A compilation of photos showing different seed collecting activities across Africa
Seed Conservation across Africa

The earliest seed accession stored at the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) that originated from the African continent seems to be from Kenya of Crabbea velutina - a widespread African Acanthaceae. It was originally donated to Kew in 1961 as a small collection of some 600 seeds by Peter Bally then working at what is now the East African Herbarium in Nairobi. It was eventually transferred to our deep freezers at Wakehurst Place in 1972 yet still remains alive with a germination rate of 100% recorded on its last test in 2006. Ex situ for 55 years, frozen for 44 years and counting….

Since those early days, and especially since we launched the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP) in the year 2000, the duplicated collections from mainland Africa held at the MSB has risen to some 17,875 collections from 42 African countries with a further 4,062 collections from Madagascar. This represents at least one collection from each of 11,221 species. For mainland Africa this still only represents c.16% of all species, and perhaps 20% of all desiccation tolerant species.

And whilst this gives us at least one representative collection from nearly three quarters of all plant families on mainland Africa we have sampled just 42% of all genera. So, still significant collections to be made to truly build a taxonomically representative and useful African collection.

And that should read - "..a set of African collections." ; our programme today sees significant seed collecting programmes active in 9 countries each delivering a substantial and vital national seed collection for economic development, support to agriculture and a resource to ensure the species and habitats these countries are so dependent on can always be restored and saved.

Current projects (click project titles for details)

Funder: Kirby Laing Foundation

The Flora of Ethiopia consists of c.6000 plant species with a level of endemicity of c.10%. Almost none of these c.600 endemic plant species are secured as ex situ collections. This project requires significant seed collection targeting and therefore will rely heavily on the resources and expertise of the National Herbarium (ETH) hosted at the Department of Botany, Faculty of Science, Addis Ababa University (AAU).

Dr Tamene Yohannes stood next to the flowering stalk of Aloe debrana
Dr. Tamene Yohannes of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute with Aloe debrana, a rather common endemic plant growing around Addis Ababa. (Photo: Tim Pearce, RBG Kew).

We will make over 500 seed collections from some 250 (c.40%) of these high profile endemic plant species. We will maintain a focus on threatened woody and tree species with at least 100 of these species being threatened endemic woody species (sensu Vivero JL et al. 2005). This collecting plan directly address the targets as articulated in the Ethiopian National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan as well as deliverables its obligations as stated in the National GTP2 strategic document

The collections made will be stored in the Forest Genetic Resources Seed Bank of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI) in Addis Ababa and duplicated to a recently completed EBI-managed seed storage facility within the Fiche Biodiversity Gene Bank. Germination studies will be undertaken at EBI and training of EBI/AAU staff will be undertaken at RBG Kew Millennium Seed Bank and Herbarium. In-country training courses will be offered in Seed Conservation Techniques, and Data Management & Herbarium Digitisation.

Funder: People's Postcode Lottery

Zambia is rich in plant diversity with some 6,280 different plant species currently recorded. There are several priority conservation sites in Zambia of key environmental and economic values such as upper Zambezi River, Itigi Sumbu thickets, Nyika plateau region, Baikiaea forests, mining areas and many others. All these habitats consists species of useful plants, endemic, rare and endangered in Zambia which need long term in situ and ex situ conservation strategies for current and future use. For instance, various authors list 318 endemic/near endemic plant species whilst the IUCN global Plant Red Data Lists currently record 28 species at EN (endangered), VU (vulnerable), NT (near threatened), LR/NT (lower risk, near threatened) categories.

A road with Miombo woodland either side
Miombo Woodland, widespread and frequently threatened habitat across Zambia. (Photo: Tim Pearce, RBG Kew).

In response to the Zambian National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan formulated in 1999, the Forestry Research Division (FRD) of the Ministry of Lands, Natural Resource & Environmental Protection is committed to developing a National Seed Collection of a wide range of Zambian plant species, available to potential end-users. Focus will be on species of high utility and of conservation concern based on conservation status, endemicity and economic value. Over 300 collections will be made from at least 270 species. We also have an opportunity to strengthen the capacity and begin digitisation of the collections at the FRD Forest Herbarium (NDO). This will result in contributions of the Zambian flora through production of species conservation assessments. We will develop a dedicated website for the Forestry Research Division, showing collections of herbarium specimens and seed collections held at the FRD Seed Bank and Herbarium.

Funders: Arcadia; Garfield Weston Foundation

Quiver trees dotted across a slope surrounded by a ground flora of pink flowers
The iconic southern African species, Aloidendron dichotomum or "Quiver Tree", endemic to the Northern Cape and Southern Namibia. (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy, RBG Kew).

To find out more about this programme of work please visit our project page.

Funder: People's Postcode Lottery

In Ghana, the rate of depletion of the forest resources continues to cause alarm. International agencies estimate that the annual deforestation rate in Ghana is assumed to be 135,395ha, representing an annual loss of 2.1% forest cover. Of the country's original forest cover of 8.2 million ha at the beginning of the 20th Century only about 1.6 million ha remain. With >70% of the Ghanaian population depend on natural resources for their basic food, water and energy requirements, the need to accelerate the ex situ conservation of Ghana's most threatened and economically important species is of vital national importance.

Six logging trucks lined up along a roadside
Ghana's valuable tree species

This 5 year project starts in january 2018 and will be jointly managed by the CSIR-Forestry Research Institute of Ghana in Kumasi and the Botany Department of the University of Ghana in Accra. It will focus on, but not be limited to, the establishment of ex situ seed collections from the many useful, threatened or rare woody plant species indigenous to Ghana. At least 600 seed collections will be made from over 500 plant species. More than 50% of these collections will be from species identified in the prioritization process which will be completed during year 1 of the project.

Funders: Arcadia; Garfield Weston Foundation

A pool of water surrounded by forest and forested mountains
Lebombo Mountains. (Photo: Jo Osborne, RBG Kew).

To find out more about this programme of work please visit our project page.

Funders: Arcadia; Grantham Foundation

Namibia lies in the second driest area in Africa after the Sahara, and is the most arid country in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this, both woodlands and desert species are found in the country. Some iconic species exist such as Welwitschia, but there are many other endemic, rare and distinctive plants. About 4,000 seed plants are indigenous to Namibia and almost 15% are considered endemic to the country. Namibia shares two Centres of Plant Endemism and Diversity (CPED) with neighbouring countries. The Kaokoveld CPED (Angola) in the north and the Gariep CPED (South Africa) in the south.

Kirkia dewinteri growing out of a rocky outcrop
The Namibian endemic Kirkia dewinteri restricted to rocky outcrops in the North of the country. (Photo: Herta Kolberg, NBRI).

The Millennium Seed Bank has been working with the National Botanical Research Institute of Namibia (NBRI) since 2001. The collection programme is undertaken by a small team funded externally to NBRI but working in tandem with the Namibian Plant Genetic Resources Centre (NBRI-NPGRC) and the National Herbarium (NBRI-WIND). To date we have secured 1,241 collections from Namibia covering some 1,068 species.

Past projects (click project titles for details)

Funder: Arcadia

The Afromontane Plant Conservation Project aimed to conserve seeds of 250 species from the high altitude mountains of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The East African mountains are part of the Eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot, one of 34 global hotspots identified by Conservation International. The mountains, which are the highest on the African continent, each up to 5800 m above sea level and are home to many unique and threatened plant species.

Typically the Afromontane flora is found above 2000 m (White, 1983). Moving up these mountains, the lowland tropical montane forests, characterised by juniper and Podocarpus, are replaced by tall bamboos and shrubby heathers as the altitude increases. Predominantly, above 3500 m, an Afroalpine zone is common with many unique plants adapted to the high altitudes for example Dendrosenecio or "giant groundsel" and the tall, sometimes woody "giant" Lobelia. Many of these plant species are endemic to only one or two mountain ranges.

A grassy mountainside dotted with giant groundsel plants
Dendrosenecio keniodendron, a Giant Groundsel endemic to Mt. Kenya and Mt. Aberdare. (Photo: Emma Williams, RBG Kew).

Climate change models predict an increase in temperatures between 1.8-4.3℃ in East Africa by 2080 with associated changes to rainfall patterns (IPCC, 2007). Already glaciers on the two highest mountains, Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, are in noticeable significant retreat. We know that high altitude plant species are particularly sensitive to climate change. As temperatures increase the range of suitable mountain habitats decreases which leads to a risk of species extinction. In Europe, upwards range shifts of alpine plant species have already been documented (Lenoir et al., 2008). Studies are ongoing in East Africa but climate change models are predicting contractions of species distributions and increased risk of extinction for mountain endemics.

Funder: Garfield Weston Foundation

The first phase of the Garfield Weston Global Tree Seed Bank Programme aimed to conserve seeds of 3,000 tree species. The African component of this project contributed 283 species towards this target. The programme worked with partner organisations in Guinea, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria.

Our Project Officer has travelled three times to Guinea and trained several in-country seed collectors. Seed collecting expeditions were made to the sandstone plateau area in Coyah, Forécariah and Kindia in Guinea, with the main destination the southern Benna Plateau. This is a table mountain, 900-1200 m high, very difficult to access for humans and with no access at all for cattle. As a result, the grassland, wooded grassland and submontane forest is little disturbed. Some patches of submontane woodland vegetation have hardly or not been disturbed by fire.

A table mountain and forested valleys
The Benna Plateau in Guinea, a table mountain, 900-1200 m high. (Photo: Xander van der Burgt, RBG Kew).

Seeds of several rare tree and shrub species were collected on the southern Benna Plateau. For example, seeds of Cailliella praerupticola (Melastomataceae) have been collected, which is a genus and species previously known only from a single collection made in 1937. A new tree species of Talbotiella (Fabaceae) was also found, which may have seeds suitable for banking, given the species was found in relatively dry forest.

A pink flower of Cailliella praerupticola
Cailliella praerupticola, a species previously known only from a single collection made in 1937. (Photo: Xander van der Burgt, RBG Kew).

A seed bank was set up in the capital of Guinea, Conakry, at the National Herbarium of Guinea, University of Gamal Abdel Nasser. In-country seed collectors are currently continuing with tree seed collecting.

Our Project Officer has travelled three times to Cameroon and trained several in-country seed collectors. Seed collecting expeditions were made to several IPA's (Important Plant Area's) in Cameroon. Seeds of many tree species were collected, some of these from rare and threatened species. For example, seeds were collected of Afraegle asso (Rutaceae), a rare tree from South Cameroon, about 40 m high. The citrus-scented fruits are up to 14 cm diameter; the seeds inside are dispersed by elephants, who find the fruits by their good sense of smell. The reduction in numbers of elephants in the region where Afraegle asso occurs, results in the seeds of this tree species not being dispersed anymore.

Whole and dissected fruits lying on the ground and a herbarium specimen sheet showing circular cross sections of a fruit of Afraegle asso
Fruits of Afraegle asso (Rutaceae), a rare tree from South Cameroon, about 40 m high. The citrus-scented fruits are up to 14 cm diameter; the seeds inside are dispersed by elephants. (Photo: Xander van der Burgt, RBG Kew).

A seed bank was set up in the capital of Cameroon, Yaoundé, at the National Herbarium of Cameroon, of the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development. In-country seed collectors are currently continuing with tree seed collecting.

The project officer was invited on two expeditions to Sierra Leone, funded by a company who is interested in protecting the rare plant species found in an area where the development of infrastructure is proposed. A small number of seed collections was made, some of which from rare tree species. For example, seeds were collected of Dialium pobeguinii (Leguminosae), a rare tree from Guinea and Sierra Leone.

A photo montage showing a rocky river flowing through a forest, a tree on the side of a river bank and a group of seeds lying on a table
(L) Gallery forest along rivers in Sierra Leone is rich in rare species such as (R) Dialium pobeguinii, a rare tree found only in Guinea and Sierra Leone. (Photo: Xander van der Burgt, RBG Kew).

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank is collaborating with the Nigerian Montane Forest Project, directed by Dr Hazel Chapman of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. The collaboration has just started, so the number of seed collections is still small, but there are good possibilities for seed collecting on the Mambilla Plateau, the study area of the Nigerian Montane Forest Project.

A forested mountain valley
The Gashaka Gumti National Park in Nigeria is located immediately to the North of the Mambilla plateau. (Photo: Felix Merklinger, RBG Kew).

Funder: Government of Norway

The main objective of the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change project was to collect, conserve and utilise the crop wild relatives of 29 globally important food crops, ensuring their long-term conservation and facilitating their use in breeding new, improved crops. The global gap analysis carried out by the project identified many areas across the African continent that were high priority for securing collections of the relatives of these 29 genepools.

A photo montage of seed collecting activities
(R) African CWR Partners on training. (L) Solanum phoxocarpum, a newly described CWR from the Aberdare Mountains in Kenya. (Photo: Tim Pearce, RBG Kew).

Within Africa we worked with national genebanks from Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda through partnerships with the following organisations:

Between 2014 and 2019 partners in these countries made 696 high quality seed collections from 58 crop wild relative taxa related to 8 target crop genepools. To achieve this, 63 staff from the African partner organisations were trained in seed conservation techniques on courses delivered in Ethiopia, Ghana, Uganda and at the Millennium Seed Bank in the UK.