Why access to hybrid sunflower seeds is key to smallholders’ prosperity

TANZANIA: TANZANIA has the potential to grow its sunflower sector rapidly. With large, fertile tracts of land and a growing demand for edible oil, sunflowers can unlock real agricultural prosperity for smallholders.

Already, our annual demand exceeds 570,000 tonnes, with a local supply capacity of only 180,000 tonnes. In fact, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) imports account for more than half of the country’s edible oil needs.

Keenly looked at over 1 million of Tanzania’s smallholders are involved in sunflower farming and production. Tanzania is among the top ten largest sunflower producing countries globally and Africa’s second leading producer.

Although this data positions Tanzania as an important player in the edible oil marketplace, roadblocks exist. One major hurdle lies in farmers’ low adoption of high-yielding sunflower seeds due to the higher costs associated with cultivating these hybrid varieties.

Secondly, most smallholders farm for subsistence and are often reluctant to adopt these high-yielding varieties because they are biased towards producing staples like maize and beans over cash crops like sunflowers.

Even when farmers are willing to adopt these hybrid seeds, the attendant cost of fertilizer and historical practice of not applying any fertilizer on sunflowers means they often forgo it, which reduces the potential for high yields.

When farmers fail to get higher yields compared to the traditional local recycled sunflower seed, it affects their earnings, discouraging them from adopting high-yielding sunflower seed varieties and, by extension, engaging in sunflower farming in favor of food crop production.

A workable policy solution is to empower local sunflower oil producers to enhance their competitiveness while implementing measures to limit oil imports. The continued inflow of imported oil depresses the price of locally produced sunflower oil, further discouraging farmer involvement.

This price point and the high cost of hybrid seeds discourage farmers from adopting improved varieties that will help them grow more. To these farmers, the current setup means that their investment does not translate into profits.

Local production potential One Acre Fund, the social organization I work with, supports more than 180,000 Tanzanian smallholders, supplying them with quality farm inputs, including seeds and fertilizers, and training on good agricultural practices.

Our data shows that sunflower yields and farmer revenue margins can increase significantly by adopting hybrid/ improved seed varieties and proper agronomic practices, making Tanzania’s sunflower internationally competitive for sunflower oil production.

In particular, our field trials on sunflower seeds have consistently shown a yield increase of 78 per cent when using hybrid seeds compared to traditional local seed varieties. Hybrid seed also demonstrated a 90 per cent germination rate and high oil content—up to 40 per cent as opposed to 15-20 per cent on local seed varieties.

This significant difference in output has the potential to address the import gap and meaningfully improve farmer income.

However, we need to create a supportive environment for our farmers to realize these gains, from extension and training services to value addition after harvesting. For starters, making the highyielding seed varieties more affordable is crucial.

One way to do this would be for the government to subsidize the cost of research and development. Sharing costs with other organizations involved in seed production would drive down costs for organizations and ensure retail purchase prices are affordable to farmers.

Another way is to educate and encourage farmers to use good agricultural practices – including appropriate sunflower planting techniques, soil health and nutrition, and effective pest control for healthier sunflower crop production.

By supporting farmers through necessary government policies and investments as well as promoting continuous learning through regular extension and trainings, farmers can optimize yield and quality, producing enough for local consumption and export. The writer is the Impact Strategy and Innovation Senior Manager at One Acre Fund Tanzania.

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