I never knew the significance behind breeding seeds, or that it could even be done to produce beneficial results. Without understanding the exact science behind it, I can emphasize that it’s very important – important enough to be able to lift lives out of poverty.


My most recent assignment was here in Tanzania with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation photographing agricultural projects. (If you frequent my blog, you’ll know this subject is familiar territory.) Since 2006, the Gates Foundation has supported an organization headed by Kofi Annan called Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). The grantee’s goal is to spark the same agricultural revolution that led to India’s self-sufficiency in grain foods beginning in the mid 1960’s. This is done partially through the Gates PASS (Program for Africa’s Seed Systems) initiative, whose projects I photographed in recent days.


In the 1990’s, an epidemic called Cassava Brown Streak Disease began terrorizing farmers throughout the Zanzibar Archipelago, a series of islands off Tanzania’s eastern coast. Cassava was grown by over 90% of rural households until production all but came to a halt in the early part of this decade. AGRA quickly noticed the devastating consequences of the loss of the staple crop and began empowering local scientists to breed new varieties of cassava that were resistant to the disease. Today, farmers successfully cultivate the crop throughout the archipelago.


Breeding new, disease resistant varieties of crops takes years of educated trial and error. Researchers use their knowledge of dominant and recessive genes combined with expertise in cultivation and crop varieties to make newer, stronger versions, gradually breeding out the unhealthy qualities and leaving in the good. The bulk of this is done in the field amid crop rows, where researchers get their hands dirty – not behind a microscope.


Better, stronger cassava varieties don’t just mean that a family has ample food for the table. Increased crop yields equate to sales at the market after nutritional needs at home have been met. Income generated from market sales can be quite significant. Farmers not only now make a business of selling cassava root, but also the cassava cuttings: small branches placed in the ground that take root, becoming new trees. The sales of his disease resistant cuttings also help to disseminate these better varieties throughout the islands.


More and more, the global development community is realizing that agriculture must be a key concentration in poverty reduction. The majority of the world’s poor live in rural areas after all, where if income is earned, it is usually through farming and animal husbandry. The Gates Foundation, known more for its emphasis on health care and education, has taken broad action in providing top quality seeds to farmers throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.


Abundant corn, sesame, and sunflower grow in a Tanseed International demonstration field on Tanzania’s mainland. Like a car dealership showplace, these fields stand gleaming on roadsides throughout the region telling farmers, “This could be you.”


Educating the public by demonstrating the product of good seeds is necessary. The majority of Africa’s farmers do not buy their seeds in stores but instead use what has been saved from the previous year’s harvest. Unwilling, or unable, to make a small financial investment that could double production in a given harvest, most farmers scrape by with smaller yields.


Tanseed is the only company in the region focused on providing quality, locally produced seeds. Other companies selling seeds in the area’s shops have bred their products hundreds or even a thousand miles away in Kenya or Zambia. This company is familiar with the nuances of the local breeds of crops, and the results show.


Even though Tanseed is a private, for-profit institution, its impact was recognized by AGRA in the last three years. Through the Gates Foundation, and AGRA, Tanseed is able to continually breed better kinds of seeds, produce them in large quantities, and sell them to small farmers at an affordable price.


A better seed is a great start, but it can only get you so far. Proper agricultural techniques must be implemented to insure abundant yields. Having a genuine interest in seeing the surrounding community flourish, Tanseed works with local government agricultural extension workers (like social workers for small farmers) to insure that best practices are carried out from planting to harvest.


Concrete results are sometimes actually concrete. Above, a farmer attributes her family’s new house, habitable though still under construction, to last year’s increased crop yields.


The PASS seed project has particular impact because it addresses challenges that are experienced at a local level. However, the same process is implemented in localities throughout 13 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Though in existence for just three years now, it has already begun to have an impact, and will continue to change lives as more farmers have access to higher quality seeds.


All photographs Copyright 2009