Getting seeds to smallholders calls for a business approach

24Jul 2020
The Guardian
Getting seeds to smallholders calls for a business approach

​​​​​​​SMALLHOLDER farmers in Africa, mostly women, wage silent battles against elements and other forces beyond their control to feed their families, villages and countries.

They have historically taken the lead in feeding Africa and are destined to continue playing this role for the foreseeable future. They are diligent, smart, resourceful and courageous.

They face a host of natural and other threats to their lives and livelihoods. Often, their only defence seems to be more work, more suffering, and reduced expectations for the future.

Most of the world was once caught up in this same struggle. A few vocal anti-technology activists would have us believe otherwise, but the extent to which agrarian societies have emerged from poverty and hunger largely depends on their adoption of modern farming technologies.

Principal among these has been seed of improved, higher-yielding crop varieties. While mechanisation, fertilisers, improved storage and other technologies are all important in making farming more efficient, better seeds are a major catalyst for change – the ‘software’ that powers crops and lets farmers profitably integrate other technologies.

Without quality seeds, few other attempts to increase farmers’ yields succeed or prove sustainable. Yet in spite of much ink spilled, international conferences organised, and money spent, sub-Saharan Africa’s smallholder farmers still have limited access to seeds of high-yielding, locally-adapted varieties of their staple food crops.

As it turns out, establishing dependable systems for supplying seed of improved varieties is probably the most difficult part of agricultural development.

Seeds constitute a living technology, and Africa’s highly diverse cropping landscape creates micro-climates that require myriad location-specific varieties.

In Africa, the dream of solving the seed supply problem has seen more than its share of false starts. Governments and donor agencies have intervened with ambitious projects, several failing to account for local farmer preferences or long-term viability. Most have ended badly, leaving a legacy of low quality seed, broken supply chains, rusted seed processors, and disappointed farmers.

Africa’s farmers have continued planting whatever seed they have in hand, all the while suffering the indignity of being thought resistant to change and uninterested in new technologies.It is time things went right for Africa’s farmers. Supplying improved seeds is mostly a business proposition – complex and rather unglamorous, but a business nonetheless.

We needed people who could understand which seeds smallholder farmers would buy, how much they would pay for them, and how much of the seeds was needed.

For their part, the farmers needed to be made correctly aware of the new seed, including through small demonstration plots on their own land.

Farmer participation in breeding and selecting improved seed varieties can take years. But once a new variety is released, breeders teach local companies how to produce the seed at scale.

Seed companies integrate production, processing and marketing activities based on their ability to supply quality seed to farmers at affordable prices.

National crop breeding groups supported by AGRA have released over 400 new crop varieties in the past seven years. In 2012, a total of 80 seed companies produced 57,000 tonnes of certified seeds.

The picture is promising for Africa’s long-suffering farmers. Official crop yield data from countries as diverse as Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mali and Uganda show significant increases in recent years. This is as it should be. It’s something to encourage – and build on.