Proven technique provides new opportunities to women and smallholder farmers
A seed ball is a sowing technique for semi-arid areas, aimed at the improvement of plant establishment with dry sowing. Seed balls, 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 seed ball 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. Seed balls 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. “Seed balls 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 seed balls have greatly reduced the risk of economic loss.”
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 seed ball gives the pearl millet and sorghum a much stronger start: “Planting seed balls 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 seed ball is better than conventional sowing. The seed balls gave smallholder farmers something to harvest during a drought.”
Seed ball 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 seed balls 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 seed ball 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.”
“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 seed ball 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 seed ball 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 seed ball 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 seed balls sowed them in their region to see how it works.”