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Senegal: Putting African Onions in the Pink

West Africans are choosy about their onions. In produce markets, people turn up their noses at red or yellow bulbs, preferring only the pink-hued onions of a locally grown variety known as Violet di Galmi.

Because red, yellow and pink onions all grow from this variety, onion growers end up taking a loss on the undesirable shades. And that’s a problem that Tropica Sem, a West-African seed company that supplies most of those growers, would like to see solved.

In 2007, the company called on CALS onion breeding expert Michael Havey MS’83 PhD’84 to help them grow a higher percentage of pink onions in their production fields near Dakar, Senegal’s capital city. Havey showed Tropica Sem’s breeders how to stabilize the pink-color trait in their population of Violet di Galmi.

“I showed them how you can select plants that breed true for pink bulbs and then make what we call a synthetic population,” says Havey, a horticulture professor and a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s a population that’s been developed using the best of what existed naturally in the open-pollinated cultivar.”

But Havey brought something else, as well-a collection of onion seeds for a plant he developed in UW’s Walnut Street Greenhouses and Arlington Experimental Farm. The seeds will enable the company to develop hybrid onions, which although more expensive than traditional open-pollinated varieties, could open new markets for African onion growers.

“One of the goals of this work is to help small seed companies in Africa so that not all of the seed is coming from outside the continent,” says Havey, “but, instead, these local seed companies are able to serve their individual markets.”

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