John Mann is a firm believer that seeds matter, perhaps more than anything else in agriculture.
“You can do all the other agricultural interventions, but if you don’t have good seed, it’s not going to matter,” he said. “Every investment that a farmer makes on top of bad seed is wasted.”
As the founder of Afritec Seeds, Ltd., Mann is on a mission to equip farmers across the globe with access to high quality seeds that produce high yield crops. He is currently launching this effort in Kenya, where he has already begun working with 9,000 farmers on seed education initiatives and where he will begin selling Afritec’s hybrid rice seeds this fall. He is currently working to expand Afritec Seeds across Eastern Africa and beyond .
Now in his 30th year of working in seed technology, Mann’s background spans from time spent in the Peace Corps in Kenya to obtaining his Ph.D. at Texas A&M to working in a senior position with RiceTec in Houston for more than two decades. In 2005, he returned to Africa to develop a hybrid rice seed that has proven through testing to give farmers in Kenya a $1,275-per-hectare advantage over current seed varieties. “I don’t know of any other agricultural intervention that adds that much value to the farmer,” he said. “It certainly has the opportunity to double or triple farmer incomes.”
Mann is currently solely focused on hybrid rice seeds. Many African countries are looking to produce more rice domestically, as consumption of rice is rapidly increasing and imports are the only way to keep up with demand.
Through their research and development phase, Afritec Seeds has developed more than 2,000 female seeds, 30 of which are available for commercial use. They have also produced over 300 rice varieties in 6 African countries at 80 different testing sites across the region. Over the next 10 years, Mann expects Afritec Seeds to impact 300,000 farmers with increased yields and incomes.
That said, while Mann knows the success of the seeds’ output speak volumes in countries like Kenya, where so many smallholder farmers are struggling to produce enough food to earn an income, he also knows that one of the biggest hurdles to gaining traction in Africa will be re-educating farmers about the value of seeds and the need to invest in them. Currently, most farmers obtain seeds through the public sector, informal networks of friends and family members, or through donations from NGOs.
“There is an expectation that seed is a gift and that it doesn’t need to be bought,” Mann said. “We are strongly against that. We want our farmers to be business people … one problem is that many farmers don’t understand that good seed makes a big difference. They’re growing seed that has not been reselected for 10 generations, and because of that they’re losing 40 to 50 percent of their potential, easily.”
Mann believes that the integration of the private sector is essential to boosting Africa’s agricultural systems, which he says are suffering due to a lack of product diversity and competition.
“The seed genetics are a big deal,” he said. “And we talk about all of these issues with farmers. We tell them that the good news about hybrids is that you don’t have to farm differently, but you do have to buy seed every year. We talk about value.”
For more information about Afritec Seeds, visit their Facebook page.