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Wicked seed January 5th, 2020 by

A recent story in The Economist (28 September 2019, page 18) highlights the low maize yields in Africa, and urges for greater use of hybrid maize seed. The Economist also has harsh words for NGOs: “African governments have mostly ignored the arguments from some charities, that old-fashioned farming is best and that wicked, profit-seeking seed firms should be barred.”

This caricature is misleading in two ways: many NGOs promote modern seed; and seed companies have more serious enemies than any “charity”.

Cassava is a big staple food in Africa, like maize. Unlike maize, which is planted using true seed, cassava is propagated with stem cuttings. Seed companies rarely sell stems or other vegetative planting material, even for major crops, other than potato. This is mainly for practical reasons; cuttings, vines and roots are bulky, and perishable. Farmers usually trade for cassava stems, get them from friends for free, or buy them from producers or traders.

Donor-funded projects, such as UPOCA and the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, have also played an important part in making cassava planting material available, worked closely with NGOs to distribute the stems of new, disease-resistant varieties of cassava to farmers in various African countries. This progressive and modern system is neither old-fashioned nor wicked.

It’s not just cassava where such initiatives have helped make planting material available.  In Kenya, public research, like the 3G Seed Strategy, supported the production of high-quality seed potatoes (not true seed, but the small tubers that farmers plant). The project purposefully channeled the production and sale of the little seed potatoes through private companies and commercial farms, to promote sustainable business.

The real enemies of private seed companies include crooks who sell fake seed. To its credit, The Economist did mention counterfeit seed as a problem, but it is worse than the newspaper let on. In a visit to Premier Seed, a Nigerian company, I was impressed by their expertise and competence. They had a professional plant breeder, a tidy lab growing maize seedlings in rows of dishes, and an orderly warehouse stacked with bags of seed. I never heard Premier or other Nigerian seed enterprises complain about NGOs or “charities”.  The real problem was counterfeit seed. Criminals would buy cheap maize grain in the market, dye it to make it look like treated seed, and package it in bags printed to look like those of a real company. Farmers only realized they’d been sold a dud at harvest time. Counterfeit seed smeared the good name of the legitimate companies, whose packaging had been copied.

Life is difficult for seed companies trying to survive, especially the smaller ones. Even when the Nigerian government buys large amounts of seed from private companies to distribute to smallholders, as it does from time to time, there’s a twist. The government can be slow to pay its bills, with the result that a small company’s capital cash flow is blocked and capital is tied up for a year or more. Bigger firms with deeper pockets can more easily wait to be paid.

Few NGOs argue that old-fashioned farming is best. Most promote a sensible blend of tradition and innovation in agricultural practices and respect the pioneering.

There is a reason why seed companies may be seen as wicked. As Paul and colleagues recently explained in two videos (one from Guatemala and one from Malawi), some seed laws threaten farmers’ right to use their own seed.

African seed enterprises do have real problems, but “charities” are not among them. Governments should help national seed companies by arresting the fake seed sellers, and paying for seed on time. Farmers have a right to keep their own seed, but they need modern seed as well. NGOs and research centers often work together to provide such seed, especially for crops that private companies ignore.  

Further reading

For Nigerian seed enterprises see:

Bentley, Jeffery W., Olupomi Ajayi and Kehinde Adelugba 2011 “Nigeria: Clustered Seed Companies,” pp. 38-64. In, P. Van Mele, J.W. Bentley & R. Guéi (eds.) African Seed Enterprises: Sowing the Seeds of Food Security. Wallingford, UK: CABI. 236 pp.

For projects in Africa that have promoted modern seed of cassava, potatoes (and other crops) see:

Andrade-Piedra, Jorge, Jeffery W. Bentley, Conny Almekinders, Kim Jacobsen, Stephen Walsh, and Graham Thiele (eds.) 2016. Case Studies of Roots, Tubers and Bananas Seed Systems. CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas (RTB), Lima: RTB Working Paper No. 2016-3. ISSN 2309-6586. 244 p.

Watch the videos

Farmers’ rights to seed – Guatemala

Farmers’ rights to seed – Malawi

And this one on the benefits of good, commercial cassava stems

Quality cassava planting material

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