Climate Resilient Seed Systems in Africa

Crop breeding is a key area of investment in African agricultural development, as supported by the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Platform and large donor funded programmes (such as those of the CGIAR and the BMGF) (Whitfield, 2015). As climate risks and incidences of acute stress (both climatic and non-climatic) intensify across southern Africa, impacting on agricultural production and food security (Jones and Thornton, 2003, Ramirez-Villegas and Thornton, 2015), the development and adoption of improved seeds are looked to as a way of building climate resilience. Targeting the development of traits such as early maturity and drought tolerance in dominant food crops (such as maize and rice) is justified in part of the basis of contributing towards climate resilience (see for example the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa initiative).

In order to effectively build resilience within seed systems, McGuire and Sperling (2013) argue that innovation should be informed by relevant information at appropriate temporal scales. This includes shared learning between crop breeding programmes and the climate and climate impacts science community about what traits to crops and traits to target within breeding programmes. It also includes shared learning between breeding programmes and farmers about varietal preferences and performance under climate conditions.

Because of the accelerated rate at which climatic conditions are changing across sub-Saharan Africa, and the time lags associated with the development and delivery of improved seed varieties (Challinor et al., 2016), it is essential that future projections of climate impacts help to shape the priorities and approaches to breeding climate resilient seeds. There is significant potential, for example, for studies of future crop suitability (Rippke et al., 2016) to help point to priority crops and target analogue climatic environments from which to source germplasm for breeding, or for projections of the combined effects of temperature and rainfall variability to inform an understanding of the costs and benefits of targeting early maturing traits. There is potential for assessments of the rate and severity of climate change to inform ongoing debate in many African countries over technological advances in crop breeding (such as around GM technology) (Challinor, et al., 2016). There is also significant potential for studies of climate adaptation within rural livelihoods and for farmer seed choices and decision making to shape the way in which new seeds are targeted, delivered and disseminated.

However, work being undertaken through the GCRF-AFRICAP programme, at the University of Leeds, suggests that this shared learning is currently limited, and that crop breeding programmes are informed only to a very limited extent by targeted climate information and understandings of the multiple ways in which farmers are responding and adapting to these changes.



This project represents an opportunity to build on the work of the GCRF-AFRICAP programme to investigate opportunities for and constraints on information sharing and learning for building resilience to climate change within seed systems in sub-Saharan Africa. There is an exciting opportunity to integrate and build on work in the Sustainability Research Institute on seed system process and bottlenecks in Africa (Whitfield, 2017), in the Centre for Plant Sciences on crop root architecture and rhizosphere processes, and advancing breeding techniques and technologies (Roychoudhry et al., 2017), and in the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science on climate impacts on African food crops (Rippke et al., 2016; Challinor et al., 2016).

Depending on the expertise and interests of the student, the proposed project will potentially involve a combination of:

(1) the use of climate and crop impact modelling tools for evaluating the implications of climate impacts on key crop types and varieties and to investigate the trade-offs associated with different target traits (such as early maturity);

(2) analysis of multi-country household and seed choice survey data, and  conducting participatory rural livelihoods research, for evaluating the farmer seed strategies in case study countries;

(3) case-study based evaluations of technological crop breeding capabilities and seed system processes in southern Africa, (including those which provide a contrast in terms of breeding and seed system advancement as well as alternative regulatory stances on transgenic and non-transgenic technologies for crop improvement)

Through cross-disciplinary research, the project will provide unique insight into (1) the effectiveness of varied crop breeding strategies for agricultural climate change adaptation; (2) novel ways in which climate projections and rural livelihoods research can inform crop breeding strategies; and (3) key areas of constraint or investment/capacity building priorities for policy, technological and/or informational development build climate resilience in seed systems.


Potential Impact

The project has been designed to align closely with the Global Food and Environment Institute priority areas of ‘Food and Environment’ and ‘Food and Livelihoods in the Global South’; the ‘Future Crops’ initiative of the Centre for Plant Science and the priority area of the Priestley International Centre for Climate of ‘applying climate data to new research challenges’.

The project would also benefit from being closely aligned with the GCRF-AFRICAP programme, in which all supervisors are co-investigators and which has a specific geographic focus on Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi. The PhD would benefit from links to project partners, such as the Zambian Agricultural Consultative Forum, who have national seed systems expertise, as well as access to a substantial household survey dataset generated through the project. The PhD represents an area of research that is additional, but complementary, to the planned research capacity building work under GCRF-AFRICAP. There is potential for this PhD project to add understanding of innovation pathways and development constraints to the GCRF-AFRICAP work and to help effectively target the capacity building efforts that are being undertaken within it.

Through GCRF-AFRICAP there are a number of potential pathways to research impact into which this project could feed. The programme is hosting a series of regional and country-level stakeholder dialogues with policy makers and research institutions (including agricultural and crop breeding research institutions) across southern Africa. These dialogue events will provide opportunities for the research to be presented, discussed with, and shaped by key audiences for the work, at an early stage and throughout the PhD.



As well as benefiting from the central research training programme provided through the Panorama DTP (, the project offers a variety of associated training.

As a GCRF-AFRICAP aligned PhD project, the student would be part of a wide cross disciplinary team of researchers, at a variety of research stages (from PhD to professorial) at the University of Leeds. Monthly meetings of this team will offer an opportunity for regular interaction and the sharing of research ideas and updates with this team. There will also be opportunities for participating in and feeding into the capacity building activities associated with the programme, these include bespoke research training workshops and research seminars.

The student would be a part of both the Environment and Development research group within the Sustainability Research Institute and the Climate Impacts Group of the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Leeds. These groups will place the student within cohorts of PhD students at the same stage as well as regular interaction with PhD students, post-doctoral researchers, and staff at different career stages. The groups provide forums for presenting and gaining feedback on research as well as reading groups and broader research discussion and development.

Through the project, the student will be able to access specific training on climate and climate impacts modelling tools, and participatory and social science research methods. The student will also have access to training provided through the faculty and university on specific research methods and computer programmes, as well as non-technical professional development training, such as ‘managing your supervisors’, and ‘preparing for your viva’. A training needs assessment undertaken at the start of the PhD will ensure that opportunities are tailored to the student’s specific requirements.


Student Profile

The student should have a keen interest in developing and applying interdisciplinary approaches to research. They should have a background in a relevant discipline – such as climate and climate impacts science, plant science, environmental science, geography, sustainability, international development – and a desire to learn and apply approaches from other disciplines. They will have some familiarity or experience of working in agriculture, development, or seed systems in an African context and a willingness to travel and conduct research in eastern/southern Africa.



Challinor, A.J., Koehler, A.K., Ramirez-Villegas, J., Whitfield, S. and Das, B., 2016. Current warming will reduce yields unless maize breeding and seed systems adapt immediately. Nature Climate Change6(10), pp.954-958.

Jones, P.G. and Thornton, P.K., 2003. The potential impacts of climate change on maize production in Africa and Latin America in 2055. Global environmental change13(1), pp.51-59

McGuire, S. and Sperling, L., 2013. Making seed systems more resilient to stress. Global Environmental Change, 23(3), pp.644-653.

Ramirez-Villegas J, Thornton PK. 2015. Climate change impacts on African crop production. CCAFS Working Paper no. 119. Copenhagen, Denmark: CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)

Rippke, U., Ramirez-Villegas, J., Jarvis, A., Vermeulen, S.J., Parker, L., Mer, F., Diekkrüger, B., Challinor, A.J. and Howden, M., 2016. Timescales of transformational climate change adaptation in sub-Saharan African agriculture. Nature Climate Change6(6), pp.605-609.

Roychoudhry, S., Kieffer, M., Del Bianco, M., Liao, C.Y., Weijers, D., Kepinski, S., 2017. The developmental and environmental regulation of gravitropic setpoint angle in Arabidopsis and bean. Scientific Reports 7 DOI:10.1038/srep42664

Whitfield, S., 2015. Adapting to climate uncertainty in African agriculture: narratives and knowledge politics. Routledge.

Whitfield, S., 2017. GM Crops ‘For Africa’. In Sumberg, J (eds.) Agronomy for Development: The Politics of Knowledge in Agricultural Research, Earthscan pp.44-58.