Supporting the Seed Value Chain in rural Mali

SincSchermafbeelding 2020-04-13 om 15.34.04e 2015 researchers from the W4RA team (VU Network Institute, Computer  Science Department, Centre for International Cooperation and AI-tech company Bolesian) have worked with farmer organizations in Mali to help improve the efficience of the seed value chain, to the benefit of local smallholder farmers,  to help increase food security in this country.

The seed value chain in Mali is a complex one. It is on one hand traditional, in which farmers exchange seeds with each other, without financial transactions, and on the other hand commercial, based on hybrid, improved seeds. The traditional value chain consists of local seeds that have lower yields than the improved seeds. Still, many farmers rely on them, as they are available without investments, no pesticides are necessary. They are resistant to drought and can be — in contrast to the hybrid seeds that only breed two or three generations– replanted/reused without limitations. They are the basis of the daily food consumption for large part of the population.

The hybrid, improved seeds are interesting for farmers, as they have higher yields, and they can be sold, as there is a demand on the commercial markets. They give farmers the opportunity to have some real, cash, revenues. Unfortunately, the seed value chain for hybrid seeds is still inefficiently organized. It is hampered by a lack of information and by inefficient channels for communication, which makes deliberate and informed decision-making difficult. For many smallholder seed producing farmers this is a serious problem. Farmers do not have access to market information; they have difficulties in finding customers and are often not up to date about market prices.

Seed producers — usually smallholders — buy, produce and sell seeds. Some years they are suddenly confronted with a lack of demand for the seeds they have produced, especially in the occasional good rainy season and a good harvest. Especially farmers  in rain-fed agriculture, in remote regions are the most vulnerable for price and demand fluctuations.

AOPP, — an association of farmer organizations  that reaches up to 3 million people in the whole of Mali —  is concerned with the condition of their member OPs (organisations paysannes). AOPP as a national umbrella organization supports about 250 local farmer organizations, representing them at the national level, trying to enhance communication and provide them with timely, accurate and relevant information from all segments of the value chain. To improve communication, AOPP is now developing an online seed information system.

The research project of VU uses a participatory action research/design science research approach, based on fieldwork in Mali. It starts with a context analysis, to understand the problem, the stakeholders and their concerns, the current information workflows and the barriers as expressed by the stakeholders. This is done using a design science/action research-based framework, named ICT4D 3.0.

Based on the collected context information and extensive, collaborative use case and requirements analysis in Mali, (done in 2019 and 2020) the VU research team is designing, together with the local farmers,  the architecture of a voice-based market information system for farmers in Mali. The user and technical requirements of this system are: it has to work, also in an environment without internet or smartphone, and only GSM voice-based phones.  It has to have a spoken interface, in French and in at least one Malian local language: Bambara. It has to be a technically stable and financially affordable system, in simple words, it has to survive the rural conditions  of e.g. dust, heat, lack of local technical assistance, without being too expensive in its use for the local users.

The VU team supports AOPP’s efforts by designing, in co-creative workshops, new channels for communication and e.g. mobile and voice-based access to seed information. Currently computer science student Sophie Vos (supervised by Prof. Patricia Lago and Anna Bon) is working to design the architecture for this sustainable ICT system, that may serve the seed-producing farmers in Mali.

Other researchers are currently tryinhg to design in a AI agent-based decision support system to help identify the barriers in the value chain, and predict how system will work as a distributed network, when decentralized decision-making at the aggregated level will lead to different configuration sof the entire value chain.

Others are working on blockchain technology and smart contracts, to make the network robust, for example by cuttingh out the middlemen, and making financial transaction sbased on local community currency.

These are all projects that are currently being done, in close collaboration with the AOPP, and the farmers themselves.

The research project is ongoing. With the longstanding socio-technical field experience of VU in ICT4D in rural Africa, this will continue as an important, relevant, real-world research project, carried out in the framework of the W4RA research program.

Read more about AI to enhance the seed value chan in Mali:

This ongoing project on the Seed Value Chain in Mali by AOPP together with the W4RA team (VU and Bolesian), is made possible through a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the framework of a Nuffic OKP project  (RC/0019/0026).

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