Seed Tracker: How one app can enhance seed systems for many crops

Success in Nigeria is showing how Seed Tracker has the potential to transform seed systems regionally and across many food security crops

Piece prepared by Lava Kumar, IITA

Thanks to its tolerance of poor soil, harsh conditions, pests and diseases, cassava is a stable, low-cost staple for millions in sub-Saharan Africa. However, it’s not solely subsistence and small-scale farmers that benefit from the crop – it provides incomes and an industry for medium and large-scale enterprises in the region too.

Despite its widespread importance for food security and as a cash crop, cassava is underperforming and not meeting its full potential for commercial production and processing, export and use in local industry. The average root yield per hectare in Nigeria – the world’s largest producer – is less than half of what it could be.

It starts with seed
One of the biggest barriers to boosting cassava production in Africa lies within the seed production value chain, which is severely fragmented.

“About 90% of cassava seed in sub-Saharan Africa comes from the informal sector and the seed quality is unknown and often perceived as low,” says Dr. Lava Kumar, Head of the Germplasm Health Unit at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). There aren’t many professional seed producers and seed quality regulatory agencies often lack capacity to promote and enforce quality seed regulations especially for vegetatively propagated crops.

Furthermore, seed regulations are cumbersome and expensive for smallholder seed producers to follow and are often avoided altogether. Still, the most consistent challenge in the industry continues to be a general lack of awareness and information on seed availability and production.

Kumar and team at IITA and RTB envisioned a system that addresses these barriers to improving the industry and integrating the fragmented value chain. Thus, they developed Seed Tracker, a web-app that improves cassava seed production and access, usable on any internet-enabled device. Kumar shared progress and led discussions on the capabilities of the app and its potential to revolutionize cassava production in sub-Saharan Africa.

“This is the world’s first web-app for seed value chain integration for enhancing quality seed production and market access to help seed producers meet their potential,” he told participants.

Seed Tracker collects and organizes seed production information, making it easier for institutions to monitor seed quality and certify producers. It provides a database for ready access to information, such as seed quantity, location, variety, geography, and availability. It is a place where producers can find on-demand expert advice on agronomy, plant health, and more.

“The inbuilt algorithms of this program connect all key stakeholders, from seed producers, to regulators, traders, and extension services. It’s an integrated suite that allows access to digital data collection tools from any internet-enabled device, and is customizable for different institutional accounts,” Kumar adds.

For example, the app can let buyers know when and where new crop varieties are released, helping to support the adoption and impact of improved varieties developed through breeding programs. It can also help seed producers understand national regulations and register their seeds, a task that used to be so onerous that producers would sidestep registration altogether.

Pilot successes: Making waves in Nigeria
In 2017, the ‘Building an Economically Sustainable Integrated Cassava Seed System’ (BASICS) project worked with the government of Nigeria to pilot the Cassava Seed Tracker. They customized the program specifically to meet the priorities of the National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC) of Nigeria, and the pilot project has been successful and inspired NASC to adopt Seed Tracker as national e-certification platform and launched the same as National Seed Tracker in 2019.

Dr. Olusegun Ojo, Director General of NASC discussing progress in the field.

“This is helping NASC to digitalize seed certification procedures, understand who is producing seed so they can be trained, mainstreamed, and certified. It simplified seed producers’ understanding of the rules, regulations, and best practices to produce quality seed and simultaneously improve the efficiency of certification procedures. In time, it will transform formal seed production in Nigeria,” explains Dr. Olusegun Ojo, Director General, NASC.

The Cassava Seed Tracker is already easing operations, reducing costs, and providing data for production trends in Nigeria, where the largest number of people in the world depend on the crop for their food and livelihood. The program was even a finalist in the nation-wide Google Impact Challenge in 2018 and stood out as a game-changing tool to create economic opportunities in local communities.

The Permanent Secretary to Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development at the National Seed Tracker control facility at the headquarters of NASC, Abuja, Nigeria

Improving seed systems at scale
Seed Tracker has shown its ability to enhance Nigeria’s cassava seed system. The software has the potential to transform seed systems both regionally and beyond cassava alone. Designed with scalability in mind, the app has the power to formalize and mainstream production of many food security crops that are equally important but have yet to actualize their full potential.

“We are already using the Seed Tracker platform to design and pilot programs for multiple crops and countries that IITA is invol­ved in, such as for cassava in Tanzania led by IITA Scientist, Dr. James Legg, as part of the BEST-Cassava Project in partnership with Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute (TOSCI)”says Kumar.

The Seed Tracker is flexible for customization depending on the user needs, crop and system, seed regulations, and country. With other customized platforms in the works for maize, sweetpotato, rice, and yam, the versatile Seed Tracker technology point to a brighter future for the seed production value chain across fields and scales.   

As part of the “Enhancing Seed Quality Assurance” component of the “ISSD in AFRICA project,” jointly with CIP, studies are being conducted to assess the benefits of digital platforms such as Seed Tracker to enforce decentralized seed certification and capture lessons from the use of Seed Tracker for sharing with next users.

Piece prepared by Lava Kumar, IITA