Unlocking profitable soya beans

, a 60-year-old soya farmer from Mchinji, is cheerful by nature-but he has never been this happier.

Malawi will soon have higher-yielding soya varieties for farmers like him and the anticipation for the more profitable options in the soya value chain is euphoric.

Damiyoni inspects one of eight being trialled on his farm in Mchinji

“Every time I look at my soy trial plot, I can’t stop smiling,” says Dampiyoni.

Soya is one of the leading alternative cash crops to tobacco, the country’s major export which accounts for more than 50 percent of all foreign currency receipts.

The value of soya market in the country is estimated at $30 million, with the opportunity to double. Despite its huge potential, the legume crop’s value chain has remained inert, with little done to improve yield and quality.

The soya yield globally is four tonnes per hectare, but an average farmer in Malawi harvests just about 800 kg due to hack of quality seed and varieties. According to the African Seed Access Index, the country has been using only three soya varieties-Nasoko, Tikolole, and Makwacha -since 2000. This “sign of a stagnant sector” limits farmers’ choice of varieties that best suit their needs and area.

But the long wait for new varieties will soon be over. Under the Pan-African Seed Trials, AgDiv and Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL) are collaborating with the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, the Malawian Department of Agricultural Research Services (Dars) and private sector partners to fast-track the introduction of improved, tropically adapted soya bean varieties in the country.

And the breakthrough is imminent, says Dars legumes agronomist Florence Kamwana-Ngwira.

 “We have worked hard since 2017 and we can now smile at the progress we have made. We plan to propose for the release of some five varieties from the trial by next year,” says the researcher based at Chitedze Research Station in Lilongwe.

In this research, 36 soya varieties from Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe underwent trials at four research stations-Chitedze, Chitala in Salima, Bvumbwe in Thyolo, and Baka in Karonga-as well as three private companies diversifying into the soya value chain: Alliance One Tobacco in Kasungu, Limbe Leaf Tobacco Company, and Exagris.

Already, some best performing varieties are undergoing on-farm evaluation to see how they can perform both as rain-fed and irrigated crops.

“The winner is the farmer who will now have access to high performing varieties in terms of yield, while the manufacturing industry will benefit through quality raw material for processing high value products,” says AgDiv chief of party Carl Larkins of Palladium.

AgDiv seeks to sustainably reduce poverty and hunger among smallholder farmers by building robust market linkages and improved agricultural productivity.

At the inception of the five-year project in 2016, it identified lack of quality seed as a weak link in legumes production. This led to a seed symposium in 2017 that brought together representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, independent seed scientists, seed producers, and other USAid projects to brainstorm how to close the gap.

The result was a partnership spearheading the ongoing trials to restore the sector whose seed had lost its genetic vigour to overuse and recycling.

Explains SIL’s principal investigator Dr Peter Goldsmith: “The operative phrase for the SIL-AgDiv partnership is ‘research for development”.  For SIL, this means a research team that listened first and then was guided by the needs of our development partner, AgDiv.

“In 2017, project leads Carl Larkins and Jeremy Venable shared with us the immediate need to expand the varietal choice and seed supply for Malawi’s soya bean farmers.”

To Goldsmith, the Pan-African trial is a unique platform that fast-tracks the introduction of new high-yielding varieties to accelerate the seed commercialisation system.

The seed being trialled across 10 locations in the country are being evaluated for yield, protein, oil, disease resistance and other vital characteristics.

The research for development model has researchers, development practitioners, and industry working together, which in turn assures sustained and scaled impacts-particularly the much-needed seed for Malawi’s soya bean farmers.

The research done in the soya bean field has proven that soy is a good crop, but the question has always been how to bring in new varieties. Goldsmith says the trials will be a step forward in achieving this.

Soy farmers are the most excited. Dampiyoni, whose field is being used for on-farm trials, says the wait has been long and agonising. Eight varieties are being tried on his farm with the old varieties-Tikolore and Makwacha-as controls. Other on-farm trials are also under way in different ecological zones to ascertain their yield and drought and disease resistance.

“I have been growing Tikolole and Makwacha varieties for over 15 years. Every year, the yield has been going down. There are no alternative varieties on the market,” he says.

The farmer hopes the new varieties, once released, will turn around his fortunes.

He says:  “All farmers will be happy because we will harvest more and sell more for higher profit; most of our seed does not germinate.”

Equally optimistic is Phillip Chasowa, a soya grower and group village head in Traditional Authority Kaomba, Kasungu.

He states: “We will now be able to choose the soyas seed that will suit well in our different environments, especially now that agriculture is hugely being affected by climate change.”

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