National and local seed systems that produce and distribute quality seed are an indispensable pillar of healthy agriculture and global food security. However, 80 to 90 percent of food grains in many developing countries still depend on informal seed systems that consist of recycling seed of older varieties saved during harvest and uncoordinated exchanges of seed among farmers.

Meanwhile, public sector seed systems in many of these countries often lack efficiency and market orientation. Farmers' current dependency on weak seed systems results in the slow adoption of new improved varieties, low yields, and heightened susceptibility to crop diseases, imperiling food security at the household, national and global levels.

The International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) drew on its expertise to work with countries—including Egypt, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Yemen—to implement a project during the 2011/12 cropping season to strengthen seed systems by supporting variety testing and release, seed production and distribution, the popularization of new disease-resistant varieties, and building institutional capacity.

ICARDA's work has focused on reducing the threat of wheat rust diseases—the potential threat of stem rust (black rust) and the current attacks over the past four years by yellow rust (stripe rust) that have damaged wheat harvests in large areas. The emergence in 1999 of a virulent strain of wheat stem rust called 'Ug99' and its rapid spread through parts of Africa and the Middle East has raised alarm among the international community.

Most widely cultivated wheat varieties are susceptible to this fungus. ICARDA has helped with rapid deployment of rust-resistant and high-yielding varieties to replace existing commercial varieties susceptible to rust. In 2012, ICARDA's partners in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Pakistan evaluated several promising lines for final release. In Ethiopia, for example, three bread wheat varieties (one from ICARDA) and two durum wheat varieties (from ICARDA) were released for large-scale commercialization.

Egypt has produced nearly 11,000 tons of seed of two new rust-resistant varieties by its public and private sector, enough to plant some 6 percent of the land devoted to wheat in the coming year. In Ethiopia, the production of more than 27,000 tons of seed of two new rust-resistant varieties by public sector enterprises will be enough to plant around 10 percent of its total wheat area. In Pakistan, some 11,780 tons of seed of one rust-resistant bread wheat variety was multiplied by the private and public sector sufficient for about 10 percent of the area in southern Punjab.

In Egypt, the National Wheat Research Program carried out 1,233 demonstrations across 23 governorates to disseminate knowledge about the new varieties and their associated agronomic practices. Some 450 fields were planted with the two newly-released wheat cultivars 'Misr1' and 'Misr2', both of which are resistant to 'Ug99'. The demonstration plots showed that farmers using the new varieties can increase their grain yield by around 20 percent.

ICARDA is working in other areas, including the Arabian Peninsula for crop and seed improvement. It is not the only organization working in Africa for seed improvement and educating growers in new technology, including higher quality seed. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and partner organizations are helping to build the human capacity of seed companies, which contribute to food security by ensuring farmers have access to quality seed.

CIMMYT organizes regular training sessions for seed companies in different countries across Africa, in collaboration with the Seed Enterprise Management Institute (SEMIs) project, which is funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) and hosted at the University of Nairobi College of Agriculture and Veterinary Services.

“AGRA realized that many seed companies across the continent lacked knowledge on seed production, processing, marketing and aspects of seed quality,” said David Ndung’u, project manager for the SEMIs project. Both AGRA and CIMMYT receive funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In the past three years, SEMIs has trained more than 450 seed producers from 17 Sub-Saharan African countries, including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

“This training has been identified as one of the triggers for the huge increase in production of high-quality seed by AGRA-funded seed companies all over Sub-Saharan Africa,” Ndung’u said. The seed production course, taught by John MacRobert, seed systems lead for CIMMYT, is among the most popular with seed companies, Ndung’u said.

The trainings emphasize cooperative learning while providing technical information and management tools. CIMMYT seed systems specialists also made more than 80 follow-up visits to seed company partners in 2013.

“To be a great ‘seeds man’ you really need to understand your plants well,” said Ndung’u. “My knowledge and understanding were greatly enhanced during my time at CIMMYT.