The availability of high-quality seeds is critical to achieve high crop productivity for a food secure country. But this has remained a pipe dream within Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) despite the region having huge potential to maximise its agricultural productivity by leveraging on countries with advanced and robust seed systems.
Whereas several crop varieties have been registered in recent years, countries in the region are still lagging in achieving seed security. For example, some 117 climate-smart maize hybrids branded DroughtTEGO® were released under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project that was implemented by African Agricultural Technology Foundation and its partners in five SSA countries including Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.
In addition, improved maize hybrids were released from the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa breeding programme of The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, bean and sorghum/millet varieties from The International Center for Tropical Agriculture and The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics breeding programmes respectively.
During planting season, the shortage of high-quality seeds is more acute in some countries. This increases the likelihood of farmers recycling their own saved seeds or buying fake varieties from unscrupulous traders. The re-use of low-yielding farm saved seeds and often disease-ridden crop varieties makes it impossible for smallholder farmers to improve their yield.
A few initiatives have been funded to implement state-of-the art crop breeding, robust seed certification processes, harmonisation of regulations to address shortages of high-quality seeds and facilitate seed trade in SSA countries. These have, however, failed to achieve the desired goal of guaranteeing seed security in the region.
This begs the question: What is the missing link to strengthen regional seed systems for enhanced regional seed trade?
The regionally harmonised seed regulations under Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, Southern African Development Community, East African Community and Economic Community of West African States have not been fully domesticated to achieve the desired goal of seed security in the region.
In fact, when Comesa countries adopted the harmonised seed trade protocol in 2011, there was hope for smallholder farmers to fully benefit from the move. The effort was geared towards facilitating easy release and access to quality seed of improved varieties, and to allow more efficient movement of seeds within the region.
The small and fragmented national markets and inadequate regional market integration due to inconsistent polices denies smallholder farmers in the region the opportunity of realising the benefits of genetic gains offered by improved crop varieties.
With harmonisation of regulations, seed trade constraints will be reduced, and regional markets will become attractive and commercially viable. This will enhance farmers’ access to seed through faster release of crop varieties, simplified customs procedures and distribution within the region.
Analysis of seed policies is still being conducted with matching recommendations, but various governments have largely not yet implemented meaningful interventions to ensure adequate seed access by smallholder farmers.
To achieve regional seed security, countries need to leverage on harmonised regulations that offer opportunity to use same certification standards. This implies that countries with high comparative advantage in the production of certain seed crops should be allowed to produce surplus.
For instance, Zambia and South Africa have advanced and robust seed certification schemes and their seed regulatory environments facilitate seed business that have together, translated into high levels of seed crops productivity. This would provide other countries in the region that are not yet at this level of comparative advantage, the opportunity to import required seeds to meet their farmers’ requirements. Such countries must however put policies in place that make it easier to import the required seed.
Thorough assessment of a country’s capacity and advance planning of up to two seasons can allow countries with limited capacity to place seed orders for production in other countries and import the same to meet in-country seed demand.
This will facilitate viable seed business and subsequent attainment of seed security in the region. It will also enhance regional trade and free SSA countries from the current fragmented national markets and inadequate regional market integration due to inconsistent implementation of policies.
Dr Munyaradzi Jonga is the seeds production manager at African Agricultural Technology Foundation