Mali relies on agriculture as the backbone of its economic growth because agriculture employs more than 80% of the population and constitutes the main source of food. In the Koulikoro region (the study area), sorghum and millet are subsistence crops for almost all of the population. Groundnut constitutes the main source of income for women and is critical to family nutrition. These crops are grown by almost all the farmers in this region because they are adapted to semi-arid tropical ecologies and infertile soils, as well as being preferred in the diet. Despite their importance, an understanding of seed systems for these 'orphan' crops has been neglected.
To understand agricultural development in Mali, it is important to evaluate the entire seed system, including the seed quality of farmer-saved and foundation seed, seed saving methods on-farm, seed sourcing avenues, and how new varieties are accessed by small-holders. Informal and formal surveys were conducted, in conjunction with seed collection from a range of sources. Seed quality performance was tested for seed from a range of sources. To quantify seed quality, laboratory standard analytical methods and field performance were analyzed. Variety purity was also assessed for different seed sources that represented foundation seeds, and seeds maintained by farmers for different number of years. These tests were linked to farmer assessment of seed quality and variety preference conducted through surveys and farmer ranking exercises.
The seed quality assessment showed that farmer produced seed is generally high quality, as high as foundation seed. The seed meets Mali national seed service standards in almost all cases. However, there were some concerns identified concerning physical purity and health status of groundnut seeds.
The field trial analyses showed that there are no significant differences between the variety purity of seeds farmers had saved and produced and foundation seed. This was shown for the flowering time (beginning and end), number of off-types, and weight of panicles. Overall, farmers recycling of varieties (saving seed for several years) did not markedly alter variety traits in sorghum.
Results from both the on-farm field trial evaluation and the survey indicated that yield and adaptation to the local environment were very important in farmers' variety evaluation criteria. There were some additional traits of interest to farmers from Dioila and Mande, including cooking traits (easy processing, good taste of dishes made) and drought tolerance. However the farmers in Dioila were more interested in cooking quality than in drought tolerance.
Another interesting finding is that there is a cultural tradition that prohibits the purchase of seed, particularly for sorghum and groundnut, yet farmers' did express a willingness to pay for sorghum seeds of preferred, improved varieties. Farmers in both zones were ready to pay 200 FCFA/kg for seed for their preferred varieties. This is a surprisingly high price given the low income level, and the limited cultural concepts of paying for subsistence crop seed.