Systemic and concerted action needed to boost seed quality assurance for Ethiopian potato sector

Despite the potential gains of investing in Ethiopia’s potato sector, diseases and capacity limitations highlight the challenges faced by farmers and stakeholders working to boost seed quality assurance.

Piece prepared by Shiferaw Gobena, CIP-SSA

Production potential
Ethiopia has the largest potential for potato production in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 70% of its arable land is suitable for potato production. The country relies on the potato for food and nutrition security and more than 3.7 million farmers grow the crop in different agro-ecologies in the country. Potato production in Ethiopia is on the rise and the crop is being recognized as strategic. Private companies have also started investing in potato processing.

However, researchers and other actors in the Ethiopian potato innovation system argue that the government and donors have not given due attention that the crop deserves despite the tremendous role it plays in enhancing farmers’ income, food and nutrition security. They assert that the country can significantly benefit from this crop if it taps into developing appropriate institutional arrangements that enhance potato research and encourage private investment in seed production and processing.

Picture 1: A ground photographic view of a typical smallholder famer potato crop in Ethiopia
Picture 2: An appropriate diffused light store for seed potato storage in Ethiopia

Many research and development efforts have been made by various actors in the potato value chain. However, the Ethiopian potato sector faces many challenges that constrain the production and productivity of the crop. Major among the constraints include limited access to good quality seed and diseases, mainly late blight and bacterial wilt. Bacterial wilt has recently put the potato production system in Ethiopia in dire straits, affecting the quality seed production and supply segment, which principally drives the value chain.

Production of EGS
There are concerted efforts in Ethiopia to promote decentralized seed potato production and quality assurance through a quality declared seed (QDS) scheme. A few seed potato cooperatives run by smallholders have started producing minitubers in screen houses to enhance early-generation seed (EGS) availability. They obtain tissue culture potato plantlets from research centers as starter planting material.

This initiative is a plausible approach if expanded because it would considerably increase the quantity of EGS currently produced from public research centres and enhance availability and accessibility to most smallholders, which is a key bottleneck to producing quality seed potato in Ethiopia. Participation of farmer seed cooperatives in minitubers production will enable other seed potato producers and farmers to renew their seed more regularly than in the present situation.

Currently, most seed cooperatives lack a systematic way and regular scheme to renew their stocks from formal sources. This has resulted in seed recycling and degeneration or failure to meet regulatory quality assurance requirements. Given this problem, several farmers continue to grow potatoes using low-quality seed tubers, compromising yield and spreading degenerative diseases.

Implementation of the QDS scheme
There are limitations in implementing the quality declared seed (QDS) scheme that has been hoped to enhance quality seed potato production in the country. The country’s seed potato industry is now confronted with bacterial wilt (BW) caused by Ralstonia solanacearum, a devastating potato disease. The disease has spread nationwide and embedded itself in the seed system, and a concerted effort is required to deal with it.  

Picture 3: A potato plant attacked by Ralstonia solanacearum resulting in wilting and death

It is problematic to tackle this disease if the provision of potato planting material remains informal and quality assurance for seed potato produced by farmer seed cooperatives continues to depend on visual assessment or inspecting a proportion of seed producers that have registered their fields for quality certification.

One of the standards for the QDS scheme is a zero-tolerance for bacterial wilt infection, which is an appropriate decision given the nature of the pathogen that causes this disease. However, seed potato inspectors largely depend on visual assessment, which inherently fails to detect latent infection. Due to a limited capacity to detect a latent infection of the disease through appropriate laboratory techniques, the practicality of the zero-tolerance standard to potato bacterial wilt in QDS in Ethiopia is questionable.

The current practice of seed quality assurance does not seem to be sufficient enough to ensure the distribution of BW-free seed in the country unless testing of early generation seed for latent disease infection becomes a routine practice. The commonly used internal seed quality control mechanism of seed cooperatives currently practiced in Ethiopia is also very weak. It is further complicated by limited knowledge of the disease among producers and extension agents.

Looking in the future
To safeguard the potato industry in Ethiopia from the devastating diseases like BW and help smallholder farmers benefit from the opportunities that the crop offers, systemic and concerted actions are urgently needed among the stakeholders. Priory needs to be given to foster an effective seed quality assurance system through:   

  • Developing the capacity of seed producer cooperatives to effectively implement their internal seed quality control system and supporting them regularly access adequate quality EGS.
  • Enhancing the implementation of the QDS scheme by building the capacity of seed inspectors and complementing field inspection with laboratory analysis to detect latent BW infection.
  • Mobilizing resources and coordinating actors to deal with BW urgently.
  • Improving the capacity of regional seed regulatory bodies and seed laboratories to effectively control a free movement of latently infected seed across different regions in the country.
  • Supporting farmers to learn about potato diseases and the importance of seed quality, including seed degeneration, through participatory and interactive learning methods such as experiential learning and social learning (farmer field school). 
  • Strengthening partnership between seed producers, research centers and tissue culture laboratories for sustainable and business-oriented early generation seed potato supply.
  • Investing in re-organizing and coordinating actors involved in the seed potato value chain to ensure a seed flush through the system to prevent build-up and spread of seed-borne diseases. 

Piece prepared by Shiferaw Gobena, CIP-SSA