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Tracing the Ancestry of Groundnuts in Malawi

Woman working in Groundnut field in MalawiGroundnut farmer in Khulungira, Malawi. Photo: ILRI/Mann.

9 February 2023

Take Home Messages

  • Genebanks can provide plant breeders with the genetic diversity they need to improve crops.
  • Several improved groundnut varieties in Malawi can trace their ancestry to the genebank of the International Crops Research Institute (ICRISAT).
  • Farmers that cultivated improved groundnut varieties whose ancestry could be traced to the ICRISAT genebank are more likely to participate in markets.

A study published in CABI Agriculture and Bioscience has documented the crucial role of genebanks as sources of crop diversity for improved food security and incomes of smallholder farmers. The study found that several commonly planted improved groundnut varieties in Malawi that can trace their ancestry to the genebank of the International Crops Research Institute (ICRISAT) have helped farmers increase their participation in markets.

Crop breeders need diverse genetic material in order to improve crops. Much of that diversity has been lost in farmers’ fields, and even when it is still there can be difficult for breeders to access. So, breeders turn to genebanks, where diverse samples of crops are conserved and made available. The ICRISAT genebank serves as a world repository for the diversity of many important pulse crops, including groundnuts – also known as peanuts. The genebank holds more than 15,000 samples of wild and cultivated groundnuts from all over the world, so it’s an important port of call for groundnut breeders in search of new diversity.

The benefits of adopting improved varieties have been documented in many rural settings, but little attention has been paid to the role of genebanks in this process, even though they are often the ultimate source of key traits used by plant breeders in their efforts to improve the crop.

“In this study, we wanted to quantify the contribution of the ICRISAT genebank to one crop in one country,” said Martin Paul Jr. Tabe-Ojong, an agricultural economist and lead author of the paper. “So, we examined the contribution of the ICRISAT genebank to the development of improved groundnut varieties used by farmers in Malawi. We then related this contribution to market outcomes, such as market participation and the quantity of groundnut sold in markets.”

The researchers analyzed the pedigrees of six improved groundnut varieties in Malawi and determined that four of them had ancestors from the ICRISAT genebank.

“Our analysis indicates that access to genetic resources from the ICRISAT genebank has resulted in the development of improved varieties with traits that farmers really like, such as higher yields and resistance to diseases,” said Martin who conducted the research as a Genebank Impact Fellow.

The researchers then analyzed data from 447 households in rural Malawi to determine the impact those improved varieties had on smallholder’s commercial activities. They concluded that farmers who adopted the improved varieties with ancestors from the ICRISAT genebank got greater yields and surpluses and incurred lower costs. That created more opportunities to sell their crop in local groundnut markets.

“Our results demonstrate the importance of genebanks in the development of new varieties that farmers actually adopt,” concluded Martin. “These improved varieties have had a direct impact on the farmers’ participation in markets and highlights the importance of the continuous global flow of germplasm.”


Martin Paul Jr. Tabe-Ojong is an Associate Research Fellow in the Development, Strategy and Governance Division (DSGD) of IFPRI. Passionate about international development, poverty reduction and shared prosperity, he has focused his research on selected areas of development, agricultural and behavioral economics, using econometric impact evaluation. He has worked on issues covering agricultural transformation and rural poverty and development. His ongoing work includes social protection and labor market outcomes, digitalization in agriculture, and socio-emotional skills. Martin received his PhD in Agricultural Economics from the University of Bonn, Germany.

The Genebank Impacts Fellowship program was established in 2018 to provide an opportunity for early career professionals to gain practice-based experience in evaluating the impacts of the international genebanks. This experience is complemented by mentorship from impact assessment specialists and plant genetic resources scientists in the global system for ex situ conservation.

Categories: Genebank Platform, Groundnut

The CGIAR Genebank Platform

This article was originally published by the CGIAR Genebank Platform, a project which ran from 2017 to the end of 2021. It enabled CGIAR Research Centers to fulfill their legal obligation to conserve and make available 750,000 seed samples of crops and trees on behalf of the global community under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Platform supported day-to-day genebank operations, and activities to improve efficiency, enhance use and ensure compliance with international policy. This work was supported jointly by donor contributions to the CGIAR Fund and the Crop Trust Endowment Fund.

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