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By Feed the Future editorial team
  • Department of Global Development
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Plant Breeding and Genetics Section
  • Agriculture
  • Global Development
  • Plants

In West Africa, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement (ILCI) works with smallholder farmers and rural populations to develop sustainable crop innovations that address climate change and other social challenges. Based in Cornell CALS' Department of Global Development, ILCI equips National Agricultural Research Institutes with the power to define their unique goals and drive advancement in crop improvement to reduce malnutrition, hunger and provide equitable benefits to women and youth. 

When an unexpected drought or dry spell descends upon agriculture-dependent economies in West Africa, already-vulnerable smallholder farmers bear the brunt. A missed growing season makes it difficult for farmers to provide for themselves or their families and leaves their communities without food. As the climate crisis worsens, farmers around the world will need solutions that protect their livelihoods and keep their communities nourished.

For Crop Innovation in West Africa (CIWA), co-led by Ndjido Kane and Marème Niang Belko of the Institute for Agricultural Research in Senegal, this effort starts with climate-resilient seeds. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement, led by Cornell University, works with local research institutions like CIWA to develop and disseminate seeds adapted for local agriculture.

In Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger, CIWA provides these climate-resilient seeds for three regional crop staples: sorghum, pearl millet and cowpea. These crops have traditionally been in short supply at a national level, a problem which has only worsened due to climate-related fluctuations in rainfall and other climate shocks. For smallholder farmers, these powerful seeds mean improved food security and economic resilience.

CIWA is also enhancing the crops’ natural attributes to increase crop productivity. While these cereals and legumes are already nutrient-rich and heat- and drought- tolerant, CIWA’s enhancements boost nutritional content and allow crops to grow quicker and produce even greater yields, even in the face of worsening environmental changes. These seeds are tackling both malnutrition and climate change at the same time.

“Most of the farmers in West Africa are smallholders and earn their livelihood through rain-fed agriculture that is underperforming due to climate change,” Niang Belko said. “CIWA is working to help and contribute to enhancing smallholder farmers’ production capacities and economic and social resilience.”

While CIWA’s mission is driven by the broad impact of climate change on smallholder farmers in West Africa, its approach also reflects the unique needs of the local communities in which it operates. Working closely with smallholder farmers and rural community members, CIWA develops “breeding product profiles” for each crop. The profiles document the needs, preferences and demands of the farmers and community members, with special emphasis on the needs of women and vulnerable groups knowing that climate change disproportionately impacts those with existing financial and social inequities.

“If we are not working with smallholder farmers to address their priorities, we end up developing crops they will not adopt,” Kane said. “This is why CIWA’s approach is one of cocreation and co-execution.”

CIWA manages these priorities for crop development by involving researchers who specialize in specific social issues, such as economic resilience and gender equity. These two approaches – the development of community-informed product profiles and the inclusion of specialized experts – allow CIWA to address community priorities more effectively and holistically.

“As scientists, we all want our work to make an impact, for our science to be used, and to contribute to a better livelihood for the population,” Kane said. “CIWA is really intent on considering how we can, together, speed up crop innovation by taking a more inclusive and participatory approach from the beginning.”

This article was originally written and published by Feed the Future. 

Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement brings together scientists and stakeholders from around the world to co-develop and implement crop improvement tools, technologies and methods that are adjusted to fit the unique needs of each community. 

Discover more about the global work at the ILCI website

A woman kneels in a maize field to examine a plant

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