Seedball Technology Improves Sahelian Pearl Millet and Sorghum Farming

Proven technique provides new opportunities to women and smallholder farmers

The Sahel region of Africa is one of the harshest cropping environments in the world. Sahelian farmers have limited resources, income and access to inputs such as fertilizer and water. This makes the region ideal to introduce new technology advancements to help smallholder farmers with planting techniques to increase the pearl millet crop yield rate. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet (SMIL) at Kansas State University began a research project in 2013 to do just that. The research project, Seedballs - Enhancing the Yield Effect in Pearl Millet and Sorghum and Disseminating the Technology in West Africa, developed seedball technology to increase average yield by 30% to provide opportunities for entrepreneurs (especially women) and increase income for smallholder farmers.

SMIL efforts are led by principal investigator Dr. Ludger Herrmann, professor at Institute of Soil Science and Land Evaluation, Soil Chemistry, and Pedology, at the University of Hohenheim (Universität Hohenheim in Germany).

A new solution with proven technique

A seedball is a sowing technique for semi-arid areas, aimed at the improvement of plant establishment with dry sowing. Seedballs, originally studied in the 1970s, create a micro-environment that can capture moisture and make nutrients more valuable. . Some literature references their use in Australia for range land farming and in Eastern Africa for range land amelioration, but no real research on seedball use was conducted.

SMIL explored this technique after some pre-studies and a first test had been conducted. The project is economically important because pearl millet and sorghum are staple crops in Niger and Senegal. Pearl millet and sorghum are already adapted to the climate and can grow in really difficult conditions. These are also traditional crops in the region, ingrained in the culture and traditions of the people who live in West Africa, and are vital cereal grains women use to feed their families. Seedballs utilize locally available products, such as soil, wood ash, urine, seeds and pesticides. Because they are available and are needed in smaller quantities, they are a low-cost and low-risk option with high rewards.

“A farmer in the Sahel has a great risk in applying fertilizer, because if there is a drought and the crop fails, they have spent money with no outputs,” said Dr. Herrmann. “Seedballs can be a solution because we introduced minimum amounts of fertilizer to support the plant during the first few weeks of growth. Then the crop will grow. The farmer will see that and decide to add the additional fertilizer. In this case, the seedballs have greatly reduced the risk of economic loss.”

Women farmers see great success with seedballs

Lowering risk is vitally important, particularly for female farmers. The more fertile land is typically owned by their husbands. Those sections are close to villages and seeds are planted often right before the rainy season for the best chance for success. This leaves the women’s land to be planted early, when any moisture may still be weeks away and are often far from the villages.

Dr. Hermann explains, “Women are mostly planting their fields in the dry season and every rain you miss, you miss the chance of biomass production and yield. With yields already low, the women don’t have to invest much money into this technology because it is made with local resources.”

With this technology the seedball can stay protected underground, where the nutrients it needs can wait for moisture, while mitigating seed loss due to pests such as rodents, birds and termites.

Versatility to enhance crop growth

Dr. Hannatou Moussa Oumarou, researcher at National Institute of Agronomic Research of Niger (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique du Niger - INRAN), explained how the seedball gives the pearl millet and sorghum a much stronger start: “Planting seedballs increases how many plants germinate because there is nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and wood ash with them. That helps the plants grow, and at the end, the yield is better than the normal conventional sowing. During a drought, the seedball is better than conventional sowing. The seedballs gave smallholder farmers something to harvest during a drought.”

Seedball technology is also very adaptable to each farmer's needs. Every village can have a different soil composition and different pests they are protecting against. Because seedballs are all made locally with native ingredients, they can be customized to the specific needs of the local farmers.

According to Dr. Charles Ikenna Nwankwo, a scientific researcher at the University of Hohenheim, “One good thing about seedball technology is that it is quite flexible. For instance, where you have challenges with low soil nutrients, you can introduce an additive that will improve the nutrients of the soil. If you have a challenge with insects, you can add an insecticide.”

Local leadership enhances adoption

To ensure the recommended technique is considered by the local farmers, the research team took the time to understand constraints or concerns by the local community during the research evaluation phase. “We have to foresee the social, religious and ethnic groups because for some religions, there's no taboo of using any type of technology,” said Dr. Moussa Oumarou. “For some social places, or environments, you don't have any taboo, but if we go to some ethnic groups you will see from one village or one region to the other, we can have a taboo. Because they can say they cannot use this technology or that technology. So we have to really consider their social, religious and ethnic groups before introducing this technology.”

To increase farmer acceptance and use of the seedball technology, Dr. Moussa Oumarou leads the efforts to train local farmers on the seedballs. In joint effort with Dr. Ikenna Nwankwo, she started training a small area of farmers, particularly women, and has now seen those women she trained become trainers to other women in their villages.

“I am excited to work with subsistence farmers and especially women farmers. We started training a small group of farmers and told them just to come and see what we were working on. The farmers wanted to teach more people as they saw their farms succeed! There were many who took the seedballs and sowed them in their region to see how it works,” said Dr. Moussa Oumarou.

The seedball technique supports a vital crop and has room to evolve

“Pearl millet is a traditional crop grown in these countries. The centers of genetic origins are located here,” said Dr. Timothy J. Dalton, SMIL director. “So, they’re extremely rich and the population is tuned into them. Losing millet would be detrimental to these countries. We see pearl millet as frontier frontline crops, so the investment is absolutely critical. The seedball planting technique has allowed these smallholder farmers, especially the women, to plant, start and grow a successful crop of the pearl millet. With a successful crop, smallholder farmers have the ability to feed their families and sell for economic income.”

The advancements made in this project and the lives changed are a result of a group effort coordinated by SMIL. Other partners in this effort are the Gaskiya Federation of Maradi Farmers Unions (Fédération des Unions de Producteurs de Maradi Gaskiya - FUMA Gaskiya), FAPAL (farmer organization), and the Federation of Unions of Peasant Groups of Niger (Fédération des Unions de Groupements Paysans du Niger - FUGPN Mooriben). This collaborative effort has been successful and will only continue to help more farmers in the future.

Dr. Ikenna Nwankwo shared, “I have always believed I am a lifetime scholar. I keep learning from people and from local farmers. We are all in agriculture in one way or another. If given the chance, we will use this seedball technology in hundreds of areas.”

Dr. Moussa Oumarou’s leadership and enthusiasm will continue to help drive adoption and the success of this initiative. “I am very grateful for SMIL because it's through SMIL that I really integrated with INRAN, our national research institute. We worked together on this project, keeping in mind who we are helping. The farmers learn this important seedball technology and it solves the most crucial problem they are having, which is climate change and soil fertility.”

“I am excited to work with subsistence farmers and especially women farmers. We started training a small group of farmers and told them just to come and see what we were working on. The farmers wanted to teach more people as they saw their farms succeed! There were many who took the seedballs sowed them in their region to see how it works.”

Dr. Hannatou Moussa Oumaro