Most people living in rural communities in developing countries depend on crops. While donor-funded seed development programs for staple crops have improved the capacity of seed companies, as well as their market connections and distribution systems, high-quality seeds of improved varieties are simply not reaching enough smallholder farmers.
More than 80 percent of these smallholders save seed from their crop production or barter and buy it from neighbors, village markets, or market-day traders. This seed tends to be of old varieties and varies in quality from poor to fair to good. Self-sustaining, market-based systems that deliver a sufficient quantity of improved varieties are necessary to strengthen agriculture-dependent populations.
By working with formal and informal seed system actors to identify and address systemic failures, we can align their incentives to farmer demand for seed that improves productivity, resilience, and inclusivity.
We believe concentrated efforts in the following four areas will improve seed systems to benefit millions of smallholder farmers:
1. Develop Varieties That Smallholder Farmers Want
A crop variety’s performance influences how much land, other inputs, and labor farmers can justify using, which in turn influences other farmers. Yields are fundamental to farmers and to research, but public and private plant breeders need to shift toward more market-driven, participatory varietal development. Breeders, farmers, and crop buyers must engage in the joint ranking and weighting of the traits that drive farmers’ adoption rates—such as length of crop cycle, drought tolerance, storability, cooking time, and other traits that farmers and consumers prefer. For example, Itai Makanda, Chief of Party of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Feed the Future Southern Africa Seed Trade Project, points to a case where plant breeders focused on improving white maize while poultry farmers only wanted to buy yellow maize. “When variety development is driven by markets, scarce resources can achieve real results, not just improved varieties that farmers don’t want to use,” Makanda said.
New genomic analysis tools identify the genes behind desirable seed traits so breeders can increase the rate of crop variety development with less trial-and-error iteration and provide markers for better quality control of seed multiplication and varietal maintenance after commercial release. DNA fingerprinting is now affordable, costing approximately $2 per sample for routine marker analysis. DNA fingerprinting can confirm varietal identity in seed distribution channels, on the farm, and in the aggregation and marketing channels. More sampling and fingerprinting would improve accurate descriptions of the varietal demand structure, the transfer of favorable traits to new varieties, and provide timely (before planting) evidence on which seed supply channels are trustworthy.
DNA fingerprinting supports the description and release of local “landraces,” or effective local varieties, helping to realize the promise of the 2014 Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing.
2. Include Smallholder Farmers in Planning Seed Production
Seed companies need accurate sales forecasts to accurately multiply varieties and package saleable, certified products. The process of moving from breeder to foundation to certified seed takes three to four years: underforecasting can make it impossible to meet demand and overforecasting can result in wasted time and investment. Seed producers rely on sales history, land cultivation trends, and government programming to predict demand. These forecasts are dynamic and data collection and analysis is time sensitive.
Smallholder seed purchases from formal channels varies greatly, from 5 percent (for common beans in Zambia) to 80 percent (hybrid maize in Kenya), a range that is reflected across Africa. Demand by smallholders is difficult to quantify, and it is easy to understand how seed producers play it safe by underestimating this demand and, consequently, the market potential of smallholders and investment needed to meet their demand.
To improve sales to smallholder farmers, seed systems need strengthened relationships between seed producers and sellers and farmer groups. Seed companies can develop their seed brand and build market share through careful attention to farmer input in areas such as crop timing, package sizes, price points, and preferred varieties. Demonstration plots can be improved to provide better two-way information exchange with farming communities on key micro-climate and management variables that drive crop variety adoption through seed sales. Online brochures of available seed varieties would contribute, as would timely public release of national performance trial and comparative demonstration data prior to the next planting season.
3. Realign Retail Distribution Networks to be More Inclusive
Providing customers with timely, demand-driven products requires a clear focus on the customer. This customer focus is critical to seed distribution networks in developing countries. Instead, many activities today focus on a single-channel model: the improvement of agro-dealer record-keeping, financial capacity, and supplier linkages. Development assistance can realign seed systems to be multi-channel and customer-oriented, shifting from profit-maximizing practices such as high margins to inclusive practices that boost sales volume. To put this in practice, seed companies and their distributors need to modify branding activities and improve merchandizing, inventory management, and retailer network expansion practices to bring high-quality seed closer to farmers and inspire farmers to make wiser seed decisions.
4. Put Improved Policies and Regulations Into Practice
Bangladesh’s and Turkey’s implementation of their reformed varietal release programs quickly improved national average crop yields of staple food crops. Similar reform and implementation are needed in most low- and low-middle-income countries, including to: increase focus on implementation of seed certification and quality testing; bridge the divide between formal and informal seed markets; increase the speed of commercial release of and trade in varieties in regional seed catalogues; and improve research and commercialization licensing to transfer germplasm between companies and countries.
To fill a major gap, policy makers and national seed authorities must review and customize seed indicator frameworks, with a focus on assessing the effects on stakeholders of seed-law implementation. Stakeholders, including seed trade associations, need to prioritize and operationalize their advocacy to improve seed-system performance indicators, such as those included in the African Seed Access Index (TASAI) and the World Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture. These indicators track regulatory changes and their effect on crop varietal development and release, seed quality assurance and fraud suppression, seed costs relative to commodity prices, and the efficiency of seed trade. On the private-sector side, the Access to Seed Index evaluates and compares seed companies on how well they improve smallholder farmer access to quality seeds of improved varieties, a barometer for self-improvement by participating seed companies, of which there are only 23 currently.
Building Resilience Into Seed Systems
Resilient seed producers are ones that can withstand and quickly recover from shocks created by markets, weather, diseases, and conflict so they can continue to provide seed to their customers. One way to be resilient is to breed varieties that are resistant to drought, heat, disease, and insects and other pests. Another is to build operational resilience into the seed system itself using performance-based management, product traceability systems to spot problems quickly, quality testing—biological and DNA—to prevent seed-lot contamination, input insurance to reduce risk, and pre-approved credit lines that can be quickly accessed by farmers and seed sellers.
Seed producers should also have emergency plans, such as standing agreements to participate in seed voucher programs that help customers purchase seed after a crop loss. Most of Africa’s food supply is tied to seed, and the number one seed challenge in sub-Saharan Africa is quality. Low-quality seed of crops in high demand means lost opportunities to improve livelihoods and diets. Poor quality seed leads to poor germination rates and farmers wasting time, labor, and money to prepare their fields. When crop production goes down, consumer prices go up but not farmer profits.
The vast majority of food grown in Africa is by smallholder farmers. Implementing these four recommendations will speed up the process of putting improved seed in the hands of Africa’s food growers permanently.