The benefits of improved varieties generated by research are realized only when these varieties are actually used and grown by farmers—the intended beneficiaries. However, the path from research farms to farmers’ fields is not as simple and straightforward as it may seem.
Although the processes for approval and release of new varieties of crops such as cowpea and maize are basically similar across countries in sub-Saharan Africa, specific procedures and steps still vary from country to country. Generally, the authority to release new varieties of maize and cowpea is vested on the National Variety Release Committee (NVRC) of each country. Research organizations such as IITA and national research institutes help to push forward the release process.
The variety release process involves several steps and activities. The plant breeder of an institution that intends to release a variety completes and submits standard variety release nomination forms to the country’s NVRC. Before this, the nominated variety should have undergone rigorous testing in several locations, at different levels (i.e., on-station and on-farm), and over a number of years to prove its superior qualities and performance.
A study undertaken by IITA in 2007/2008, under the auspices of the project Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, defined the time taken to release elite maize varieties,
summarized the variety release requirements and procedures in 13 project countries, identified constraints to the release of elite germplasm to smallholder farmers, and proposed strategies to speed up the release of new varieties. Results showed that the composition of the NVRCs and the variety testing and release processes differed considerably among countries. In several situations, the public sector dominated the NVRC’s variety-approval meetings.
In general, the systems in place resulted in delays in the release of new varieties. In some cases, the system allowed only a few varieties to be released at any given time. As variety release is costly and repetitive (the
same variety must be tested in all countries where it is being targeted for marketing), the delay means that the return on investment is also pushed back as seed companies—who often invest heavily in the development of new varieties—have no option but to wait for varieties to be released before they can start selling or marketing them.
The lack of an effective variety release system in sub-Saharan Africa was identified as a major impediment to the transfer to smallholder farmers of already available elite maize varieties and, therefore, constituted a major constraint to increased maize production and productivity. Furthermore, most of the NVRCs lacked good coordination and were holding meetings only once a year to consider varieties for release. That is not often enough, given the number of improved varieties being developed and nominated for release every year. Seed laws were also too rigid as data from one country where a variety had been tested could not be used as a basis for its release in another country, even though both countries had similar agroecologies. This further delayed the release process as the same variety needed to be retested in every country where it was intended to be released.
In addition, national variety lists and catalogues were not being updated regularly, making it difficult for seed companies to commercialize improved varieties. Only a few countries also had Plant Breeders’ Rights
(PBR) thus discouraging many private seed companies from introducing their best products because the protection of such products could not be guaranteed. The private sector had dominated varietal releases in Eastern and Southern Africa. In West Africa variety release had been mainly from the public sector because there were fewer seed companies operating in the region. Southern Africa has the highest rates of varietal release and adoption of improved maize varieties.
Making the variety release process more efficient
IITA, working with partners, consequently developed and recommended several strategies to streamline the varietal release process and rates based on results of the survey.
First, we recommended that regional standards for PBR should be promoted to allow plant breeding programs to generate income from the products of their research through royalties. This would allow the private and public sectors to benefit from the products of research and lead to more investments in varietal improvement.
Secondly, West Africa would benefit from the free flow of germplasm across national boundaries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) if the regional variety release process were to be harmonized. Thus, varieties released in one country should be considered automatically released in other countries with similar agroecologies, an approach already proposed and endorsed by ECOWAS. Megaenvironments and adaptation zones
cut across country boundaries, therefore varieties should be released based on mega-environments to create a larger seed market and quicken the pace of diffusion and use of newly released varieties.
Thirdly, because only a few countries accept data from other countries for variety release, we recommended that testing should not be mandatory for varieties already released in other countries if the recommendation domain is the same, thereby eliminating the need for retesting of varieties from country to country, saving resources and quickening variety release.
Fourthly, it was noted that registration should be simplified so that only important VCU and DUS information would be required to distinguish a new variety from the others. The DUS information should be from one season as it is affected very little by the environment.
Fifthly, breeders’ own data should be used to support variety release thereby eliminating the need for the National Performance Trials (NPTs). Few locations should be required for release and emphasis should be on locations where the variety would be recommended for production.
Finally, breeders should embark on limited production of breeder seeds and marketing rather than waiting until the variety was fully released as this prolonged the time before a variety reached the farmers.
Growth rates of maize production in West Africa.
Output (million tons)
Output (million tons)