Seed organisation to launch new drive in Africa

Saturday March 14 2015


The African Seed Access Index (Tasai) will launch a new initiative to boost the seed sector in Africa targeting smallholder farmers from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The initiative will monitor the state of Africa’s rapidly evolving seed sector by issuing detailed scorecards on seed development and distribution.

Scorecards by Cornell University’s International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (Ciifad) in US, for the four countries found that they are moving away from state-run monopolies as farmers face long waits for new varieties.

“We think that by tracking indicators along the seed delivery chain — like the number of crop breeders, varieties released, industry competitiveness, availability of seed in small packages, and quality of the seed policy framework — investors and policymakers can target choke points that are impeding the flow of seeds to smallholder farmers,” said Ed Mabaya, assistant director of Ciifad and head of the Tasai project.

Tasai’s analysis rates Kenya as poor in industry competiveness as government-controlled companies still account for the lion’s share of seed sales,  a situation that can discourage new start-ups from entering the market.

But South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe were rated excellent in this category as their governments have largely got out of the seed business. In South Africa, seed production appears to be thriving, but the country scores poorly when it comes to making seeds accessible to smallholder farmers.

Overall, Uganda’s seed sector is growing, but is potentially burdened with weak seed policies and regulations. And Zimbabwe’s once vibrant seed sector is showing signs of decline.

“In Uganda, there is strong demand from farmers for our seeds, but we still face constraints that limit how much seed we can sell,” said Josephine Okot, chief executive of Kampala-based Victoria Seeds Ltd.

The analysis shows that Kenya gets relatively good marks for its seed policies but scores poorly on efforts to purge fake seeds from the market, a problem that is growing in many countries.

South Africa scores well for having a competitive seed sector and for shepherding new varieties from breeders to farmers relatively quickly. It takes an average of 17 months to release a new variety in South Africa, compared with three years in Kenya and Uganda, and almost two years in Zimbabwe.

But while South Africa stands out for having developed a large, mature and diverse commercial seed sector, it scores poorly compared with the other countries when it comes to making seeds available to farmers in small packages (less than five kilos).

Kenyan seed companies, on the other hand, “outshine all other countries” in this category, according to Tasai’s analysis. Agriculture experts say that is important because in Kenya, as in most other countries in the region, smallholder farmers account for the majority of crop production, and they want seeds in relatively small packages.

“It’s crucial that smallholder farmers in Africa have access to a wide range of crop varieties, because small farms are the mainstay of food production in the region,” said Joe Devries, the director of the Programme for African Seed Systems at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra).

“Seeds may not be a cure-all, but without a healthy seed sector, it’s hard to see how African farmers can satisfy the food demands of a population growing faster than any on earth and adapt to the effects of climate change that are rapidly altering farming conditions.”