African governments are stifling innovation in the seed technology and distribution by providing subsidies and other supports to state-owned seed companies that have dominated the market for years creating system inefficiencies and hurting farmers produces due to lack of access to quality seeds.
Although there has been some progress in privatizing the seed business in many African countries on the continent, governments or just one or two companies still controlled a large part of the market, Ed Mabaya, assistant director of Cornell University’s International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development said during the launch of the first ever ‘Africa Seed Access Index” (TASAI).
The TASAIndex gives an annual scorecard on the vibrancy or competitiveness of the national seed sector within African countries. Experts involved in its creation said the index will be useful to policymakers, governments, private seed companies, investors and ultimately to farmers.
“If you go to any African village you can buy a bottle of Coca Cola, but you cannot buy seeds. Why is that? [It is because] Coca Cola has a straight line from Atlanta to Kisumu, Kenya. No wonder it’s doing so well,” Mabaya, who was also the head of the TASAI project, said referring to the complexities of seed development and distribution in most African countries.
“We think that by tracking indicators along the seed delivery chain investors and policymakers can target choke points that are impeding the flow of seeds to smallholder farmers.”
According to a 2014 Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) report, the total commercial seed market in Africa is estimated to be valued at $1.1 billion, providing only enough seed to cover roughly 10 percent of the African cultivated crop area.
The process of developing new seed, however, in many African countries is also very lengthy and could take as long as 20 year to get a new variety of seed to farmers.
TASAI’s analysis rated Kenya as poor in a key measure of industry competitiveness beacuse government-controlled companies still account for the largest share of seed sales, which discouraged start-ups from entering the market.
“In 1996, the whole pie chart was one green block. Kenya Seed was the only supplier of maize seed. it’s interesting to note that that has been cut to between 75 to 80 percent thanks to a bit of prodding by emerging circumstances that require liberalization of the sector,” said Kenneth Ayuko, Kenya’s deputy director of Agriculture for policy development coordination.
Other countries such as South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe were rated excellent in this category as their governments have largely gotten out of the seed business.
However, South Africa seed production, which appears to be thriving, scores poorly when it came to making seeds accessible to smallholder farmers.
Uganda’s seed sector was cited as on the right path of growth, but potentially burden with weak seed policies and regulations could be stumbling blocks for the country, while Zimbabwe’s once vital seed sector showed signs of declining due to the “economic conditions there.”
Mabaya said that the key reason African farms lag behind even those of other developing nation is because farmers on the continent ” often lack access to improved varieties of staple crops such as maize, cowpea and sorghum.”
“Africa seed systems are too complicated with so many players. it’s amazing that any seed gets to the farmer. By the time the seed gets to the farmer it has gone through a lengthy development process of even 20 years.”
James Karanja, the founder and managing director of FresCo Seeds, said the Kenyan government had worsened the situation by creating a monopoly in the sector by assisting its state-owned firm Kenya Seed Company to the detriment of other private players in the sector.
“The company gets lucrative contracts from government and I don’t see other companies catching up if things remain the same,” said John Mburu, an agricultural economist and the project coordinator of the TASAI project.
The other big challenge facing African farmers was the proliferation of fake seeds. It is estimated that about a third of seed sold in sub-Sahara Africa is fake and is costing the continent millions of dollars in lost production.
“Fake seed is not thought as a big issue now but in five years this is what everybody will be talking about” Mabaya said.
Ayuko said ineffective regulations and legal penalties for unscrupulous traders selling fake seeds had also contributed to the menace.
“In Kenya penalties for dealing in fake seeds is just 2,000 shillings ($22). You go to court, get penalized and go back and sell fake seeds,” Ayuko said, adding several amendments to the regulations, which were still in draft form, were seeking to “enhance penalties.”
“Being a very lucrative sector you need to hit where it hurts most. We are also moving to deregistration ompanies to stop people from profiteering from killing people.”
George Bigirwa from the AGRA said the fake seed problem would become difficult to solve in the future if not taken care of now adding that a research done by the organization in three African countries showed that Uganda was most affected followed by Tanzania while Kenya had the least cases.
Selling of fake seeds in Uganda is so bad that farmers have resorted to “bronze age” agriculture where they rely on seeds saved from the previous season or traded informally between neighbors. Such seeds generally produce far lower yields than genuine high yield hybrids, The Guardian reported.
According to a paper published by World Bank researcher James Joughin, just 13 percent of Ugandan farmers buy improved seed from formal markets.
AGRA said it was in the process of developing an application that will link seed companies, with telephone service providers and enable framers to verify if the seed they are buying are genuine or not.
“What the seed companies will be doing is have a code on each packet such that when the farmer walks into an Agrovet to buy seed he scratches, get that code number, enters it into his phone and he is able to get an answer instantly whether [the seed] is fake or genuine.”