Africa’s informal seed system needs to be brought in from the cold

Shawn McGuire Correspondent
African governments and donors have spent huge sums of money on seed systems.

Simply put, seed systems are networks of organisations, individuals, and rules that produce and distribute seed.

African governments, as well as donors, have invested in seed systems for decades, on the basis that these systems supply farmers with new crops varieties developed through research.

Up to now nearly all of this investment has supported the formal seed system which includes the state and private-sector organisations that operate under official regulations. Generally, such seed is officially certified to meet defined quality standards such as germination rates and purity. It is packaged and sold in commercial outlets like agro-dealers. Sometimes seed from this system is given away by aid programmes. Our paper shows that small-scale farmers get more than 90 percent of their seed from informal systems. This is seed saved after harvests, obtained from other farmers, or bought in local — often open — markets.

For delivering new crop varieties, the most common approach to informal seed systems has been benign neglect. There has been an assumption that once formal seed systems are established, farmers would increasingly seek their seeds from formal channels. The problem is that they don’t.

Why the system doesn’t work for many farmers

In what may be the largest ever study of seed transactions, we looked at almost 10 000 cases across Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Haiti.

We found that small farmers obtained only 2 percentage of their seed from agro-dealer shops. Another 7 percent got theirs from government, the UN or NGO aid.

Farmers got the other 90 percent from informal systems. There were many in the field who knew this anecdotally. But the size and scope — more than 40 crops — of our study makes the significance of the informal system hard to ignore.

This does not mean that the formal agro-dealer shops are failures. It is simply that they have a niche focus. Their limitations include the fact that they:

supply only a few crops like maize and vegetable packets;

are located in towns; and

tend to be patronised by farmers with enough cash to buy seed packets larger than 5kg.

Farmers who live far from towns, who want a crop other than maize, or who don’t want — or can’t afford — large packs of certified seed are currently less well-served. This is a tragedy, as these farmers could benefit from having more choice and access to many innovations. For example, legumes like beans or cowpeas can improve nutrition and enrich soils. Stress-tolerant crops can help cope with difficult climates. New varieties exist that could help, but they need to reach small farmers quickly and effectively.

The way forward

Thankfully, another key finding suggests a way forward. Small farmers are buying more than half of their seed in the informal system, mainly from local markets and independent traders.

For some crops, like grain legumes, two-thirds of seed is bought in local markets every year. This means that farmers can be an important customer group if the market actively serves them. Seed sold in informal markets is rarely certified, except for vegetable packets. But farmers know and trust the vendors and often can get seed that meets their quality needs. These sources are preferred by many, particularly women, because they are accessible, reach remote areas, and offer a wider crop choice. Farmers are interested in trying new crops and varieties, especially for grain legumes with traits that are useful. These include high protein, market value, or stress tolerance. — Conversation Africa.

Shawn McGuire is a Senior Lecturer in Natural Resources and Development, University of East Anglia

Louise Sperling, a senior technical advisor for Catholic Relief Services, featured as a co-author on the article.

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