Wednesday, October 27, 2010
The Gates Foundation recently granted $1.45 million to Iowa State University to explore ways to provide better access to improved seed varieties in Africa, according to an item in the The Daily Tell. This storycaught my attention because as a younger person I had a profoundly unhappy experience with a seed program in Africa.
The USAID program I was attached to in the Republic of Niger (for two years in the late '80s) had the goal of introducing "improved" millet seeds to Niger's farmers. Millet is Niger's staple crop. Scientists at a California university (I forget which one) had developed a strain of seeds that would grow to maturity quickly and would yield more per acre thantraditional Nigerien varieties, so long as the rains fell steadily and so long as the farmers followed a strict regimen of ploughing their soil and adding fertilizer. What the California scientists failed to recoginze is that 1) the rains almost never fall steadily in Niger, 2) farmers never plough their fields because the sand content of the soil is so high that if they do, it all blows away in the wind, 3) asking the subsistence farmers to take the financial risk of buying fertilizer on credit was ludicrous.
The short version is that the improved seed project in Nigerwas a disastrous, multimillion dollar failure, and that the failure was caused by the Western experts' ignorance of conditions on the ground. It turned me into a development skeptic and, eventually, launched me into an academic career in which I spend a good deal of my time explaining why development interventions, particularly law and development interventions do not work.