Hybrid Millet Varieties to Boost Production in West Africa

Millet is an important staple food for most people in the Sahel and West Africa. It is an important food crop for the food security of most countries in the sub-region. It often accounts for more than 30 percent of total cereal production. National and regional development plans rely on millet to ensure food and nutritional security for the population.

However, despite the increase in millet production in recent years, there are still significant shortfalls between production and increased demand for millet. Therefore, improving the productivity of millet production is a major challenge in terms of food security in the region.

Expanding millet productivity to meet the demand of the growing population of Burkina Faso and West Africa in general, requires innovative research solutions adapted to climate change.

In Burkina Faso, a team of breeders from the National Institute for the Environment and Agricultural Research (INERA), in partnership with ICRISAT and other National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS), has developed high-yielding hybrid millet varieties. They are resistant to the primary millet disease called “mildiou”. Inoussa Drabo, a plant breeder in charge of millet breeding and improvement at INERA, is part of the team that led to the development of these hybrid millet varieties. In the following interview, he talks about how the team managed to develop and make available to farmers, processors, and consumers, millet varieties adapted to the agro-climatic conditions and users’ needs. Read on…

What prompted the creation of these hybrid millet varieties?

Dr. Drabo: Millet is an allogamous plant. For these plants, the varietal types are population varieties and hybrids. Population varieties are a mixture of several varieties, which are not uniform and have low yield potential. On the other hand, the hybrid expresses a phenomenon called “heterosis”. Heterosis is an unexpected vigor that the plant will express when it is the result of a cross between two carefully selected individuals with a good specific aptitude for combination. In other words, the hybrid millet has a higher yield potential than population varieties. The hybrid is homogeneous and very uniform in terms of size, length of the ears, color and size of the grains, and maturity cycle. Besides, the hybrids we develop are earlier and well adapted.

How did you come up with these new millet varieties?

Dr. Drabo: This hybrid’s success was made possible thanks to a collaborative effort between ICRISAT, which is to be commended and INERA. The crosses started at ICRISAT. We made a selection, then we went on to multiply the seeds for multi-local tests in a station for two years, then in the demonstration in a farming environment for two years. In view of the very satisfactory results and the farmers’ positive appreciation, we started the process of registration in the national variety catalog in Burkina Faso. This consisted of conducting Distinctness, Uniformity, and Stability (DUS) and Agronomic and Technological Value (VAT) tests as required by the National Seed Committee of Burkina Faso. And at the end of these tests, a file was compiled and submitted to the National Seed Committee of Burkina Faso for approval.

Hybrid millet field

Can you tell us about the characteristics of this new hybrid millet variety? And how is it different from other millet varieties?

Dr. Drabo: This hybrid millet variety has a potential yield of 4 tons per hectare. This is almost double the yield potential of existing varieties. Also, this hybrid, in particular, has a double advantage because it matures while the leaves are still green. This has a high added value as fodder for animal feed. This hybrid is uniform, and all plants mature at practically the same time, which makes it possible to plan the harvest well and avoid losses. It has a short cycle of 85 to 90 days.

How long did your research take, and what were the difficulties and constraints throughout the process? 

Dr. Drabo: The process took about ten years, from the creation of the parents to the first crosses between parents, the selection of the hybrid, the multi-location tests in the station and on the farm, and the registration in the national seed catalog in Burkina Faso.

How have farmers reacted to this new hybrid millet variety?

Dr. Drabo: Demonstration tests were conducted by more than 500 producers in Burkina Faso. They have very positively appreciated this hybrid variety. Productivity, grain size, earliness, and the fact that it matures while the leaves remain fresh and green are the traits that have required the attention of farmers.

What is planned to facilitate large-scale access by farmers to this new hybrid millet variety?

Dr. Drabo: The seed multiplication process is already underway. We have had the hybrid itself tested by three large local seed companies in Burkina Faso, and at the same time, they have been trained in seed production techniques. During this cropping season 2020, more than 10 hectares of seed production will be set up by the largest company in Burkina Faso – NAFASO.

What are the prospects in terms of millet breeding in Burkina Faso?

Dr. Drabo: The prospects for millet breeding in Burkina Faso are that other hybrid varieties with better performance than what has just been released will soon be released. So, we are working in collaboration with NARS in the sub-region to strengthen and modernize our breeding programs. The latest is through the West Africa Breeding Networks and Extension Empowerment (ABEE), a European Union-funded project, coordinated by CORAF. ICRISAT also supports this initiative for the modernization of breeding programs, within the framework of the AVISA project funded by the Bill Gate Foundation. Ultimately, this will enable us to go faster thanks to the use of molecular tools. So, we are now working on product profiles. In other words, we are developing varieties that incorporate the traits desired by the various actors in the value chain (farmers, processors, sellers, and consumers).

Do you have any appeal or advice for farmers or actors in the agricultural sector?

Dr. Drabo: We call on agricultural stakeholders to use the results of research and invest in modernizing their agriculture for a while. Hybrids have changed agriculture in the United States, in Asia (China, India, etc.). If we adopt hybrids in Africa, a lot of things will change, and it will be our green revolution too.

Field visit with farmers


What they said about these hybrid varieties

Ladji de Bala (producer in the commune of Satiri, in the province of Houet): This hybrid millet will boost millet production in our village. Before, millet was our parents’ main crop. But now, the yields of our local varieties have become low and also the cycle is very long. As there is high-yielding maize with a short cycle, everyone has switched to maize. This hybrid millet variety is very productive and the cycle is really very short. I had the seed to make two hectares. Everyone in the village came to watch like it was a movie. There are more than 50 people in the village who each want to grow 5 ha of this variety next year. They told me to help them get the seed. For me, this hybrid is doubly beneficial. Because it has reached maturity, and all its leaves are still very green. It is good food for our animals.

Abdoulaye Sawadogo (CEO of NAFASO, the largest seed company in Burkina Faso): I am convinced that this hybrid variety will make a big difference in millet production in Burkina Faso and the sub-region. We are committed to the seed production. We shall make sure it is available to producers and promoted beyond Burkina Faso.

Paul Ouédraogo (Retired research technician in Fada): I received a sample that I sowed in my roadside field. When the ears came out, the field became an object of attraction for passers-by. No one could pass by without stopping to take a better look. They asked me for the seed to try. I explained that it’s a hybrid and that if someone takes from my field to go sow, it’s not going to be the same thing. The farmers are very interested in this hybrid variety.

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