by GRAIN | 20 Oct 1992


Ethiopia is a country of tremendous genetic and cultural diversity. Local farmers have been maintaining and continuously adapting their indigenous crop resources, which now prove to also serve agriculture at the international level. The Ethiopian genebank is carrying out a challenging programme involving farmers in several stages of the seed-saving and breeding process, while encouraging farmers to maintain local varieties by improving the genetic performance of them. A diametrically opposed strategy is followed by Pioneer Hi-Bred, the worlds largest seed company, which recently started operations in the country. Pioneer also directs itself to the small farmers, but to convince them to buy imported hybrid seeds.


When the Russian plant geneticist N.I. Vavilov arrived during one of his collection expeditions to Ethiopia and neighbouring countries in the 1920s, he was amazed. In Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland he found so much genetic diversity that he included the area in the list of the few great centres of crop plant diversity and called it the Abyssinian gene centre. Virtually the whole complex of seed crops from the South West Asian and Mediterranean centres of crop origin were found there. On wheat variation Vavilov says that " Abyssinia occupies the first place" and on barley that there is "an exceptional diversity of forms". But then he also found impressive diversity of native African crops (such as teff) and of sorghum, millets and many grain legumes, oil crops, vegetables, spices and other species.

Much of that diversity is still in the hands of farmers, but a lot has also been lost. Perhaps the most important factor is the displacement of local cultivars by improved varieties, and the displacement of local crops all together by other crops that do better on the market. Other factors include habitat destruction affecting the wild gene pool, changing cropping patterns, and the effects of long periods of droughts. Still, researchers report that many farmers in the area still conserve an impressive array of local cultivars. When seed collectors from the Ethiopian genebank revisited areas affected by the 1984/85 famine, they found to their surprise a rich panorama of genetic diversity being cultivated in the farmers ' fields. Farmers tend to save and retain their seeds even under difficult times, and distribution is maintained through sharing and swapping within the community.

To be able to save seed also for longer periods, Ethiopian farmers have developed very sophisticated systems of seed storage. Researchers of the Ethiopian genebank report how at the community level, farmers dig up to ten secret grain pits - of some 2-3 meters in diameter - in which seed is stored. They use cow dung to cement the walls, and in them burn the wood of trees specially selected for the purpose in order to fend off pests and diseases that infect the seed. The location of these well-hidden underground seed storages is often only known to a few elderly people. In other parts of the country, farmers bury small quantities of local seed stock in sealed clay pots when forced to leave their farms because of severe drought. After the drought, when the surviving members of the community return, they have their original seed stock to start rebuilding their agricultural systems anew.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the crop materials that Ethiopia's farmers are using and conserving. In the first place, this genetic diversity is crucial for the farmers themselves. Their crop varieties are probably the only ones that can take the farmers and their families through the periods of drought that affect the country regularly. But they also provide for year-round harvest security in the harsh conditions under which Ethiopian farmers are trying to get some food from their land.

But that genetic diversity also helps out farmers and companies in other parts of the world. Plant breeders worldwide look for characters which have potential economic value for commercial varieties. When screening genebank materials they again and again find seed samples of Ethiopian origin to be particularly rich. After serious outbreaks of barley yellow dwarf virus disease in 1951, American scientists started looking for genetic resistance to the disease. All the resistant lines were from Ethiopia. In testing Ethiopian barley types for resistance to nine different virus and fungal diseases, resistance to all of them was detected. A screening of barley for high protein value resulted in one extraordinary lysine-rich sample which had been collected from Ethiopia.

While normally the formal sector tends to pay little attention to this innovative capacity of local communities to save seed, the Ethiopian genebank has developed a remarkable approach involving farmers in several stages of the seed-saving and breeding process. Dr. Melaku Worede is very explicit about the role of farmers in his genebank programme: "Given the inherent advantages of traditional practices, on-farm landrace conservation and enhancement provides a valuable option for conserving genetic diversity. (...) There is an outstanding need to maintain landraces growing under field conditions for use in crop improvement programmes, and this is probably best achieved through farm- or community-based conservation programmes."

And this is exactly what the genebank people in Ethiopia are trying to do. The rationale behind the community-based approaches promoted by the genebank is to encourage farmers to maintain traditional "landrace" varieties by improving the genetic performance of them. Two basic approaches are employed. The first is assisting farmers in using selection techniques to improve their landrace varieties. The second is to develop and maintain elite landraces on the farm. In each case, farmers fields act not only as sources of planting material, but also as village genebanks for a wider range of landraces which, while not of immediate agronomic value as varieties, are used in evaluating selections and as a depository of useful genetic characteristics.

Varieties developed from locally-adapted landraces could also serve as the check in national yield trials and thus help restrain the expansion of "high risk" seeds. Instead of using introduced varieties, farmers are provided with elite populations of improved versions of more adapted local types. This is especially valuable for areas characterised by marginal growing conditions or environmental extremes where conventionally improved varieties are less likely to meet the needs of farmers.

The Ethiopian case is a challenging one. It is one of the few examples where genebank officials seriously involve farmers and NGOs not only in conserving but also in developing germplasm. It takes the farmers ' seed stock as a starting point for enhancing performance of local farming systems, rather than relying on high-tech seeds brought in from outside.

However, the innovative approach of Dr. Melaku Worede and his colleagues could be undermined by several developments. One is lack of resources for this daunting programme. The Ethiopian government has supported the genebank activities from the very beginning, but due to the tremendous success of the programme and the enthusiastic reactions of the farmers involved, the scientists involved have to respond to an ever increasing demand. Whether this can be matched up with an increasing funding base, is an open question. Some of the money has to come from international funders, but they might be more interested in other approaches. The World Bank, for example, is active in Ethiopia and is currently looking at the country's seed supply system with the aim of modernising it and making it more market-oriented. This probably involves the development of a hybrid seed sector, which might undermine the genebank's approach in improving seed supply through the local system.

The ones who certainly take the route of promoting foreign-developed hybrids in Ethiopia is the largest seed company in the world: Pioneer Hi-Bred. With global seed sales exceeding $US 1 billion, operating in over 100 countries, and with over 90 research stations worldwide, the company has recently started work in Ethiopia. Dr. Pramod K. Agrawal, manager of Pioneer Hi-Bred in Ethiopia, is very clear and outspoken about the company's strategy: "At the moment we are hitting the state-farm sector, because being in business we have to first attack that segment of the market which is much easier to penetrate. We have a very ambitious programme to penetrate the peasant sector by organising on-farm demonstrations. (...) Then we will select those places where the all weather road is available, where the farmers will be able to adapt new technology. (...) We cannot penetrate the entire peasant sector at one shot. It will be phased penetration."

 With the new Ethiopian government opening up to a market oriented economy, Pioneer Hi-Bred might find some fertile ground for investment. Its activities in the country include maize, sorghum, sunflower, alfalfa, cotton and some vegetables. Maize, representing some 80% of the company's sales worldwide, is a focal point. Maize acreage in Ethiopia is very large according to the company's manager: 852,000 hectares in total, with only 57,000 ha. in the large scale state sector. This is the background of the company's interest in "penetrating" the peasant sector. According to Agrawal, Pioneer's objective is within the next five years to provide all the maize seed for the state sector, and to cover 15% of all the maize small farmers are sowing.

However it is not only the wording that marks the different approaches of Pioneer on one hand, and the genebank people on the other. While the genebank officials carefully base their work on the farmers materials, the company imports its hybrid lines straight from its research stations in Zimbabwe and Mexico. After two years of grow-outs in Ethiopia, the company thinks it has sufficient information of what lines will sell best.... and there you go. No research facilities are planned for the near future, so the company basically dedicates itself to import its proprietary hybrids from elsewhere. Mr. Agrawal thinks this is logical: "We are a commercial company. We cannot afford to go into losses. First we want to see the commercial market, have the pulse of the peasant sector, and then in due course of time we will have a research station in Ethiopia also."

Agrawal expects some help in pushing the hybrids to the peasant sector. According to him, the World Bank will start providing cheap credits to the peasants in order to raise yields. That probably means, as in many other countries in the past, that the credit is only available to those farmers who adopt the new technologies, including Pioneer's imported germplasm. Agrawal admits that the Pioneer hybrid lines have their drawbacks for small farmers: "Hybrid seed is slightly expensive, they have to purchase it every year and it demands some extra care while the crop is in the field." But all that will be offset by higher yields in the opinion of the company's manager. To help farmers to take the good decision Pioneer is considering offering the seed for free for the first planting.

Genetic diversity seems to concern the company only as far as its own collections are concerned. Agrawal: "I did not look at Ethiopia's genetic diversity, because we are not doing any breeding here. But our main company in the US has an excellent collection of the genetic diversity in the world, comparable to any modern collection. I think they have the biggest collection in the world..." He also does not seem to be very impressed by the work going on at the Ethiopian genebank: "Landraces have no place in modern agriculture! And we are talking about modern agriculture. Ethiopian agriculture should be modernised. (...) And in modern day, if you want to be prosperous, you have to use modern varieties or hybrids, there is no way out."

It remains to be seen to what extent Ethiopian farmers will accept Pioneer's technology. However, with the company's eagerness to "penetrate" the peasant sector and the World Bank backing it with cheap credit, they might have some rate of success. There is nothing wrong with hybrids as such, as long as they are used in appropriate environments, and with the necessary inputs. However, the real risk, as has happened so many times before also in Ethiopia, is that the imported technology will be massively used in situations where it simply doesn 't work, resulting in genetic erosion, harvest failure, poverty and famine. This is exactly what the people at the Ethiopian genebank want to avoid in their approach by relying on, and improving upon, locally available resources.


Trygve Berg: Indigenous knowledge and plant breeding in Tigray, Ethiopia. In: Forum for Development Studies, No 1. Oslo, 1992.

Melaku Worede: " Ethiopia, a genebank working with farmers", In: "Growing Diversity", IT Publications, London, 1992.

Melaku Worede, Hailu Mekbib: "Local/Indigenous knowledge and agricultural research in Ethiopia". Paper presented to the Seminar "Local Knowledge and Agricultural Research", Brondesbury Park, Zimbabwe, 28 September - 2 October 1992

"Pioneer Hi-Bred International" In: Biotechnology and Development Monitor. No. 12. Amsterdam 1992.

"Interview with Dr. Promod K.Agrawal, manager of Pioneer Hi-Bred Ethiopia", Addis Ababa, 30 December 1991. (unpublished)

Author: GRAIN