farming influencer of sorts in his community, sharing knowledge and training with his neighbors.
“These high-yielding varieties need to be promoted to ensure sustainable food security for our country,” Willane said.